“I don’t know anyone who didn’t watch Johnny Carson,” is how Ellen DeGeneres explains why that host of “The Tonight Show” was — and still is — such a huge figure in American life.
Of course many people who watch Ms. DeGeneres or any other talk-show host today are too young to have watched Carson when he was the undisputed master of late night. Even among those viewers who are old enough, there are plenty who didn’t grow up in a Carson household, never saw Carnac the Magnificent and to this day don’t fully understand all the fuss.
But Johnny Carson is still an enigmatic presence 20 years after he retired and 7 years after his death.
He was idolized and imitated by three generations of stand-up comics and adored by many millions of ordinary viewers who watched him every night as a kind of nightcap before bedtime. Almost every current late-night talk-show host echoes Carson’s comic style and even his format, including Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon. When he died in 2005, Carson’s obituary in The New York Times was 3,971 words long, almost twice that of Eugene McCarthy, Rudolf Nureyev or Betty Ford. He mattered in a way that only a few people on television — maybe only Oprah Winfrey — can match. “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night,” a portrait of the comedian Monday on “American Masters” on PBS, does a thorough and admirable job of trying to tap into why he was such a big deal.
One of his biographers, Bill Zehme, calls him “the great American sphinx.” Al Jean, a comedy writer (“The Simpsons”), calls Carson “the Citizen Kane of comedy,” and adds, “I don’t know what his Rosebud is.” But paradoxically, it turns out that it’s easier to plumb the mystery of the private Carson than it is to explain fully his mystique as a television star. When it comes to inner demons, it’s either the father or the mother, and in Carson’s case, it was his mother, Ruth, a Nebraska homemaker with a wild sense of humor but not much warmth.
The film paints her as a cool, withholding parent who favored his older sister and had a way of deflating Johnny, her middle son, even after he became famous. She once watched his monologue alongside a Time magazine reporter who was working on a cover article about Carson. “That wasn’t funny,” Mrs. Carson said, and left the room.
As a shy and insecure teenager Carson took up magic to win his mother’s affection and fell in love with the sense of control he felt onstage. Ex-wives and former colleagues describe Carson as intensely private, standoffish and not a lot of fun offstage. But it is Carson himself who gives the best — and certainly most succinct — analysis. On “Tonight” he once told Bea Arthur that he went into show business because “you can be the center of attention without being yourself.” Even in a two-hour documentary it’s harder to show exactly why Carson was so much more popular than his two predecessors, Steve Allen and Jack Paar, and so much more successful than any of his successors. One reason is prosaic: Some of the best moments of his first decade on the show were taped over by a hapless NBC technician. After that Carson took control of his work product. The producers of the documentary had access to Carson’s personal archive, more than 3,500 hours of tape preserved in an underground vault in Kansas, footage that has now been digitized.
Clips alone don’t fully capture his charm, or the power he wielded when his show determined who was funny and whose comedy career was doomed. (Drew Carey chokes up as he recalls how Carson welcomed him on his first appearance on “The Tonight Show.”) There are famous ad-lib moments, notably the ax-throwing demonstration that struck an outlined human target in the crotch; many bits of monologues and skits; and scores of interviews with the likes of Mr. Letterman, Steve Martin and Dick Cavett.
Possibly because he has so many imitators, Carson doesn’t seem unique anymore. Jokes that were considered risqué then now look corny. The narrator (Kevin Spacey) cites the sketch characters Carson sometimes played as his way of revealing “a more daring brand of humor,” but that sexual innuendo now mostly looks fatuous. Yet Carson somehow stands a bit removed from his own material, holding back from his own shameless bid for laughs.
It’s a little like his wardrobe. There are images from the 1970s of Carson in wide ties and loud plaids and colorful three-piece suits with odd piping. At the time he was considered elegant and posed in ads for his own line of men’s wear, Johnny Carson Apparel. (In one ad Carson invites buyers to check out the “totally coordinated” Johnny Carson spring collection.)
Those outfits now look awful, but Carson, trim, with good posture and a confident mien, somehow looks good despite his clothes, naturally stylish despite the leisure-suit style he was selling to viewers.
Similarly, on the show, Carson seems engaged and at the same time removed, a curious blend that Mr. O’Brien describes as “appearing to be broad and silly and somehow coming off as the coolest guy in the room.” When he laughs at other comedians, and he did laugh on his show, often and with gusto, it’s gratifying even for the audience: he looks like a serious man surprised to discover he is having a wonderful time.
People who tried to get close were often surprised to discover that the private Carson wasn’t a lot of laughs. Viewers, however, felt like their quiet next-door neighbor had suddenly invited them to a great party, one that lasted 30 years.
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY - New York Times