I didn’t want people to forget Johnny Carson. —Jeff Sotzing
The winking humor of Johnny Carson commanded a nightly audience of 15 million viewers — double the combined Leno-Letterman audience.
The tally: 4,631 episodes and more than 23,000 guests. No one else has been seen by more people on more occasions than Carson as the 30-year host of “The Tonight Show.”
Carson assumed the helm of “The Tonight Show” 50 years ago and continues to cast an enormous shadow across the late-night landscape. Airing at 8 p.m. on KUED Monday, May 14, the PBS documentary, “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night,” is an entertaining profile of Carson’s career, highlighted by the comics and talk-show hosts whose own careers he propelled.
Over the course of 15 years, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jones wrote annual letters to Carson requesting his cooperation on a documentary, beginning soon after the host left NBC. Ultraprivate and famously aloof, Carson replied once. He called Jones in 2003 to explain that he “didn’t have anything more to say.”
But then the appeals were made to Carson’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who controls his uncle’s archives. Sotzing agreed to cooperate five years after Carson’s death, and the Carson Entertainment Group granted access to personal and professional archives, including family photo albums, home movies, memorabilia and existing episodes of “The Tonight Show.”
“I didn’t want people to forget Johnny Carson,” Sotzing reasoned.
Carson popularized the casual, conversational approach to celebrity interviews that was pioneered by Arthur Godfrey and previous “Tonight Show” hosts Steve Allen and Jack Paar. Topical monologues and outlandish comedy skits were the hallmark of Carson’s nightly broadcasts.
Jones conducted 45 interviews for the documentary — from David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien to Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles and Bob Newhart. Joan Rivers explains how Carson ignored her after she started her own talk show, though she had been his guest host. Letterman reveals that Carson faxed him jokes to use on air nearly until his death in 2005. (The evening of Carson’s death, Letterman’s entire monologue comprised one-liners Carson had written for Letterman.) Drew Carey wells up in tears recalling how Carson first called him over to sit at the couch after his stand-up routine.
Though Carson’s four rocky marriages are discussed, little mention is made of his estranged relationship with three adult sons. One son died in a car crash, and the remaining two refused to be interviewed for the documentary.
Note is made of Carson’s longtime confidant Henry Buskin, known to “Tonight Show” viewers as “Bombastic Bushkin.” But nothing is revealed about a book proposal in which Bushkin contends Carson was a “deeply unhappy man” who initiated multiple extramarital dalliances.
Comment is made that Carson was TV's first “naughty boy.” But there’s little probing of the risquÉ double entendres he introduced to TV viewing, which opened a Pandora’s Box of more sexually explicit humor on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and similar shows that followed.
The laser-point focus of “King of Late Night” is on Carson’s career. The documentary is most interesting as it retells his rise from teenage magician and ventriloquist to the budding comedian’s own 15-minute show, “Carson’s Cellar.”
Cason was a last-minute replacement for Red Skelton after the comic was injured during a rehearsal for his live TV show. In archival footage, both Skelton and Jack Benny discuss Carson’s early performances and their high-water mark of televised 20th-century comedy that Carson emulated.