Heeere’s Johnny Carson, an ‘American Masters’ film

Talk show host Johnny Carson listens to entertainer Bette Midler sing him a farewell love song during the second-to-last taping of 'The Tonight Show.'
Talk show host Johnny Carson listens to entertainer Bette Midler sing him a farewell love song during the second-to-last taping of "The Tonight Show."

Johnny Carson didn't invent late-night talk shows. He didn't invent their desk-and-couch format or the monologue with which they typically begin, or the game of golf, which inspired the swing he stylishly mimed to finish his own monologue each night.

Carson didn't invent the sidekick, or the obligatory house band. Even many of his most popular characters were lifted from other performers, such as Jackie Gleason and Jonathan Winters.

So what made Carson a trusted, enduring, influential and altogether likable presence unmatched by anyone in the history of the medium except, arguably, Walter Cronkite and Oprah Winfrey?

Finding out is the mission of "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night," a two-hour "American Masters" portrait premiering Monday at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

A few stats gathered for the film begin to tell the tale: With his debut as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" 50 years ago this October, until his exit on May 22, 1992, he was seen by more people on more occasions than anyone else in American history.

Carson reigned for nearly 30 years, hosting 4,531 episodes and receiving 23,000 guests. His nightly viewership, averaging as much as 15 million, was more than the current audience of "Tonight" successor Jay Leno and CBS' David Letterman combined.

But who was he? "King of Late Night" does a fine job of penetrating the familiar veneer of Carson, a preternaturally private man in spite of his vast exposure.

He grew up in small-town Nebraska, the son of a father who worked at the power company and an emotionally withholding mother whose approval he seems to have sought his entire life.

But as a boy, he discovered the way to win approval was by performing magic: "You can be the center of attention without being yourself," he explains as an adult.

This led to showbiz as his chosen profession. And after college, he landed a job at an Omaha radio station, where, with the advent of TV soon after, he hosted a program on the infant medium. A 1950 film clip captures him at work, blinking and breathless behind his desk - much in contrast to the cool, unflappable on-air manner he would grow into, but with the boyish looks and robust, man's voice he kept for a lifetime.

Soon he went to Los Angeles, where he hosted a sketch-comedy show on a local station. He scored a prime-time network show on CBS, but it flopped. Then, his career flaring out, he retreated to New York in 1957 to host a daytime quiz show for ABC. During his five years on "Who Do You Trust?" he established himself as a quick-witted personality, while building bonds with his chosen sidekick, Ed McMahon.

Hired to replace the departing Jack Paar on "The Tonight Show," Carson made his first appearance on Oct. 1, 1962. No video exists of his debut, just an audio tape that finds him sounding cool and confident.

"King of Late Night" follows Carson from there all the way to his retirement from the show in 1992, and his death, at age 79, in 2005.

Narrated by Kevin Spacey, "King of Late Night" is written, directed and produced by Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmaker Peter Jones, who for years penned an annual letter to Carson seeking his cooperation in the creation of a documentary about him. Carson always declined, but after his death, Jones successfully approached Carson's nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who controls his uncle's archives.

From that vast trove comes many clips from "Tonight," including classic moments such as Ed Ames' misdirected hatchet throw and novelty singer Tiny Tim's 1969 marriage to Miss Vickie, which drew 45 million viewers. There are also home movies and personal photos.

The film hears from dozens of performers and colleagues, as well as from the second of Carson's four wives, Joanne.

Arsenio Hall, whose syndicated show arrived in 1989 to become Carson's only real threat, is lavish in his praise of Carson as an interviewer: "He had the perfect barometer in his head for when to go and when to stay out. He could save you if the show needed it, or he could let you do your thing."

In addition, he was a superb stand-up comic.

He could dine out on silly, formulaic jokes: "It was hot today," he would begin, to which the audience chorused, How hot was it? "So hot I saw a sparrow pick up his worm with a potholder."

There were also jokes that zeroed in on current events, including this mid-1970s gem that seems as topical as ever: "President Ford is considering an income-tax cut for people in lower tax brackets. The bad news is, he still hasn't figured how they can get an income."

Ultimately Carson was the nation's common touchstone, from the things he chose to joke about to the guests he received and vaulted into prominence. Carson's show ceased to be simply a matter of entertainment. It became the nation's shared reality. The closest anyone has come to filling his role in the culture was Oprah Winfrey.

In the film, Carson emerges as a womanizer, a boozer and a distant father to his three sons. None of this will surprise those who recall him from his "Tonight Show" prime, but, however much those human frailties clashed with his broadcast persona, they never tripped him up in the eyes of his public. In Carson, viewers saw themselves and approved.

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