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The Globe and Mail

Johnny Carson: The unknowable king of late-night TV

When Johnny Carson died in 2005 at age 79, his name had made a rare appearance in the news just a few days before. It had turned out that, even as he was near death, he was writing jokes for David Letterman.

At the time, there was a minor fuss about the revelation. As everybody knew, when Carson's three-decade tenure as host of The Tonight Show ended in 1992, it was Letterman, not Jay Leno, who was Carson's personal favourite to replace him. The decision about his replacement was not Carson's, of course, and Carson's fondness for Letterman had continued.

Thing is, nobody could actually replace Johnny Carson. They might get the job on The Tonight Show but they would never replicate Carson's style and success. Johnny Carson was shockingly unique.

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American Masters: Johnny Carson: King of Late Night (PBS, 9 p.m.) is an excellent, thoughtful and illuminating doc. That is, it illuminates but doesn't truly reveal because Carson was intensely private and, really, it shows us that maybe there wasn't much to reveal. What you saw on TV is what you got.

In fact the program opens with a deft summary of the Carson enigma. "Forty seven stories beneath the earth's surface, in Hutchinson, Kan., encased in a cocoon of salt 400 feet thick, can be found the legacy of Johnny Carson. It is a time capsule of popular American culture in the last third of the 20th century. More than 4,000 hours of tape documenting the franchise he hosted for 30 years, The Tonight Show. What Carson was unable to reveal about himself and his private life he disclosed before a nightly TV audience of 15 million.

"One looking for evidence will find it on these tapes."

Over the two hours, certain things about Carson do become clear. First, his notorious aloofness was rooted in his relationship with his mother, who showered others with affection, not him. Second, Carson's addiction to television and The Tonight Show came out of an endless battle to overcome self-consciousness. He is heard saying in a rare interview about his early showbiz efforts, "Why did I want the attention? Because I was shy."

And it becomes clear that Carson had a problem with drinking. But it's not that he drank a lot. He became drunk easily and tended to be a cranky, difficult drunk. An ex-wife says, "Johnny was a cheap drunk. You gave him a drink and half and he's gone."

In today's world, it's difficult to grasp the beginning, when Carson's success came from a 90-minute show from New York every weeknight. It was a very relaxed Tonight Show, jokey in tone, with movie stars, writers, intellectuals, magicians and standup comedians stopping by, sometimes for the banter and the camaraderie, not merely to plug a movie or promote a new TV show. It was Mad Men-era TV.

Guests drank liquor, smoked cigarettes and made sexist jokes about ex-wives and showgirls. The show's triumph came when there were only three channels available to most Americans. The Tonight Show brought distant celebrities into living rooms every night. This was long, long before such shows as Inside Hollywood, Extra, Access Hollywood ever existed.

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But it was no mere accident of timing that made the show an institution. Carson was a master of the chat show tone, style and format. He was a flirt, he was funny and he managed to be simultaneously square and hip. When the show moved to Los Angeles, Carson became not just the "King of Late Night," he was the King of Hollywood, because the show was Hollywood's best selling tool and Carson could seem both part of the slick entertainment world and instinctively wry about it all.

The Tonight Show's true peak was in the late 1960s and early 70s. When most viewers in the United States still had access to three channels, Carson had a wealth of material and a captive audience – Richard Nixon was being brought down by Watergate, there were endless new fads to mock and a seemingly never-ending array of young Hollywood stars were emerging. His monologue encapsulated the news and acted as an indicator of what America was thinking.

He was the most famous man in America then. And yet utterly distant, unknowable. In a celebrated profile of Carson written by Kenneth Tynan for The New Yorker in the late 1970s, Tynan said, "It is only fair to remember that he does not pretend to be a pundit, employed to express his own opinions. Rather, he is a professional explorer of other people's egos."

Tynan also recounted in detail how Carson was a cold fish, seemingly alive and engaged only when he was in that Burbank studio doing the show. Joan Rivers, who was cut off by Carson when she agreed to do a talk show for the fledgling Fox network, says in the doc that Carson only trusted four people in his professional life.

His true legacy is his defining of the late-night talk show template – the monologue, the band, the guests and the goofy bits. It's a template that has been much used by others, but as Jerry Seinfeld points out in this doc, after Carson left, The Tonight Show was gone too. It would never be the same.

There are many, many famous people who talk about Carson in the doc. There are even tears shed. But nobody really knew Carson, and that's the real point driven home. He was knowable only on The Tonight Show.

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