(SOUNDBITE OF, "THE TONIGHT SHOW" THEME SONG)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
American Masters presented to our biography of the TV entertainer who retired 20 years ago this month, and vacated a throne that according to our TV critic David Bianculli, no one has since managed to claim. The program is called "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night." Here's David's review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Johnny Carson walked away from "The Tonight Show," after 30 years at the top of the late-night ratings, of his own volition. And except for a few fleeting TV appearances after he retired, he never looked back - and never went back. When filmmaker Peter Jones would send an annual letter to Carson, asking for his cooperation in a TV biography of him, the answer was always no. One year, Carson went so far as to explain why: Let the work, he said, speak for itself. Well, after Carson's death, Jones contacted Carson's relatives - the ones entrusted with his video legacy - and eventually got their cooperation instead. He also interviewed just about everyone he could get, from comics and biographers, to Carson's former producers and spouses, to paint as complete a portrait as he could.
The result, televised tonight on "American Masters" on PBS, is called "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night." It's impressively thorough in its research, and contains more than enough rare family photos and early TV clips to make it a valuable addition to the Carson canon.
But the funny thing - funny, here, being a relative term - is that Carson, after all these years, comes out the victor. Even after two hours of everyone else talking about him, we don't really know the real Johnny Carson that well. And that, he made clear, was just the way he wanted it.
About the closest he comes to explaining himself is in a vintage "Tonight Show" clip, in which he's talking to celebrity interviewer Rona Barrett. She takes the opportunity to ask him questions - which, for a while, he answers with surprising honesty. But then, when she asks one too many questions and gets too close, he reaches for a punch line to change the subject and deflect the spotlight. Humor was his biggest gift - but also the most reliable weapon in his arsenal.
(SOUNDBITE OF "JOHNNY CARSON: KING OF LATE NIGHT")
JOHNNY CARSON: I grew up in the Midwest, kind of normal, I guess what you'd call normal upbringing. You know, the heart of the country. My folks were supportive in what I wanted to do.
RONA BARRETT: Did you always know what you wanted to do?
CARSON: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
BARRETT: From the very beginning?
CARSON: Oh sure.
BARRETT: How old?
CARSON: I must've been about 12, 13 years old. I knew I wanted to entertain.
BARRETT: You like the attention?
CARSON: Oh sure.
BARRETT: But why? Why you? I mean why at age 12 or 13?
CARSON: Because I was in a play or something, and I got up and I did something and people laughed, and all of a sudden you say hey, that sounds pretty good. So it makes you the center of attention.
BARRETT: Yes. But why did you want the attention?
BARRETT: Why did you want the attention?
CARSON: Why did I want the attention? Because I was shy.
CARSON: Because I was shy. Now that sounds like a ambivalence, right?
BARRETT: Not at all.
CARSON: On stage, you see, when you're on stage in front of an audience, you're kind of in control. When you're off of the stage or in a situation where there are a lot of people, you're not in control, and I felt awkward. So I went into show business thinking it would give me a little more, I could overcome that shyness.
BARRETT: Where do you think the shy emanated from?
CARSON: I bought it in Chicago.
BIANCULLI: Filmmaker Peter Jones tries to get around the evasive nature of his subject by coming at him from another direction. Specifically, he borrows the structure of the classic Orson Welles movie "Citizen Kane," and hunts around for Johnny Carson's equivalent of Rosebud - the childhood secret that explains the man. Jones finds his Rosebud, too, and it's a pretty good one. But it doesn't quite carry the same force. In the movie, Rosebud was the famous media baron's very last word. Carson didn't provide even that tiny a clue, leaving those behind to attempt to do the explaining.
And it's quite a gathering of interviewees here, from Carson's peers - such as Don Rickles and Bob Newhart - to those whose Tonight Show exposure launched their careers, such as David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld, who ended his own show on his own terms years later, understands more than most what Carson really meant to late-night TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JERRY SEINFELD: You know, for my entire career, I've heard comedians in bars debate, who do you think is going to get "The Tonight Show" after Johnny leaves? What nobody realized is that when you left, you were going to pack it up and take it with you, which is what he did. Because that show never existed again. There never was a "Tonight Show." It was Carson.
BIANCULLI: Similarly significant insights are offered by Steve Martin and Carl Reiner, by David Steinberg and Mel Brooks, and by producer Peter Lassally, who knew Carson better than most - and who was responsible for capturing one of the best moments from Carson's 30-year reign. That was on the penultimate show, when he ordered up an extra camera to capture Carson's reaction as Bette Midler sang him a special version of one of his favorite songs: "One for My Baby, and One More for the Road."
It wasn't the end of The Tonight Show - there was one more program to go - but it could have been. And maybe, should have been. It's certainly the best way for me to end - after saying, for the record, that Johnny Carson was the last king of late night.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE FOR MY BABY, AND ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD")
BETTE MIDLER: For all of the years, for the laughs, for the tears, for the class that you show, make it one for my baby and one more for the road. That long, long, road.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website "TV Worth Watching," and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University.
You can download Podcasts of our show on our website, FRESH AIR.NPR.org. I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with Wilson Pickett singing in the Midnight Hour, featuring Duck Dunn on bass. He was the bass player for Booker T. & the MGs, the Stax Records house band Duck Dunn died Sunday at the age of 70 while on tour.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR")
WILSON PICKETT: (Singing) I'm gonna wait till the midnight hour, that's when my love comes tumbling down. I'm gonna wait till the midnight hour when there's no one else around. I'm gonna take you girl and hold you and do all the things I told you in the midnight hour. Yes I am, Oh yes I am. One more thing I just want to say right here.
I'm gonna wait till the stars come out and see that twinkle in your eyes. I'm gonna wait till the midnight hour, that when my love begins to shine. You're the only girl I know that can really love me so, in the midnight hour. Oh yeah, in the midnight hour. Yeah...
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