Saturday, May 12, 2012

King Carson

Remember when people on television were expected to have a little class?  It’s been a while, since about May 21st, 1992.  On that night, Johnny Carson retired as the host of The Tonight Show, after 4,531 episodes and 23,000 guests.  Granted access to the Carson archives, Peter Jones profiles the definitive American talk show host in Johnny Carson: King of Late Night (promo here), which airs on PBS’s American Masters this Monday.

A product of the Midwest, Carson never talked down to his audience or forgot where he came from.  Taking more than a bit of a pop-psychology approach, Jones attributes great significance to Carson’s need to impress his aloof mother and the attention he received as a teen-aged magician.  Carson got into television more or less on spec, making little money in what was then a new and relatively unseen medium.  Needless to say, television caught on and eventually so did Carson, though his early career trajectory was decidedly erratic.  In fact, when Carson was offered The Tonight Show after Jack Paar’s departure, many industry analysts were incredulous.

For children of the 1980’s, King of Late Night is a dramatic reminder how much media has changed in our lifetimes.  There was a time we vaguely remember when Carson’s show was invariably the number one topic of conversation the next day.  His monologue was considered a bellwether gauge of the national mood on current controversies in a way that has no analog today.  Unlike his successors, Carson maintained a scrupulous political balance on his show, gaining a reputation for tweaking both sides with equal playfulness.  He also regularly booked classical and jazz artists programming his show for the widest possible spectrum of the country.  Nobody does that anymore.

Jones addresses Carson’s wider cultural significance, but also opens a window into the very private public figure’s personal life.  At times, King feels slightly more tabloidy than was probably intended, but given his three famous divorces and a documented weakness for drink, it is impossible to ignore the dark side behind his carefully crafted persona.  Still, Carson employed some rather deft jujitsu with the frequent divorce jokes that shrewdly cast him as the beleaguered victim.  Indeed, Carson was a master of rhetoric, capable of milking masochistic humor from jokes that ignobly died.

Perhaps King is strongest documenting Carson’s role as a comedy king-maker, featuring extensive recollections from comedians and eventual Tonight Show guest hosts, such as David Letterman, Jay Leno, Joan Rivers, Gary Shandling, Dick Cavett, and Bob Newhart.  Wife number two also speaks quite affectionately about the man she claims to have pushed into accepting the Tonight Show gig.  Jones also well illustrates Carson’s career with rare archival footage.  However, the one scene everyone wants to see—the supposedly apocryphal night he asked Zsa Zsa Gabor to lift her cat—is never mentioned, not even to debunk it.

Many viewers will be surprised how good it is to see Carson on television again.  Brisk but authoritative, King of Carson is an entertaining television biography.  Fulfilling your recommended weekly nostalgia fix, it airs this Monday (5/14) on most PBS outlets as part of the current season of American Masters.

(Photo: Carson Entertainment Group)