On-Air Highlights

A look at Johnny Carson's Career

Written by Fred Vigeant, Director of Programming and Promotions for TV and Radio | May 26, 2013 11:49 AM
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Johnny Carson (10/23/1925 – 1/23/2005) was seen by more people on more occasions than anyone else in American history. Over the course of 30 years, 4,531 episodes and 23,000 guests, he became a fixture of national life and a part of the zeitgeist. In a 2007 TV Land/Entertainment Weekly poll, Americans voted Carson the greatest icon in the history of television. Two-time Emmy®-winning filmmaker Peter Jones explores his life, career, complexities, and contradictions in the two-hour documentary American Masters Johnny Carson: King of Late Night. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Carson taking over The Tonight Show from Jack Paar and the 20th anniversary of his retirement.

Narrated by two-time Oscar®-winner Kevin Spacey, the film features 45 original interviews with Carson’s friends, family and colleagues, including his second wife, Joanne, Dick Cavett, Doc Severinsen, and other The Tonight Show staff. Performers who appeared, or began their careers, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson are also interviewed, including David Letterman, Jay Leno, Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Drew Carey, Garry Shandling, Steve Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ellen DeGeneres, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Bob Newhart, Joan Rivers, and David Steinberg. Late night TV hosts Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien also discuss Carson’s influence on their careers.

For 15 years Jones wrote an annual letter to Carson requesting his cooperation in the production of a documentary. His appeals went unanswered until 2003, when he received a telephone call from Carson himself: “You write a damn fine letter, Peter, but I don’t have anything more to say.” Following Carson’s death in 2005, Jones directed his letters to Johnny’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who controls his uncle’s archives. Finally, in 2010, Sotzing agreed to cooperate and the Carson Entertainment Group granted unprecedented access to Johnny’s personal and professional archives, including family photo albums, home movies, memorabilia, and all existing episodes of The Tonight Show from 1962 until his retirement in 1992. His simple reason: “I didn’t want people to forget Johnny Carson.”

Quite possibly the biggest star that television has ever produced, Carson commanded, at his peak, a nightly audience of 15 million viewers – double the current audience of Leno and Letterman – combined. Rarely giving interviews, Carson chose to remain a very private man whose public persona made him an American superstar. He once revealed, “I can get in front of an audience and be in control. I suppose it’s manipulation. Offstage, I’m aloof because I’m not very comfortable.” American Masters Johnny Carson: King of Late Night explores this dichotomy and enigma, unearthing clues about Carson’s childhood, early days in the business, and personal and professional life.

Watch American Masters: Johnny Carson on witf TV Saturday June 1 at 7:00pm and Saturday June 8 at 11:00am.

During the show, we'll be offering special Johnny Carson themed thank you gifts for your donation to witf.

  • Book: Backstage at the Tonight Show: From Johnny Carson to Jay Leno - $50.00
  • DVD: American Masters Johnny Carson King of Late Night - $65.00
  • DVD Set:  Tonight: 4 Decades of the Tonight Show 15 DVD Set -  $150.00
  • Combo: All of the above offers (Book, DVD, Box DVD Set) - $250.00

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Here is a clip from the show:

Watch Doc Severinsen on Johnny Carson on PBS. See more from Pioneers of Television.

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