|Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson at the start of their 30-year run
It always surprises me that the kids don’t know Johnny Carson. My son is 19, born the year after Carson ended a 30-year run on The Tonight Show, and to him Carson is a footnote on The Simpsons. (A cartoon Carson is seen in an early season episode doing a Carnac gag, goofing on the B-Sharps).
When I was my son’s age, Johnny Carson was the coolest guy on the planet, the guy you always wanted to stay up late to see. That’s the Carson remembered tonight on the American Masters‘ special Johnny Carson: King of Late Night (9 p.m. ET, PBS. Check local affiliates).
There are some great insights into Carson, who seldom revealed himself despite those 10,000 hours on television.
Al Jean, who is the showrunner on The Simpsons, got his first job out of Harvard on Carson’s Tonight Show and calls him “The Citizen Kane of comedy.” Carl Reiner says he found Carson “standoffish” and “aloof” at times. Doc Severinsen, his bandleader, admitted he was intimidated by the boss.
Author Bill Zehme, who’s been writing a book on Carson for, like, 60 years, describes him as Marshall McLuhan’s prototype–“he burned cool in a hot medium.”
Carson may have simply been savvy enough to sense that turning down interviews and shunning the Hollywood scene just made he and his show all the more intriguing.
Or maybe he just saved it all for the show. I attended a taping of Carson’s Tonight Show in Burbank in the late ’80s and was fascinated to see how he completely ignored his guest throughout the commercial break, turning away to draw puffs on a cigarette or have his makeup retouched. (I’ll never forget, too, seeing the band assemble seconds before the show started–slipping on jackets and picking up instruments–and still hitting their cue pitch perfect with that Paul Anka-penned theme).
The special does a great job showing the reverence comedians had for Carson, the most powerful man in showbusiness, who could make or break a career with a gesture. Jay Leno, Drew Carey, David Letterman, Roseanne, Ellen DeGeneres, Jerry Seinfeld and Gary Shandling all talk about how Carson made their careers.