An enigmatic study in contradictions, Johnny Carson has cast an enormous shadow over television for the past half-century, both in the 30 years he spent hosting “The Tonight Show” and in the two decades since, during which admiring comics have jockeyed over his legacy and mantle. “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night” is a documentary worthy of its subject — a comprehensive “American Masters” celebration of the host’s seemingly effortless skills without whitewashing his personal peccadilloes. The breadth of interviews — from David Letterman and Jay Leno to close Carson associates — underscores a lovingly assembled look at one of modern media’s most influential figures.
Filmmakers Peter Jones and Mark Catalena faced no small task. Even at two hours, Carson represents a target-rich environment and requires some tough choices. Truly capturing him goes well beyond mere biography, with the temptation to include show highlights, the towering role he played as a comedy king-maker and his surprising post-“Tonight” decision to almost completely shun the limelight he occupied for so long.
The docu conquers the challenge, largely, by talking to all the right people, including other hosts and comics, biographers, second ex-wife Joanne, and a bevy of those who worked closely with him, including writers, producers Peter Lassally and Jeff Sotzing (Carson’s nephew and official keeper of the flame) and his assistant, Helen Sanders.
The emerging portrait is thus impressively nuanced, examining Carson on both a macro and micro level. Here was someone who could be standoffish and aloof, as Carl Reiner observes, and yet who everyone felt like they knew. A philandering husband and at-times abusive drunk, also capable of extreme generosity. A loyal friend and — as Joan Rivers discovered when she betrayed him, in Carson’s eyes, by jumping to Fox — a formidable enemy.
Perhaps most striking, even seven years after his death, is how emotional some of the comics become discussing what Carson’s approbation meant to them. Drew Carey tears up remembering Johnny calling him to the desk. Jerry Seinfeld says of Carson’s “OK” signal, “There are just not that many moments in life that are that definitive” — marking one’s arrival as a comedian in a way nothing has before or since.
Some of the most telling revelations come from vintage interviews in which Carson contemplates matters like a performer’s irony of coveting attention and then, having gained it, craving privacy. The documentary errs only when it seeks, a bit heavy-handedly, to explain Carson by what amounts to posthumously putting him on the couch, raising issues about his maternal relationship and all those failed marriages.
In the ways that really matter, though, “King of Late Night” creates a strong sense of Carson’s significance and how he achieved it, as Letterman marvels, “by just being himself.” Even so, wealth and fame came at a price, with Lassally describing the pressure to deliver night after night as “amazingly stressful,” no matter how relaxed Carson appeared.
Jones spent years pursuing Carson to get him to cooperate with such a production, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. Yet the process of working around his subject actually makes for a better film, with roughly four dozen voices to zero-in not just on the man but on the never-to-be-recovered era that allowed him to become as big as he was.
For anyone with memories of the host’s historic run, these two hours do, indeed, make for a very heartfelt good night.