Johnny Carson and the ‘Tonight Show’s’ Seemingly Permanent Beef with NBC

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

There’s a lot to cover in Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, an episode of PBS’s American Masters series chronicling the life of the iconic Tonight Show host. The two-hour film follows him from childhood through his meteoric rise to success and unrivaled legacy. It’s an unflinching portrait of a beloved but not quite lovable man; a balanced look at a hard-working, generous entertainer with impeccable timing, who is also described as aloof and “a tough, aggressive killer.” One of his writers invokes Citizen Kane — a lot of people are trying to piece together the different faces of this complex man.

But without downplaying Carson’s incredibly interesting life, the film is also a reminder of the seemingly endless, and often recurring, controversy that surrounds this late night institution. Of all of television comedy, what is it about The Tonight Show that stirs up such drama?

Imagine, for the moment, that it’s the late 1970s. NBC’s ratings are seriously suffering, but its prime late night show is still a huge hit (reportedly pulling in 20 percent of the network’s total income). Nonetheless, new executives lash out at the host for not working hard enough.

Now, that’s not exactly what happened a couple weeks ago, but it’s close enough to raise an eyebrow or two. Neither host in this scenario was entirely blameless (Carson did take off Mondays and go on vacation an awful lot), but The Tonight Show being one of the few mega-hits anywhere on television, it’s a baffling stand to take.

Carson responded in the now standard method for a late night host — a monologue joke. “There was one scene in Jaws where a network executive went swimming. And the shark circled around him and then left him alone. Professional courtesy.”

In 1979, Carson threatened, and possibly really intended, to leave the show. Carson’s joke about his goals in life — “To be a good person. A worthy citizen. And to rip NBC off for everything they’ve got” — is followed, naturally, by Conan O’Brien musing on the difficulties of merging art and commerce.

The controversy surrounding Carson’s actual retirement has been very well documented, but one of his of jokes from that era resonates in way he couldn’t have imagined. “Before we start tonight, I want to tell young Jay Leno — I’ve changed my mind. I’m gonna stay,” he says, followed by a big, cackling laugh.

The documentary doesn’t address the post-Carson years of the show, but the inclusion of these clips invites obvious parallels. Why does The Tonight Show seem to circle back on itself, the same issues popping up again and again? Carson is the man who made The Tonight Show what it is today, but maybe his legacy extends to more than just jokes.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Yes, especially for those too young to have watched Carson’s Tonight Show. It manages to make him feel alive, both through old footage and the passion that shines through from everyone being interviewed.

What does it have to say about comedy? There is obligatory section, where famous comedians talk about how important their appearances on Carson were for their careers. As Seinfeld puts it, “Before, you’re wanting to be a comedian, and after, you are one.”

Is it funny? It’s standardly funny for this type of film. There are some great old clips, and the occasional joke from a talking head, but it’s pretty straight-laced.

Can I stream it on Netflix? No, but you can stream it for free on PBS’s website.

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She would like to be compared to Walter Cronkite at some point.

Johnny Carson and the ‘Tonight Show’s’ Seemingly […]