Jones’s film continues balancing Carson’s happiness with that inescapably downbeat vibe. Retirement seemed to bring him real peace; personal awkwardness dogged him to the end. Save for an appearance on Letterman’s CBS show, Carson’s highly rated farewell in 1992 was pretty much the last TV audiences saw of him. “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night” may instill in viewers a true wish to have Carson back on regularly, in nightly reruns.
And although the documentary doesn’t explore the present-day moonscape of late-night programming, one can’t help but take the opportunity. Seeing Carson again, even in old clips, is a reminder of where we stand with the current lineup of hosts — a subject that still preoccupies far too much press and analysis.
What we have, in the combined form of all our late-night hosts, are competing shards of the greatness everyone ascribes to Carson alone: Some nights Letterman is a shell; other nights he shines. Some never miss Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — and never miss an opportunity to recap the best bits for you, smugly. You can develop a Jimmy Kimmel habit for a while, until you tire of him. Then it’s off to Craig Ferguson’s monologue, which runs the gamut, and is often great, with some of Carson’s assured manliness. Jimmy Fallon, who seemed so inept at this sort of thing a few years ago when he took over NBC’s “Late Night” slot, now excels at it with easy insouciance. And Conan, a highly paid refugee in cable’s outer camp, is still occasionally picking at the permanent Leno scar. (And the less said about Leno, who still and perhaps forever occupies Carson’s spot, the better.)
They all get clipped and posted the next morning for the daily online diet of “did-you-see?” tweets, blog items, entertainment sites and gabbing on social networks — a system that works marvelously for those of us who are known to drift off before 11:30 p.m. The sense of a full show (monologue, sketch, guest, another guest, barely time for the musical guest) is another lost concept in the race for fast attention.
“Johnny Carson: King of Late Night” keeps returning to Carson’s boyhood fixation on magic and finds it conclusive. When we talk about the pinnacle of late-night talk shows, we are talking about something illusive and momentary, even if lasted 29 years. You blink and it’s vanished.
American Masters: Johnny Carson: King of Late Night
(two hours) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT.