TV Review: The Impenetrable King of Late Night

Johnny Carson
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I still miss Johnny Carson. The older I get, the stranger it feels to say that. It’s hard to describe to anyone under 30 how significant he was. He bid farewell as host of The Tonight Show twenty years ago next week, a date that serves as a hook for an American Masters special titled Johnny Carson: King of Late Night (PBS, May 14, 9 p.m. Eastern/8 Central).

His departure left a vacuum that Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Ellen DeGeneres, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, and umpteen other gabbers could never fill, partly because Carson was a uniquely gifted man, and partly because he rose to fame at a time when there were just three broadcast networks and no cable. Everybody watched the same shows at the same time. On weeknights following the local news, most people watched Carson. He could turn the tide against presidents with a cutting monologue joke and turn unknown comics into headliners with a delighted thumbs-up. He was America’s tastemaker and mood ring, and one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.

None of that matters in a present-tense society, though. Carson died in 2005, a casualty of emphysema and heart problems brought on by smoking and drinking. In the preceding thirteen years, he mostly avoided the spotlight; following his retirement, it was as if he’d been sealed up in a pyramid.  Although his work lives on through DVD boxed sets and YouTube clips, Carson now seems part of TV’s prehistoric, or pre-Sopranos, era, a name with no greater modern currency than Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, or Carson’s Tonight Show predecessors Steve Allen and Jack Paar. When you see him in King of Late Night doing a bit with Jack Benny circa 1955, the clip is presented as a harbinger of the new guard displacing the old, but because the men are framed in a grainy, black-and-white medium shot, they might as well be Union army soldiers killing time before the battle of Antietam.  

Directed by Peter Jean and narrated by Kevin Spacey — who does the greatest Carson impersonation I’ve ever seen, though not here, alas — King of Late Night scrutinizes the man’s giant cultural footprints and takes a crack at explaining his influence; but it can only go so far because its subject is still inscrutable, and it can’t make Carson relevant again because the era he dominated has receded in our collective rearview.

The program takes a while to find its footing. Aside from rare childhood photos and home-movie snippets and shots of the salt mine where tapes of Carson’s shows are stored, the first half-hour has no more personality than a clip-job special that you might have seen ten years ago on basic cable. But after that, it settles into a distinctively American Masters groove, painting a portrait of an artist honing his talent and building his influence over a period of decades. All the talk-show hosts mentioned above sit for interviews, plus Arsenio Hall, who snapped up the TV real estate that Carson’s white middle-American sensibility mostly avoided, and Carson’s longtime guest host Joan Rivers, whom Carson cut off when she failed to tell him that the Fox Network had hired her to do her own program. We also hear from comedians whose careers were made by Carson, including Leno, Letterman, and Drew Carey, who tears up remembering the moment when Carson invited him to sit on the Tonight Show couch.

There’s something Kennedy-esque (as in JFK and RFK) about archival photos of the younger Carson vacationing with his first wife Jody Wolcott and second wife Joanne Copeland, and not just because they’re black-and-white images that radiate privilege. Carson’s skinny handsomeness, naughty-boy charm, and essentially private nature hit that secret button on the American psyche that craves fairy-tale royalty to adore. There’s a reason they called him the King of Late Night, and it wasn’t just because, at the peak of his power in the late seventies, Carson was single-handedly responsible for 25 percent of NBC’s profits. There was something kingly, or maybe princely, about the way he held court on The Tonight Show, bantering with his sidekick and adviser Ed McMahon and his musical jester Doc Severinsen, and making almost everyone who stood on his stage or sat on his couch seem special and delightful, no matter what he thought of them privately.

As more than one interviewee points out, Carson’s greatest career gift wasn’t his comic timing, which was impeccable, or his knack for self-deprecation (he was funniest when the jokes stank); it was his ability to modulate his own comic energy so that he seemed to complete his guests, amplifying their strengths and neutralizing their weaknesses. If guests were devastatingly funny, Carson would hang back and throw them straight lines; if they were dry, he’d tease out their eccentricities. If they were sexy and female, he would flirt or encourage them to flirt, but always in a way that made him seem less magnetic and in control than he actually was. (Angie Dickinson, who made Carson blush on many occasions, has great insight into this aspect of his talent.) If guests were controversial, Carson would hone in on a couple of subjects that would get this quality across, but phrase his questions so as not to disrupt the show’s distinctive energy: goofy and relaxed, but with intimations of wickedness.

When Carson cracked up over a guest who wasn’t all that funny, was he genuinely delighted, faking it, or acting on pure reflex? Was any part of him authentic? We’ll never know — and that’s part of his aura, too. He’s still the greatest host in the history of the Oscar telecast because, more so than anyone else who’s had that gig, Carson managed the trick of embodying showbiz while seeming as though he weren’t really part of it. He was on the inside looking out and on the outside looking in, a vantage point that Newtonian physics tells us is impossible.

He started out an amateur magician, and as the program points out, there’s a sleight-of-hand quality to how Carson became a superstar without letting the public think they knew what made him tick. There was something impenetrable about his charm even when he was at the peak of his fame. From the sixties through the nineties, he was quite cagey about what he revealed in interviews and on his own program. On The Tonight Show, Carson made hilariously frank jokes about his busted marriages (as the documentary points out, he was the first celebrity to normalize divorce). In a 1979 interview with 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace excerpted by American Masters, he bluntly admits that alcohol made him monstrous. But such confessions were rare and always precisely gauged. He always set the terms of intimacy with his audience. King of Late Night respects Carson’s enigma because it has to. The documentary is clear about where both his coolness and his intense neediness and exuberant showmanship came from: He hailed from a Waspy Nebraska family with a cold and withholding matriarch. But these are Wikipedia facts, not news flashes. There are no big revelations here because Carson wasn’t the revealing type. His interior was locked up tighter than the Pentagon.

There’s a precedent for this type of prismatic, somewhat detached cinematic biography: Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, a movie that King of Late Night references too pointedly. In this slavish formulation, Carson’s Malibu mansion becomes his Xanadu; the salt mine where the Tonight Show videotapes are stored becomes the warehouse full of treasures in Kane’s famous final shot, and so on. There’s even a Rosebud, the reveal of which I won’t ruin on the off chance that you care. The documentary’s Kane fixation turns out to be its only truly lame aspect. The problem isn’t just that the Kane analogy has been done to death in both fiction films and documentaries (including the 2007 American Masters biography of Charles Schulz); it’s that Carson himself is more interesting than Charles Foster Kane because he actually existed. He seemed at once exuberant and recessive, lovable and chilly, and even though tens of millions of Americans invited him into their homes, laughed at his jokes, and fantasized about sitting on his couch, none of them ever really knew him.  

TV Review: The Impenetrable King of Late Night