American Masters – Johnny Carson: King of Late Night

Published July 23, 2012

Hard to believe that Johnny Carson left The Tonight Show nearly a quarter century ago, after an amazing 30-year run.  For Americans between 1962 and 1992, Johnny was not unlike a grown-up bedtime story – for we watched him from our beds, and he was the last thing we saw before nodding off.  Whether he was killing in his monologues (or dying, and simply letting silence and a blank stare get a second chance at the laugh), or poking fun at Ed, or doing Carnac the Magnificent, or offering us an endless parade of unforgettable, and often legendary guests, Johnny Carson truly was the King of Late Night.

I expounded on this a few years ago with a post entitled Bette Midler Bids Johnny Carson Adieu, focusing on Johnny’s farewell show.

David Letterman reached that 30-year pinnacle before shuffling off into retirement, and for years I (and many others) considered him to be Carson’s TRUE heir to the late night throne. However, Jimmy Fallon has proven night after night that he is a worthy successor to Carson (certainly more so than Jay Leno), if only for being consistently original, surprising, and (most of all) FUNNY. Actually, Fallon, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel have all stepped up and given each other worthy competition at that post-news, weeknight hour, but each of them owe a  significant debt to Mr. Carson. recently posted a documentary on their American Masters page, entitled American Masters – Johnny Carson: King of Late Night.  I just finished watching the 2-hour program, and it was so good, and nostalgic, and entertaining, I decided to post it here.

The copy from the PBS page reads as follows: Quite possibly the biggest star that television has ever produced, Carson commanded, at his peak, a nightly audience of 15 million viewers – double the current audience of Leno and Letterman – combined. Rarely giving interviews, Carson chose to remain a very private man whose public persona made him an American superstar. He once revealed, “I can get in front of an audience and be in control. I suppose it’s manipulation. Offstage, I’m aloof because I’m not very comfortable.” American Masters Johnny Carson: King of Late Night explores this dichotomy and enigma, unearthing clues about Carson’s childhood, early days in the business, and personal and professional life.

Interested?  Of course, you are.  So, without further ado: Heeeeere’s Johnny!


Published April 5, 2008

Steve Martin made many classic, hilarious appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show (the REAL Tonight Show), but one of the funniest has to be the video posted below.

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you … The Great Flydini.


Published February 27, 2008

While discussing Iconic Moments in Television recently, I argued that one of the biggest emotional wallops (we’re talking show biz here, not news or politics), was Johnny Carson’s second to last Tonight Show (his final with guests), in May of 1992, where Bette Midler serenaded him with a couple of songs. I own The Ultimate Carson Collection on DVD (highly recommended), and these final moments never fail to move me to tears. The same can be said of Bette – if you watch carefully, at the end of her last song, she rushes off stage before completely losing it.

For those not old enough to remember, Johnny Carson was the King of late night television for 30 years. All others are pretenders to the throne. All right, David Letterman comes close – don’t get me started on Jay Leno.

For those who do remember, here is Bette’s appearance on that penultimate episode. Fair warning – keep the Kleenex handy. Enjoy.

WORDSLINGER’S NOTE 2/20/17 – The original videos I had embedded here are gone. The only ones currently available are un-embedable. The quality isn’t great either, but … it’s all we’ve got. Still interested?  Heeeeeeere’s Johnny … and Bette.


Published May 3, 2011

Yeah, I like Bette Midler.  When it comes to sheer cabaret showmanship, nobody does it better.  If you’ve been to this site before, you may have seen an article entitled Bette Midler Bids Johnny Carson Adieu, where I posted a couple of videos of Bette serenading the Late Night King on his final show.

I’ve got another one here … that I am putting up for no other reason save for the fact that it makes me smile.

Bette – and her former piano player, Barry Manilow – together again, on a Today Show appearance in 2003, likely plugging Bette’s tribute album to Rosemary Clooney.  The best song on that album is their take on the Frank Loesser classic On a Slow Boat to China.  They both go off key a bit during this performance but, the song is so damn happy and snappy, who cares? I’m including that clip and the (better) album track below.

Give a listen.


Published February 11, 2009

Yes, I grew up in the 70’s. Yes, I was fond of the old school comedy found on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts. And yes, there was one performer in particular that was guaranteed to not only leave all in laughter, but with their jaws on the floor from his utter audacity … “Did he really just say what I think he just said?”

I believe I speak for all of us when I say, “Holy shit, Don Rickles is still alive!?”
Mr. Warmth - The Don Rickles Project
After watching 2007’s Emmy Award-winning documentary Mr. Warmth – The Don Rickles Project, I can state emphatically, not only is Rickles still alive, he’s killing ’em on stage. Whether in Vegas or on the road, Don Rickles, who was 80 when this documentary was filmed, is just as funny, quick, acerbic and politically incorrect as he ever was.

Director John Landis — who in the 70s and 80s was the king of cinematic comedy (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London), but hasn’t made a truly funny film since Coming To America 20 years ago — returns to form here. We learn early on that Landis has known Don since he was a production assistant on the Kelly’s Heroes set back in 1969.

While much of Don’s insult humor is seemingly racist — indeed, nobody else could get away with some of this material — the fact that he is an equal opportunity offender seems to make it okay. Regarding this, one critic opined: “While Rickles seems to mock ethnicity, body type, weight, age and all the other stuff that we’re not supposed to make fun of, he’s actually defusing all of those things. And once they’re deflated by humor, they lose, at least for a moment, their potency. What becomes clear in Landis’ film is that Rickles is really a softie, a guy who loves humanity and life. The guy they still call Mr. Warmth really is, and that’s apparently the worst-kept secret in show business.”

In new interview footage, we also hear from the likes of Ernest Borgnine, Jack Carter, Billy Crystal, Robert DeNiro, Clint Eastwood, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Lawrence, Bob Newhart, Carl Reiner, Debbie Reynolds, Martin Scorsese, The Smothers Brothers, Harry Dean Stanton, and Robin Williams (literally to name only a few), all of whom wax nostalgic about Don.

But the real star here is Rickles himself, who whether on stage or one on one, is hysterical. Using new concert footage, archives from his entire career, and the aforementioned interviews, Mr. Warmth – The Don Rickles Project is a testament to its living legend of a subject. It is also a very funny film.

Never seen it? I’ve got it for you riiiiiiight here.

Sorry about the commercials — it’s Hulu.