From that vast trove come many clips from “Tonight,” including classic moments such as Ed Ames’ misdirected hatchet throw and novelty singer Tiny Tim’s 1969 marriage to Miss Vickie, which drew 45 million viewers — 85 percent of all television viewers. There are also home movies and personal photos.
The film hears from dozens of performers and colleagues, as well as from the second of Carson’s four wives, Joanne. All of them labor to explain him and his appeal.
“This is a guy who was as familiar as a bedtime story,” says Arsenio Hall in a pithy description of the man who put so many viewers to bed every night. Mr. Hall, whose syndicated show arrived in 1989 to become Carson’s only real threat, is lavish in his praise of Carson as an interviewer: “He had the perfect barometer in his head for when to go and when to stay out. He could save you if the show needed it, or he could let you do your thing.”
In addition, he was a superb stand-up comic, as the clips demonstrate.
He could dine out on silly, formulaic jokes: “It was hot today,” he would begin, to which the audience chorused, How hot was it? “So hot I saw a sparrow pick up his worm with a potholder.”
There were also jokes that zeroed in on current events, including this mid-1970s gem that, four decades later, seems as topical as ever: “President Ford is considering an income-tax cut for people in lower tax brackets. The bad news is, he still hasn’t figured how they can get an income.”
Meanwhile, he displayed a knack for miraculous recovery, somehow milking a misfired joke for its unfunniness and getting more laughs than if it had worked in the first place.
But ultimately, Carson’s popularity wasn’t based on his interview skills. Or his jokes.
“I don’t think anybody was watching Johnny Carson to rate how his material was,” says Conan O’Brien, himself briefly a “Tonight Show” host. “You liked him. You liked that man so much, and you went with him.”
America went with him for 30 years. Carson was the nation’s common touchstone, from the things he chose to joke about to the guests he received, validated and vaulted into prominence. Carson’s show ceased to be simply a matter of entertainment. It became the nation’s shared reality. The closest anyone has come to filling his role in the culture was Oprah Winfrey for the quarter-century she hosted her weekday talk show. Now, there is no one.
In the film, Carson emerges as a womanizer, a boozer and a distant father to his three sons. None of this will surprise those who recall him from his “Tonight Show” prime, but, however much those human frailties clashed with his broadcast persona, they never tripped him up in the eyes of his public. In Carson, viewers saw themselves and approved.
When Ed McMahon introduced him with “Heeere’s Johnny!” Carson strode through the curtain with his chest thrust out and his head reared back in a posture (or so the film suggests) of standoffishness. And yet his springy, on-the-ball, beaming mien always told the world otherwise.
Then he was gone (“I bid you a very heartfelt good night” were his last words). And now, for the audience too young to have seen him on “Tonight,” he exists only as the absent TV star whom the current crop of talk-show hosts can never replace (a deficiency they, above all, routinely acknowledge).
The void Carson left has resulted in fascination, to this day, with the subsequent players and upheaval on the late-night scene, even as its audience shrinks and the flurry of competing shows shaves that audience into fragments.
Meanwhile, a misconception persists that “Tonight” remains a sturdy institution, like the presidency, that is somehow larger than anyone who serves as its host.