NEW YORK — Johnny Carson didn’t invent late-night talk shows. He didn’t invent their desk-and-couch format or the monologue with which they typically begin, or the game of golf, which inspired the golf swing he stylishly mimed to finish his own monologue each night.
Carson didn’t invent the talk-show host’s sidekick, or the obligatory house band. Even many of his most popular comic characters were lifted brazenly from other performers, such as Jackie Gleason and Jonathan Winters.
So what set Carson apart? Why is he unrivaled by any other TV comedian or late-night star? What made him a trusted, enduring, influential and altogether likable presence unmatched by anyone in the history of the medium except, arguably, Walter Cronkite and Oprah Winfrey?
A few stats gathered for the film begin to tell the tale: From his debut as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” 50 years ago this October, until his exit on May 22, 1992, he was seen by more people on more occasions than anyone else in American history.
Carson reigned for nearly 30 years, hosting 4,531 episodes and receiving 23,000 guests. For most of his run, he had no competition, or none that mattered. His nightly viewership, averaging as much as 15 million, was more than the current audience of “Tonight” successor Jay Leno and CBS rival David Letterman combined.
But who was he? “King of Late Night” does a fine job of penetrating the familiar veneer of Carson, a preternaturally private man in spite of his vast, decades-spanning exposure.
He grew up in small-town Nebraska, the son of a father who worked at the local power company and an emotionally withholding mother whose approval he seems to have sought, fruitlessly, his entire life.
But as a boy, he discovered the way to win approval — at least from others — was by performing magic: “You can be the center of attention without being yourself,” he explains as an adult.
This led to showbiz as his chosen profession. And after college he landed a job at a radio station in Omaha, where, with the advent of TV soon after, he hosted a program on the infant medium. A 1950 film clip captures him at work, blinking and breathless behind his desk — much in contrast to the cool, unflappable on-air manner he would grow into, but with the boyish looks and robust, man’s voice he kept for a lifetime.
Soon he went to Los Angeles, where he hosted a sketch-comedy show on a local station. He scored a prime-time network show on CBS, but it flopped. Then, his career flaring out, he retreated to New York in 1957 to host a daytime quiz show for also-ran ABC.
During his five years on “Who Do You Trust?” he was able to establish himself as an attractive, quick-witted personality, while building bonds with his chosen sidekick, Ed McMahon, who, of course, would remain at his side for the rest of his career.
Hired to replace the departing Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show,”Carson made his first appearance on Oct. 1, 1962. No video exists of his debut, just an audio tape that finds him sounding cool and confident even as he jokes about his jitters.
“King of Late Night” follows Carson from there all the way to his retirement from the show (and, as it turned out, his total withdrawal from the public scene) in 1992, and his death, at age 79, in 2005.
Narrated by Kevin Spacey, “King of Late Night” is written, directed and produced by Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmaker Peter Jones, who for years penned an annual letter to Carson seeking his cooperation in the creation of a documentary about him. Carson always declined, but after his death, Mr. Jones successfully approached Carson’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who controls his uncle’s archives.