We hardly knew most famous man in America
- Last Updated: 11:16 AM, May 14, 2012
- Posted: 10:39 PM, May 13, 2012
“American Masters: Johnny Carson: King of Late Night”
Tonight at 9 on WNET
Somewhere in Hutchinson, Kan., 45 stories underground, there is a giant salt mine with walls that are 400-feet thick. Carved into that block is a warehouse that stores just one commodity: video tape. Here, 4,000 hours of Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” are kept in pristine solitude.
If the world comes to an end on Dec. 21, at least one thing will remain: 30 years worth of Carson and his guests.
But that’s not so bad, considering that every person who made an impact on the United States of America from 1962-1992 is represented.
Tonight, PBS’ “American Masters” celebrates the 50th anniversary of Johnny Carson taking over “The Tonight Show” (also the 20th anniversary of Carson’s retirement), with a fantastic documentary, narrated by Kevin Spacey, called “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night.”
Back then, 20 million viewers nightly came to expect not just comedians and singers but the greatest authors, intellectuals, politicians, satirists, columnists and you-name-it of the 20th century. Somehow, every one of them kept every one of those millions of viewers enthralled, occasionally appalled and always amused.
With 45 frank interviews and hundreds of clips of both the show and home movies, documentary filmmaker Peter Jones brings Carson back to life, But as fantastic and funny as those clips still are all these years later, it’s the dark side of Carson that is exposed here.
Because it was a different era, — no 24/7 ravenous news machine to be fed — Carson’s three ugly divorces, serial philandering, serious drinking problem, DUIs and even the death of a son were not turned into the sleazy messes for the masses they would be now; especially because they involved the most famous man in America.
Yes, as unassuming as he was, Carson was the most famous man in the US — some think the most loved and admired, too. Except, it seems, by his own mother, Ruth.
She was once interviewed by Time and told the reporter, “Paar was controversial. Johnny is not controversial,” and walked out.
Everybody else admired the heck out of him, though, as you’ll hear from David Letterman, Jay Leno, Mel Brooks, Don Rickles and even Joan Rivers, who talks about her betrayal of him and his refusal to ever speak with her again, as well as Joanna Carson (his second wife) and many others.
The clips, though, are the thing that will make you sad. They are so funny and so smart that you will be cowed by the fact that now idiotic starlets pushing the merch are the standard “get” and back then, the only “get” worth getting were the smartest, funniest and fastest thinkers on two (and sometimes four) feet.
As Jerry Seinfeld says, “There never was a ‘Tonight Show.’ It was Carson.
“When he left, that show never existed again.”
He died leaving the largest charitable foundation ever by an American entertainer — $150 million. And no one knew about that, either.