Credit: Douglas C. Pizac/AP

Tonight’s edition of PBS American Masters, titled Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, offers a well-edited description of why Johnny Carson is held in such high esteem as late night’s most influential host, even as it carefully avoids any hard questions about Carson’s talent or originality.

Carson’s rep as the “king of late night” was formed from a combination of skill, power (he could make or break careers — as is made clear in tonight’s documentary via the example of Joan Rivers), esteem (David Letterman has been stalwart in his admiration, and his opinion means more than any other host’s), and sheer longevity (30 years).

There are, however, certain cliches about Carson that are repeated in King of Late Night that need to be examined or retired. One is that, after Johnny, The Tonight Show was “never the same,” that The Tonight Show “ceased to exist” after Johnny retired. The idea behind this is that Carson’s version of The Tonight Show was the format’s Platonic ideal. But say what you will about Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien’s version of The Tonight Show, one thing you can’t hammer either of them for is ruining or altering the show in a way that traduces the perfection that was Johnny’s. That’s because The Tonight Show was always in a process of change. The Tonight Shows that preceded Carson — under the stewardships of Steve Allen and Jack Paar — were different from the one Carson built around himself, and there’s no reason to accuse Carson of ruining a tradition, either. Every host alters the formula. If anything, Carson borrowed as much from Allen (opening monologue, banter with announcer, studio band music, sketches and stunts before guest interviews) as Leno or O’Brien or Craig Ferguson or Jimmy Fallon borrowed from Carson.

King of Late Night tries to enshrine Carson as the greatest late-night host ever, an easy task if only because it’s become common wisdom. But here Carson benefits enormously from a TV tragedy, which is that much of the Steve Allen Tonight Show run is gone forever, its videotapes erased or destroyed. What remains of Allen’s stint, when taken in combination with the syndicated talk show Allen did for Westinghouse, can be seen as at the very least as funny if not (as I would argue) even funnier — wilder, more imaginative and innovative — than most of what Carson did.

The American Masters documentary buys into the belief that Carson created all of the comic characters and recurring bits he used during his run. Yet it’s obvious to anyone who’s seen Jonathan Winters’ Maude Frickert routines where Carson got his “Aunt Blabby” character. (In an interview with Time Magazine‘s Joel Stein in 1999 on the occasion of Winters’ receipt of a Mark Twain Prize for Humor, Stein asked, “You think stealing your Maude Frickert character for his Aunt Blabby will keep Johnny Carson from ever winning the award?” Winters replied, “I hope so. I hope so.”) Carson lifted his “Stump the Band” segment from Allen, and the structure of his Carnac the Magnificent routine is taken directly from Allen’s “The Question Man” character.

Too many of the clips in King of Late Night intended to prove Carson’s mastery of the ad-lib look and sound suspiciously scripted — pre-arranged set-ups. For example, I can never look at the moment, included here, when a zoo animal growled at Carson and the host scampered over to leap into announcer Ed McMahon’s arms without noticing that Ed looks unsurprised at Johnny’s approach, ready to catch his boss in mid-leap.

David Letterman’s admiration for Carson is a measure of Letterman’s genuine belief and loyalty; it’s an admiration Dave expresses in an interview in tonight’s documentary. Indeed, one of the nicest moments in this film is the reminder that, after Carson retired, he’d occasionally fax jokes to Letterman, who would use some of them in his own opening monologues without acknowledging their author, by mutual agreement — it was a way for two fundamentally reticent men who admired each other to keep in touch in a clever way. But I also have no doubt that Letterman long ago eclipsed Carson as the true “king of late night,” as an original artist who re-created the role of late-night hosts and has now sustained the quality of his performance for a longer stretch than Carson did. Of course, Letterman is far too self-effacing to accept that judgment.

So, by all means watch American Masters tonight; it’s a good trip down memory lane for those who remember, and a useful education for those too young to know why Carson was so revered. But I’d say Johnny was a king of late night, not the king of late night that this production attempts to crown.

Twitter: @kentucker

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