“I don’t know anybody who didn’t watch Johnny Carson,” Ellen DeGeneres says in this remarkable documentary. Indeed, Carson still holds the record for television viewers—and appearances. Politely refused an interview by the late night host himself, Emmy-winning filmmaker Peter Jones continued to pursue Carson after his death, finally gaining access to the entertainer’s archives —a treasure trove of home movies, photo albums and Tonight Show episodes. Much of the story told here is sad: Even at the height of his fame and popularity, Carson couldn’t get a kind word or compliment from his mother, and his relationship to his own three sons was distant and troubled. He was a “cheap drunk,” according to second wife JoAnne, stayed aloof from even those he worked with daily and famously held a grudge. But who else could have glided through nine hours of live TV a week—and kept multiple generations laughing? Kevin Spacey narrates and Carson proteges including Letterman, Leno, Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Ray Romano and Joan Rivers provide anecdotal tribute to a shy man who wanted attention and discovered, he often said, “on stage you are in control.”
American Masters Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, debuting Monday, May 14 at
9 PM (ET/PT) on PBS.