It took the passage of time, after the passing of the TV legend in question, for one of Hollywood's most notoriously private stars to finally be profiled on U.S. public television.

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This article was published 11/5/2012 (3701 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


It took the passage of time, after the passing of the TV legend in question, for one of Hollywood's most notoriously private stars to finally be profiled on U.S. public television.

So long overdue that there's now an entire generation of TV-watchers who've either never heard of him or only know him as a pop-culture reference uttered occasionally on late-night shows or The Simpsons, the new PBS/American Masters documentary Johnny Carson: King of Late Night (which airs Monday at 8 p.m. on Prairie Public TV) is nevertheless a beautifully crafted and meticulously detailed look at an entertainer who was once the most famous person in America but always felt out of place in social situations.

Johnny Carson


Johnny Carson

The film's director, Peter Jones, tried for more than a decade to convince Carson to take part in a documentary profile after his 1992 retirement from The Tonight Show, but he not-so-politely declined. After Carson's death in 2005, and after several more overtures from Jones, Carson's nephew, Jeff Sotzing -- who heads up the host's legacy company, the Carson Entertainment Group -- finally relented and agreed to co-operate in the making of the film.

In an interview last January during PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles, Jones recalled how he wrote polite letters to Carson annually for a dozen years before he finally received a response.

"In 2002, he finally actually called me," Jones said. "I thought it was a joke when on the P.A., it said, 'Peter, Johnny Carson on 601.' But he said, 'Peter, it's Johnny Carson. I want to tell you, you write a damned fine letter, but I'm not going to participate in anything on my life, because you know what? I don't give a s***.'

"He said, 'One day, something may get done, and you're probably the guy to do it. But it will never happen while I'm alive. I've done everything I've wanted to do; I've said anything I've wanted to say. There is nothing more.'"

Winnipeg-born comedian David Steinberg appeared on The Tonight Show 140 times.

Winnipeg-born comedian David Steinberg appeared on The Tonight Show 140 times.

In 2010, when Jones was finally able to convince the custodians of Carson's legacy that the time was right for a biographical film, Carson Entertainment gave the director access to the late-night legend's entire archive -- photo albums, home movies, documents and audio and video tapes covering his entire television career.

In crafting Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, Jones also conducted nearly four dozen new interviews with Carson's contemporaries, co-workers, comedians and Hollywood types who were regular guests on The Tonight Show.

The impressive roster of interview subjects includes David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Dick Cavett, Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks, Angie Dickinson, Steve Martin, Bob Newhart, Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Ellen DeGeneres, Ray Romano, Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinson, Carson's second wife, Joanne, and Winnipeg-born comedian David Steinberg, who appeared on The Tonight Show 140 times during Carson's tenure.

Not surprisingly, it's the comedians whose remarks carry the biggest punch -- when Carson was its host, The Tonight Show was a booking that could literally create stars overnight. Letterman, Leno, Seinfeld, DeGeneres and Carey all make it very clear that without having received Johnny Carson's OK-sign blessing, none of them would have had the careers they've enjoyed.

Carey, in the film, is tearful when he describes his first standup-comedy appearance on the show.

During last January's PBS interview session, the current host of TV's The Price Is Right described his blessing from Carson as nothing short of a religious experience.

"It was all based on your performance, and if he liked you a lot, he would wave you over," Carey recalled. "The closest thing I can relate it to is (that) when I was in junior high, I joined a Pentecostal church -- a really evangelical Assembly of God church, and I got saved. There was an altar call, and I went up and got saved -- I rolled around, talked in tongues, all that stuff you've heard about.

"Being called over to the couch by Johnny Carson was the closest thing I ever came to that. I'm not even saying that as a joke. There was just this feeling of ... like people talk about the feeling of the Holy Spirit going through you and your body changing, and you feel like something's changed in your life forever and ever -- that's what I felt like going over there, and I felt like I was in a dream the whole time. It was like being saved by Jesus, honestly."

Carey added that the impact of that one appearance on that one late-night television show was immediate and irreversible.

"It was very rare (to get called over)," he said. "Like, very few people, and they all became really famous. Ellen DeGeneres got called over to the couch. Roseanne Barr got called over to the couch. I got called over to the couch. If you look at the people who got called over to the couch on their first Tonight Show appearance, they all became really famous. It was crazy ... he would wave you over, and then the next thing you know, you're in show business."

Despite its obvious deep reverence for its subject, however, King of Late Night is not just a love letter to Carson -- the two-hour film is a deftly layered and impressively frank exploration that addresses Carson's complicated relationship with a mother who forever withheld her approval and affection, his failed marriages and substandard parenting, battles with his bosses at NBC, struggles with alcohol, and the sometimes-quick temper that would prompt him to cut people completely out of his life when he felt they'd wronged him.

The best example of that last dark detail is Joan Rivers, who was beloved by Carson and was the full-time guest host on his show right up until the day she failed to tell him she was in negotiations for her own late-night program at the fledgling Fox network.

"Joan Rivers was Johnny's pride and joy," Jones recalled. "Besides the (failed) marriages, I don't think he was ever more devastated than when ... she didn't tell him well in advance about her negotiations for her Fox show. He found out about it from another source. She did call him, but he hung up on her and never spoke to her again.

"In the film, she says, 'You know, now that I think about it, I should have told him sooner.' It broke his heart. The whole thing with Joan Rivers broke Johnny's heart. It really did."

The film lingers long on Carson's eventual departure from The Tonight Show, offering viewers a chance to revisit the emotional farewells that were paid to him by his final-week guests and that were given to viewers by Carson himself on his final night.

As the man Carson would have preferred as his successor -- David Letterman -- aptly observes, we who watch television will not see his like again.

Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.