Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT -

Not sur­pris­ingly, it’s the co­me­di­ans whose re­marks carry the big­gest punch — when Car­son was its host, The Tonight Show was a book­ing that could lit­er­ally cre­ate stars overnight. Let­ter­man, Leno, Se­in­feld, Degeneres and Carey all make it very clear that with­out hav­ing re­ceived Johnny Car­son’s Ok-sign bless­ing, none of them would have had the ca­reers they’ve en­joyed.

Carey, in the film, is tearful when he de­scribes his first standup-com­edy ap­pear­ance on the show.

Dur­ing last Jan­uary’s PBS in­ter­view ses­sion, the cur­rent host of TV’S The Price Is Right de­scribed his bless­ing from Car­son as noth­ing short of a re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It was all based on your per­for­mance, and if he liked you a lot, he would wave you over,” Carey re­called. “The clos­est thing I can re­late it to is (that) when I was in ju­nior high, I joined a Pen­te­costal church — a re­ally evan­gel­i­cal Assem­bly of God church, and I got saved. There was an al­tar call, and I went up and got saved — I rolled around, talked in tongues, all that stuff you’ve heard about.

“Be­ing called over to the couch by Johnny Car­son was the clos­est thing I ever came to that. I’m not even say­ing that as a joke. There was just this feel­ing of ... like peo­ple talk about the feel­ing of the Holy Spirit go­ing through you and your body chang­ing, and you feel like some­thing’s changed in your life for­ever and ever — that’s what I felt like go­ing over there, and I felt like I was in a dream the whole time. It was like be­ing saved by Je­sus, hon­estly.”

Carey added that the im­pact of that one ap­pear­ance on that one late-night tele­vi­sion show was im­me­di­ate and ir­re­versible.

“It was very rare (to get called over),” he said. “Like, very few peo­ple, and they all be­came re­ally fa­mous. Ellen Degeneres got called over to the couch. Roseanne Barr got called over to the couch. I got called over to the couch. If you look at the peo­ple who got called over to the couch on their first Tonight Show ap­pear­ance, they all be­came re­ally fa­mous. It was crazy ... he would wave you over, and then the next thing you know, you’re in show busi­ness.”

De­spite its ob­vi­ous deep rev­er­ence for its sub­ject, how­ever, King of Late Night is not just a love let­ter to Car­son — the two-hour film is a deftly lay­ered and im­pres­sively frank ex­plo­ration that ad­dresses Car­son’s complicated re­la­tion­ship with a mother who for­ever with­held her ap­proval and af­fec­tion, his failed mar­riages and sub­stan­dard par­ent­ing, bat­tles with his bosses at NBC, strug­gles with al­co­hol, and the some­times-quick tem­per that would prompt him to cut peo­ple com­pletely out of his life when he felt they’d wronged him.

The best ex­am­ple of that last dark de­tail is Joan Rivers, who was beloved by Car­son and was the full-time guest host on his show right up un­til the day she failed to tell him she was in ne­go­ti­a­tions for her own late-night pro­gram at the fledg­ling Fox net­work.

“Joan Rivers was Johnny’s pride and joy,” Jones re­called. “Be­sides the (failed) mar­riages, I don’t think he was ever more dev­as­tated than when ... she didn’t tell him well in ad­vance about her ne­go­ti­a­tions for her Fox show. He found out about it from an­other source. She did call him, but he hung up on her and never spoke to her again.

“In the film, she says, ‘You know, now that I think about it, I should have told him sooner.’ It broke his heart. The whole thing with Joan Rivers broke Johnny’s heart. It re­ally did.”

The film lingers long on Car­son’s even­tual de­par­ture from The Tonight Show, of­fer­ing view­ers a chance to re­visit the emo­tional farewells that were paid to him by his final-week guests and that were given to view­ers by Car­son him­self on his final night.

As the man Car­son would have pre­ferred as his suc­ces­sor — David Let­ter­man — aptly ob­serves, we who watch tele­vi­sion will not see his like again.

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