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Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye

By Dorothy Rabinowitz

May 10, 2012

Johnny Carson was by all accounts an exceptionally secretive man offstage, as Americans watching him during the 30 years of his "Tonight Show" reign (1962-92) perhaps came to understand. It didn't matter. For the roughly 20 million viewers who tuned in to his show night after night, the character of the real Johnny Carson was never a question—the radiant warmth and wit that emanated from this coolest of stars was knowledge enough. It was a question—one of many—for filmmaker Peter Jones, creator of "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night," for the American Masters series. Mr. Jones has so tellingly assembled the elements of Carson's life and career—a buoyant story of a particularly American character and success along with the inevitable quotient of darkness—that his subject fairly leaps from the screen. It's good to see him again.

The film's commentators—an array that appears to include every significant comedy star of the past 40 years or so—look as though they might leap from the screen themselves. Such is the emotion stirred in them by their memories of what was, for many, their first break—a guest spot on "Tonight."

There's video of the young Jerry Seinfeld—a riff on his parents having to move to Florida now that they'd reached a certain age. It's the law, Mr. Seinfeld solemnly explains to the convulsed Johnny. He's followed by the present-day Mr. Seinfeld telling the filmmaker what it had meant to get a slot on "Tonight,'' which he does with the intensity of a man describing the central event of his life.

So it goes with all the guests. Among them Drew Carey, shown, in his first appearance on "Tonight," doing his routine about ordering a frankfurter with bacon—the bacon because there weren't enough nitrates in the frankfurter, he explains. All through his act, Mr. Carey tells the filmmakers, he could see Johnny laughing so hard he had to grip the desk to keep himself from falling off his chair. That part in particular had meant everything. Everyone who performed on the Carson show knew that when this host broke up, the laughter was real.

It's a measure of Mr. Jones's keen instincts as a filmmaker that he didn't trot out, for entertainment value, the dazzling assortment of comedy acts on the "Tonight Show" over the years—a choice that would have been easy and obvious. Instead he's focused intently on Carson's relationship with his guests—things like the unmistakable joy Carson showed when a guest struck gold with some hilarious routine. This was not a show host in a hurry to get himself back to stage center.

He was a host who knew how to nudge things along to fruition when a guest was inching toward something rich but not yet there. He was a master at running with a non sequitur, and he had learned the art of silence—mostly, we're told, from his idol, Jack Benny. His timing was perfect. In one "Tonight" clip Carson asks guest Mel Brooks what professions the members of his family worked at.

"They were all chemists," Mr. Brooks grandly replies. Why should this be so funny? It is, though—you can feel the laughter building as Carson stares into the camera, wide-eyed, in one of those luxurious silences of his.

When it comes to the who-Carson-really-was question, the film provides an assemblage of commentators that includes one of his three ex-wives (he was married four times), producers, biographers and too many other categories to name—all of whom saw in the off-camera "Tonight" host a man exceptionally capable of enjoying his own company. There are also descriptions less sunny: the words "standoffish," "aloof," "the great American Sphinx" and "loner''—that last, in our culture, invariably a term with clinical overtones suggesting something amiss.

It wouldn't be surprising if something had gone amiss somewhere. From the evidence, that place would seem to be Carson's childhood and rearing by a mother who explained once, after her children were grown, that she didn't like boys—they were dirty and trouble. She never quite lost the feeling, apparently. When her middle son, John, became the toast of television, the Time reporter interviewing her asked what she thought of one of his monologues. It wasn't funny, she told him, and left the room. Ruth Carson never missed a chance, one family observer says, to say something deflating about her son's achievement.

Mr. Jones's film, so rich in its suggestiveness, requires no psychologizing and delivers none. It's a stupendous achievement—a kind that brings its famously inaccessible subject to life with a revelatory depth that seems impossible. Still there it is. It should win every award available. They'll all be deserved.


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