Anyone who came of age in the 1960s, 70s or 80s will remember Johnny Carson. To say he was the king of late-night television would be, if anything, an understatement. For 30 years he wove a fabric into the American experience that will never be repeated.
Today, late-night comedians such as David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien try to emulate him, but they will never be his equal. Carson was truly one of a kind.
I first got a glimpse of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in the late 1960s when I was about 12 years old. It was on TV way past my bedtime so it must have been a Friday night when my parents were out late. I watched it with my older brother and was fascinated by the comedy and interviews with famous celebrities. I couldn’t wait to see it again. Usually that would only occur if my parents were asleep or Bob Hope was on (my dad adored him).
By the time I was a senior in high school and closing in on graduation “The Tonight Show” became a regular experience (who goes to bed early their last semester of high school?). I got to know all of Carson’s infamous characters: Art Fern, Aunt Blabby, The Great El Moldo, Floyd R. Turbo, and, best of all, Carnac the Magnificent. Like my friends, we all watched Johnny Carson in college and beyond. His anniversary shows were classics.
The show was never dull. In fact, the funniest moments occurred when Carson bombed his monologue. If the jokes started getting a negative response from the audience the band would strike up some banal tune and Carson would start dancing. It always brought plenty of laughs. He was tremendous at ad-libbing comedy too.
There was a time when you thought Johnny Carson would never end. After all, he had been on “The Tonight Show” as long as any of us could remember (1962 to be exact). But as he aged and took more time off it became apparent that the end was coming. In 1992 he decided that he had enough. At 67 it was time to quit.
His last show with guests (he had one more with highlights and reflections) featured Robin Williams and Bette Midler, and was rated the top TV show of the year by Time Magazine. Midler sang a tribute to Carson that brought tears to his eyes.
Once he retired, Carson did something rare in show business; he stayed retired. His only public appearance thereafter was a brief cameo in 1993 on “Late Night with David Letterman.” And that was only because he felt such a deep affection for Letterman, having been one of his mentors. It brought a 90-second standing ovation even though he didn’t say a word.
Carson died of emphysema in January of 2005. He always looked fit but never got over his addiction to smoking. His passing was felt by millions since he was such a part of the American landscape for so many years. It was like losing a member of the family.
I bring up Carson because the library just added a wonderful DVD to its collection, called “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night.” It was produced by PBS and featured clips from his life and show, plus interviews with many of the heavyweights of show business, including Jerry Seinfeld, Letterman, Leno, O’Brien, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Doc Severinsen and Steve Martin. There are also interviews with his second wife, Joanne and several members of “The Tonight Show” staff.
One key person missing from the documentary is Ed McMahon, who died in 2009. McMahon was Carson’s longtime announcer, sidekick and close friend. He offers a lot of insights into Carson and “The Tonight Show” in his 1998 autobiography, “For Laughing Out Loud.” It’s a book I can highly recommend.
On the surface, Carson had the perfect Horatio Alger existence. He grew up on in the Midwest during the Depression, served in the Navy during World War II, went to college at the University of Nebraska, married his college sweetheart, had three sons, and eventually hit it big in television. But his life had its ups and downs like most people’s.
Johnny Carson was a shy and intensely private man, but the documentary does a terrific job in bringing him out. It’s a relief to know that the man we saw on TV for 30 years was the same person off the screen. Simply put, “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night” is a wonderful tribute and something all his fans will enjoy.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.