Magazine article Variety

Compelling Carson Closeup

Magazine article Variety

Compelling Carson Closeup

Article excerpt

COMPELLING CARSON CLOSEUP

TELEVISION: JOHNNY CARSON; KINGOFLATE NIGHT (PBS)

Docu; Mon. May 14,9p.m.

Directors: Peter Jones, Marte Catalana; Narrator: Kevin Spacey

A n 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 hoeting "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 ite 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.

FUmmakers 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. …

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