Movies
4:37 pm
Sun May 13, 2012

Johnny Carson: 'King Of Late Night,' A Man Unknown

Originally published on Sun May 13, 2012 5:52 pm

Fifty years ago, Johnny Carson became the host of The Tonight Show. During his 30 years as host, he reached a nightly audience of 15 million people and became one of the most trusted and famous men in America.

But Carson was intensely private off-screen, and very few people — including members of his own family--really knew him. Documentary filmmaker Peter Jones wanted to try and change that. Once a year, for 15 years, Jones sent Carson a letter, begging him for permission to make a documentary on his life.

His appeals went unanswered until 2003, when he received a telephone call from Carson himself: "You write a damn fine letter, Peter, but I don't have anything more to say." Following Carson's death in 2005, Jones directed his letters to Johnny's nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who controls his uncle's archives.

Finally, in 2010, Sotzing agreed to cooperate and the Carson Entertainment Group granted unprecedented access to Johnny's personal and professional archives, including family photo albums, home movies, memorabilia and all existing episodes of The Tonight Show from 1962 until his retirement in 1992.

Speaking with weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, Jones says the simple reason he did the documentary was becayse he, "didn't want people to forget Johnny Carson."


Interview Highlights

On why Johnny Carson didn't want to cooperate:

"He did not want to cooperate. Over and over again he said, 'I'm going to let the Tonight Show speak for itself. All I wanna say is on that show, and I'm not going to talk to anybody about my life, thank you very much. I appreciate your letters and I enjoy the documentaries you've sent over the years, but I'm not going to do it.

"I think he had deep regrets especially about his personal life. He loved all the wives he was married to, there were four of them, and they genuinely loved him, too. But he had deep regrets that that did not work out because he had this problem with philandering. And also he deeply regretted his relationship to his three sons or, frankly, his lack of relationship with his three sons."

On why we didn't really know Johnny Carson:

"I think there was Johnny Carson that America saw and then there was John William Carson that he kept to himself. John ... was most content playing in the autumn leaves in Nebraska or playing solitaire or playing the drums. He was really content to just be with himself. Johnny Carson did not really exist anywhere else except in front of the camera. Privately, he was John William Carson.

On why he didn't interview all of his wives and children:

"I did talk off the record to two other wives, Joanna and Alex Carson. I did not talk to the boys. There was and remains a veil of secrecy surrounding Johnny Carson. They chose not to talk to me on the record. They felt they were honoring posthumously his wishes to not have them talk about anything regarding his personal life or even his career. They just felt Johnny never wanted them to speak publicly about anything, and they were honoring that."

On Carson and Joan Rivers:

"Joan Rivers broke Johnny's heart in a way I don't think even any of the failed marriages did because this was someone he genuinely appreciated as a funny person, but also really liked. He felt so betrayed and broken hearted when she called to tell him about her show well after he had found out about it.

"He found out about it, and when she called him, he hung up on her and famously never spoke to her again. And in the film for the first time she acknowledges, 'Perhaps I should have called him sooner.'"

What surprised Jones while making the film:

"What surprised me was how deeply private and circumspect Johnny Carson truly was. I thought that after having access to all this material, I would be able to pull the curtain a little bit further and see the man. We do to an extent, but what surprised me was how little we could find about his interior life. I think we find as much as anyone has to date, but what was remarkable to me was how protective he was of this impenetrable part of this persona. I hope we suggest clues, but I don't know if we really got him.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

ED MCMAHON: And now, ladies and gentlemen, here's Johnny.

RAZ: Fifty years ago, Johnny Carson became the host of "The Tonight Show." And during his 30 years as host, he reached a nightly audience of 15 million people. He became one of the most trusted and famous men in America. But Carson was intensely private offscreen, and very few people, including members of his own family, really knew him.

Documentary filmmaker Peter Jones wanted to try and change that. And so once a year, for 15 years, Jones sent Johnny Carson a letter, begging him for permission to make a documentary on his life.

PETER JONES: (Reading) Dear Mr. Carson. My diary tells me it's been another year since my last attempt.

That's Peter Jones reading an excerpt from a letter dated January 10, 2003. Eight weeks after that letter was sent, Jones finally received a phone call from the man himself.

And he said: Peter, I admire your persistence and your style, but I'm not going to do anything because I don't give a S-H - fill in the blanks.

RAZ: Ah. Got you. Right. He did not want to cooperate with your desire to make a documentary about his life.

JONES: I think he had deep regrets, especially his personal life. He loved all the wives he was married to - there were four of them - and they genuinely loved him too. But he had deep regrets that that, you know, did not work out because he had this problem with philandering. And also, he deeply regretted his relationship to his three sons, or frankly, lack of relationship with his three sons.

RAZ: In the documentary you talk to, many, many people who worked with him - Doc Severinsen and his writers and people like Dick Cavett - and everyone, including, to some extent, one of his wives that you interviewed, his second wife, Joanne, they said you never really knew Johnny. You never got to really know him.

JONES: I think there was Johnny Carson that America saw, and then there was John William Carson that he kept to himself. Johnny Carson, he was most content playing in the autumn leaves, you know, in Nebraska or playing solitaire or playing the drums. He was really, you know, content to just be with himself. Johnny Carson did not really exist anywhere else but in front of the camera. Privately, he was John William Carson.

RAZ: Early on, a Time magazine reporter goes to Nebraska, interviews Johnny Carson's mom, watches the opening monologue with her, and she says: That wasn't very funny. Jack Paar was edgier when he did the show. And that really hurt Johnny Carson.

JONES: And it is not insignificant to note this was a cover story article in 1967. Johnny Carson had been on the show for five years as the host. He was on top of the world. And for his mother to make that comment, it devastated him. And after he read that, he broke down and cried.

RAZ: Peter, you interviewed many, many people who worked with Johnny Carson - writers and colleagues. You spoke to his second wife, Joanne, but you did not talk to any of his other wives or either of his surviving children. Why not?

JONES: I did talk off the record to two other wives, Joanna and Alex Carson. I did not talk to the boys. There was, and remains, a veil of secrecy surrounding Johnny Carson. They chose not to talk to me on the record because they felt they were honoring posthumously his wishes.

RAZ: I'm speaking with documentary filmmaker Peter Jones. His new film is called "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night." One of the things that he was able to do was to sort of be political and funny but not partisan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

JOHNNY CARSON: Tonight's monologue is dedicated to President Nixon. I've got a monologue that just won't quit.

RAZ: He really went after Nixon during the Watergate period. He went after Bill Clinton, too, but some of it was for winking and nod.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

CARSON: Finally, some good political news. Bill Clinton has laryngitis, lost his voice.

RAZ: And yet nobody knew what his politics were.

JONES: That is true. He struck a remarkable balance. He made fun of Democrats, as well as Republicans. My hunch is that he would be a Democrat. But I know I can't, you know, confirm that. I know he was very close to the Reagans, to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who admired him. She did not like the jokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

CARSON: World War III was just declared. I'm just kidding, of course. Not really. I just wanted to get Reagan out of bed to watch the monologue.

JONES: She, as everyone knows, was very protective of her husband, and she would call and say, you know, that wasn't funny. But he nevertheless persisted because he was an equal opportunity offender.

RAZ: He was somebody who made careers. I mean, he would bring comics on and that was it. He gave you the thumbs-up, and you were made. He did that for Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano, and of course, Joan Rivers, who became a very close friend and then betrayed him.

JONES: Joan Rivers broke Johnny's heart in a way I don't think even any of the failed marriages did because this was someone he genuinely appreciated as a funny person but also really liked.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

JOAN RIVERS: No. Well, my wedding night was a disaster. You know that.

CARSON: Yeah.

RIVERS: A lot of men smoke after they make love. Edgar smoked during. Now, that...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

RIVERS: He asked me for a light. Do you think that's nice?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

RIVERS: I said: Get it yourself on the dashboard. What's the matter with you?

JONES: He felt so betrayed and brokenhearted when she called to tell him about her show well after he had found out about it.

RAZ: Her show on Fox.

JONES: Her show on Fox.

RAZ: And he had already found out about it through media leaks.

JONES: Yes. He found out about it, and when she called him, he hung up on her and famously never spoke to her again. And in the film, for the first time, she acknowledges: Perhaps I should have called him sooner.

RAZ: Peter, throughout his time on "The Tonight Show," and even before when he - in his previous role as a game show host, he worked with Ed McMahon. He actually hired Ed McMahon, and they were very tight, these guys. They would go out drinking and - but somewhere around the middle of "The Tonight Show's" run, that ended. And there was quite a bit of tension between them, right?

JONES: There was tension always between Johnny and Ed on "The Tonight Show" because Johnny felt that Ed was intruding on him and his jokes at times.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

CARSON: My next guest doesn't really need an introduction...

MCMAHON: Your first guest.

CARSON: My what?

MCMAHON: Your first guest.

CARSON: What did I say?

ED MCMAHON: My next guest.

CARSON: Well, he is my next guest.

MCMAHON: Oh. He comes on to be your first guest.

CARSON: That's right. It's - could be the one, first and next.

MCMAHON: Which is it?

CARSON: He's my - actually, he's my first and next guest.

JONES: Ed would anticipate what Johnny was going to say, and would sometimes say it, and that would upset Johnny tremendously. And there were a few occasions where the producer of "The Tonight Show" warned Ed that he could go if he didn't stop taking some of the laughs from Johnny.

RAZ: But of course, Johnny needed Ed. And, of course, Ed needed Johnny. I mean, that was part of the brand.

JONES: Absolutely. It was, as David Letterman says in the film, it was Laurel and Hardy. You can't have one without the other.

RAZ: What was it that you learned while making this film that surprised you that you didn't know about Johnny Carson?

JONES: What surprised me was frankly how little we could find about his interior life. I think we find as much as anybody has to date. But what was remarkable to me was still how protective he was of this impenetrable part of his persona. I hope we suggest clues, but I don't know if we really got him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

CARSON: You people watching, I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. And I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you will like and come back, that you'll be as gracious inviting me into your homes as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.

RAZ: Johnny Carson's farewell 20 years ago this month. Peter Jones' documentary is called "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night." It premiers tomorrow night on PBS stations across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

BETTE MIDLER: (Singing) We're drinking, my friend, to the end of a sweet episode. Make it one for my baby, and one more for the road.

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Don't forget to download our podcast, the best of. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Find it on iTunes or at nrp.org/weekendatc. We're back on the radio next weekend with more news, personal stories, books and music. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

MIDLER: (Singing) ...so dreamy and sad. You could tell me a lot... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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