Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Heeere's Johnny: PBS Special Probes Life of Inscrutable Late-Night King: Heere's Johnny: Carson Subject of New Special

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Heeere's Johnny: PBS Special Probes Life of Inscrutable Late-Night King: Heere's Johnny: Carson Subject of New Special

Article excerpt

For 30 years, Johnny Carson ruled as the undisputed leader in late night television. At his peak, he had four times the audience of what many of today's late night talk show hosts draw on a given night.

Yet, 50 years after he began hosting "The Tonight Show" and 20 years since he vanished into retirement, little is known about one of the most watched personalities ever on television.

"Carson is the great American sphinx," says Bill Zehme, nearing completion on a long-awaited biography. "He was on view like a monument, daily, nightly, there he was, Carson, right there before us. And what did we really know?"

Well, as announcer Ed McMahon would say: "Heeeere's Johnny."

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jones attempts to put Carson the man and legend into perspective in his compelling and surprisingly moving American Masters special "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night" (Monday night at 9 p.m. ET on most PBS affiliates; check local listings).

The two hour documentary explores Carson's early days learning magic tricks in rural Nebraska right up until his death from emphysema at 79 in 2005. In between are interviews from 45 colleagues, family members and performers, including current late night hosts David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon as well as comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey and Garry Shandling. Carson bandleader Doc Severinsen shares some of the most penetrating insights. Only one of Carson's four wives, and none of his children, appear on camera.

Along the way there is insight into Carson's difficult relationships with women, beginning with his hard-to-please mother Ruth.

Jones also puts into perspective the enormous impact Carson had on North American audiences in the '60s, '70s and '80s. As Letterman, the TV host who worshipped Carson and hoped to be his "Tonight" successor says: Carson and McMahon were role models for a generation.

"If you couldn't figure out how to be an adult male in this country in those years, by watching those two guys," says Letterman in the special, "you were hopeless."

Yet, by the end of his remarkable run, Carson was being challenged by upstart late night rival Arsenio Hall and for the first time seemed a bit like your father's talk show host. The point is made that timing was always one of Carson's greatest gifts, including knowing when to quit.

Still, an entire generation has come of age that knows nothing of the Great Carnac, Aunt Blabby, or any Carson's signature bits. Doc and Ed might as well be a reality show. My son, 19, only knows Carson as a reference on "The Simpsons."

Yet Carson's comedy style and influence is still being felt. Al Jean, "The Simpsons" longest-serving showrunner, got his showbiz start on Carson's "Tonight."

Jean was fresh out of Harvard when he spent one-and-a-half years in the "Tonight Show" writers room. …

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