Wednesday, May 16, 2012

American Masters: Johnny Carson (PBS, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the American Masters PBS special on Johnny Carson, who turned out to be a bundle of contradictions: a farm boy from Nebraska who projected an air halfway between jes’-folks common sense and sophisticated urbanity, a man who portrayed a public persona that loved people and got along with them easily, then turned that off as soon as the cameras stopped transmitting and the studio lights were turned off and retreated into his shell (“I’m not lonely, I’m just a loner,” Carson said, in one of his few personal remarks about himself and his personality). I rarely watched The Tonight Show in Carson’s heyday because I’ve always been mostly a day person and generally didn’t want to stay up that late, but even if I didn’t watch him that much I still couldn’t escape being exposed to him, if not on his own show then certainly as his lines got repeated by friends, co-workers and through the cultural grapevine in the pre-Internet age. Indeed, one of the great Carson stories this show, directed by Peter Jones, should have told and did not was how he single-handedly started a shortage of toilet paper in the U.S. It was late 1973 and one of the big news items of the time was the energy shortage — and Carson was riffing during his monologue about all the other shortages that were threatening, then joked, “And get this now: there’s a shortage of toilet paper in the United States! Toilet paper!” Actually, there wasn’t one when he said it, but one soon got created because millions of Carson viewers and millions of others who heard it from Carson viewers ran out to their local supermarkets and stocked up on toilet paper until there really was a shortage.

The American Masters show was an interesting glimpse of a personality who was a major part of American celebrity for 30 years, who ran one of the most important gateways for new talent — for stand-up comedians in particular, playing the Tonight Show was what playing the Palace Theatre had been for their forebears two and three generations earlier; indeed, the career of virtually every comedian who ever went on the Tonight Show in Carson’s three-decade run as host can be divided into two periods, B.C. and A.C. (Before Carson and After Carson). For me, among the most interesting clips on this show were devoted to Carson’s TV work before Tonight, including a CBS series called Carson’s Corner that looked like the kind of tacky local show Ernie Kovacs and Sid Caesar were making fun of then and a game show called Who Do You Trust? that was a synthetic attempt to do a knock-off of You Bet Your Life with a considerably less suitable host than Groucho Marx — it’s nice to know that he actually had a background in the medium and wasn’t (as it seemed back in 1962!) someone NBC dragged off a Nebraska farm and suddenly plunged into Jack Paar’s (and Steve Allen’s before him) anchor chair at Tonight!