Johnny Carson profiled on PBS 'American Masters' series

NBC's late night host Johnny Carson in the

NBC's late night host Johnny Carson in the early 1960s. (Credit: Carson Entertainment Group)

Twenty years after his retirement, even eight years after his death, Johnny Carson has never really left us. He remains the exemplar, the late-night gold standard, and patron saint of comics from Seinfeld to Letterman. Foremost, he's the model of what the culture has decided the complete TV host should be: Cool yet warm, ironic yet sincere, but also smart, effortlessly funny and very sharply bespoke. From Jon Stewart to Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres to Joel McHale, there's a little bit of Johnny in all of them.

Meanwhile, the Carson enigma has never really left us, either. Oprah Winfrey, another TV powerhouse, overshared almost compulsively. Carson gave up next to nothing. There were few interviews during his long run, no autobiographies, nor any authorized accounts. He wanted the work to speak for itself and, to that end, made certain the remnant tapes of "The Tonight Show" from 1972 to 1992 were carefully preserved (NBC foolishly erased tapes of the first 10 years). Carson also made certain a small circle of friends and family protected his privacy as well. He disliked talking about himself, and didn't want anyone else doing the talking, either.

The embargo, finally, ends Monday night (9 p.m., WNET/13) with "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night," airing as one of PBS' "American Masters" films. This is far and away the best documentary ever produced on the man, and easily the most thorough. There are 45 on-screen interviews here, and not just with boldface name admirers -- like Jerry Seinfeld, Dick Cavett, Mel Brooks, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Ray Romano, Drew Carey, Garry Shandling and Carl Reiner -- but with the former writers, bookers, talent coordinators, producers and bandleaders (yes, Doc Severinsen) who helped make Carson look so good for so long.

An ex reveals demons

The real coup, however, may be the interview with Joanne Copeland Carson, the second Mrs. Carson, who speaks of his infidelities, drinking problems, and insecurities. ("His world became narrower and narrower," she explains, "as he got bigger and bigger.") As this broadcast notes, she convinced a reluctant Carson -- still burned after a disastrous solo hosting shot on CBS years earlier -- to take the "Tonight" job in 1962. That makes her an important part of his legacy as well.

Why such a generous Carson banquet and why now? Besides a pair of key anniversaries -- 50 years since he replaced Jack Paar and 20 since retirement -- this reason: "I didn't want people to forget Johnny Carson, said Jeff Sotzing, Carson's nephew and head of the Carson Entertainment Group, as quoted in press materials for the program.

Sotzing, who controls the archives, holds the keys to this kingdom, and, two years ago, finally granted access to filmmaker Peter Jones, who has also produced acclaimed biographies of Samuel Goldwyn and Bette Davis. Jones' pursuit began more than 20 years earlier. He recalled in a recent phone interview that he first sought a Carson interview for this broadcast in 1989. He wrote Carson a letter once a year thereafter and "was politely told 'no' by his wonderful assistant, Helen Sanders" each time. "Then, on an amazing day in 2003 . . . the phone rings and it is Johnny Carson himself. I thought it was a joke at first, but it was the man himself, and he said, 'Peter, I admire your persistence and style, but I'm not going to do anything because I don't give a ---- .'

"He made it clear his work would be his legacy and frankly I took that to mean he felt bad about various aspects of his personal life and he didn't want those belabored."

Carson was married four times -- Jones spoke to three of the four wives; only one would consent to being on camera. Carson turned mean when he drank; was a serial womanizer; and his middle son, Richard, died in a car accident. (Like Paul Newman and Mike Wallace, who also lost sons, Carson suffered intense guilt over the tragedy.) Jones reports these well-known facts about Carson but never dwells on them. Instead, the largely positive portrait mostly pursues one avenue of inquiry: What made Johnny tick?

He could do magic

Bill Zehme, a highly regarded Chicago-based writer about late-night TV, who has been working on his own print biography of Carson for seven years and who conducted the only interview with him post-retirement, says in this broadcast that Carson's "Rosebud" was in fact an ancient tome by the name of "Professor Hoffmann's Book of Magic."

Professor Louis Hoffmann was a Victorian-era author of popular books on magic tricks, which Carson devoured as a kid. Jones' portrait builds on that enduring idea in American life that many people -- good or bad, famous or infamous -- are self-creations. Carson wanted to be a magician because he could "transform himself" -- Zehme's metaphor -- into something magically different, from the shy kid who sought approval from a distant mother.

As "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night" persuasively argues, there were two Johnnys: The first, born and bred of reserved Nebraska stock, who struggled to relate to people, including his wives and children; and then, the self-created Johnny and longtime host of "The Tonight Show." Jones says this was Carson's most spectacular sleight of hand.

"It was remarkable how well he connected on such a human level" on television, but "the paradox was how he saw himself in the real world. He had a difficult time connecting to people in real life, but what he was able to do on television no one has ever equaled."

Of the two Carsons, he says, "there was John William Carson and Johnny Carson. Johnny Carson was real but he was also a creation of John William Carson, if that makes any sense. Johnny was an authentic character with real attributes, but he was also a creation."

Carson needed his alter ego to "function."

Zehme puts it this way. The Carson we all knew and loved for so many years -- smart, witty, urbane, charming, razor-sharp, and the best damn late-night host that ever was or ever will be -- "was an illusion. But beneath the illusion was this decent, Midwestern guy. That wasn't a fake. That guy was him, but it wasn't all of him."

Monday night, we'll see all of him -- or at least more of him than we've ever seen before.

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