PBS's "American Masters" offers an engrossing, two-hour biography of the complex life of the most popular host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" in "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night" (9 p.m. EDT Monday, check local listings).
Writer/director/producer Pete Jones ("Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times") paints a portrait of Carson as a man of contradictions: He valued loyalty among friends and co-workers yet exhibited rampantly disloyal behavior in his marriages.
Carson was a product of an Iowa and Nebraska upbringing who used his Midwestern wholesomeness as cover when he'd make an innuendo-filled joke.
And he grew up as a self-professed shy child who found that performing allowed him to be in control, boosting his self-confidence. ("You can be the center of attention without being yourself as such," Carson told actress Bea Arthur during an episode of "The Tonight Show.")
Anyone who sees the world in black and white without shades of gray will be confounded by this extended profile that offers both insight and laughs as it replays some of Carson's funniest moments from his 30-year run as host of "The Tonight Show."
"I guess Johnny is to comedy what Walter Cronkite was to news," says Paul Block, a talent coordinator for "The Tonight Show" during Carson's tenure. "And he's probably as trusted by Americans as Walter Cronkite was."
It's a succinct, resonant acknowledgment of the importance of Carson in America's pop-culture history in the last third of the 20th century. And while it may be an obvious observation to those who grew up with Carson's "Tonight Show," it's a much-needed reminder: It was 20 years ago this month that Carson stepped down as "Tonight Show" host; a new generation of TV viewers and pop-culture consumers have grown up in a world where they know Carson only as a historical figure.
"King of Late Night" delves into the psychology of Carson's relationship with his mother, who didn't like boys (she once called them "dirty, nasty and not pleasant") and was the "Tonight Show" host's frequent critic. After watching an episode with a reporter working on a story about her son, Ruth Carson said, "That wasn't funny."
"His whole life, his relationship with women was really defined, I think, by that principal relationship or lack of relationship he had with his mother, because none of the marriages ever worked," Jones said in January at a PBS press conference. "It was one of his deepest regrets. They all genuinely loved him, and he loved them. But it was something that was just difficult for him to do, to be true to his wives. He did have an issue with philandering."
The program chronicles Carson's early career, his rise to fame, moving "The Tonight Show" from New York to Burbank, Calif., and his decision to call it quits after Jay Leno's manager planted a news story that NBC executives wanted Carson to leave "The Tonight Show" sooner rather than later. "King of Late Night" also gets into Carson's feud with onetime protege Joan Rivers, who went to Fox for her own late-night show. He learned of her defection before she got a chance to tell him. When she did call, he hung up on her and the two never spoke again.
"I look back and I think maybe I should have just gone and asked him," Rivers admits in "King of Late Night."
The program offers plenty of opportunities to glimpse a young Carson at work, but there is a significant chunk of "Tonight Show" history that's been lost.
"NBC taped over the prior night's episode because tape was very expensive, $500, and they didn't want to save the shows, and Johnny only found out about this in 1972 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of 'The Tonight Show,' " explained Jones. "They wanted to do a greatest-moments kind of anthology show, and there was nothing but kinescopes that fans made or collectors made. So the first 10 years of 'The Tonight Show' virtually do not exist. He was furious, and in 1979, his contract with NBC stipulated that he now became the owner of 'The Tonight Show' retroactively."
Drew Carey ("The Price is Right") gets choked up talking about what Carson meant to him in "King of Late Night." He remembers getting the rare honor of being called over to chat with Carson after completing his standup routine. He compared it to a religious experience.
"I was raised Presbyterian, but I joined a Pentecostal church, a really evangelical Assembly of God church, and I got saved," he said at the PBS press conference. "And being called over to the couch on the Johnny Carson show was the closest thing I ever came to that. I'm not even saying that as a joke. People talk about the feeling of the Holy Spirit going through you and your body changing, and you feel like something's changed in your life forever and ever. That's what I felt like going over there, and I felt like I was in a dream the whole time, and it was like -- it was like being saved by Jesus, honestly."