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.