The King’s Speech
PBS documentary chronicles late-night comedy colossus Johnny Carson’s career, offering a few new insights
By Michael Shashoua / Jester editor-in-chief
The 2-hour PBS American Masters special documenting the career of Johnny Carson, airing starting May 14 on PBS stations, is as elegant as the man himself. “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night” serves as a good reminder to comedy fans, comedy nerds or comedy scholars, of just how much Carson pioneered in television, particularly in late night and comedy.
So many of the clips used in the special feature Carson delivering transgressive remarks or punchlines with the greatest of ease and accessibility. This documentary is enhanced by narration from Kevin Spacey, which like its subject, conveys the appropriate amount of reverence while still sounding lively and mischievous.
“King of Late Night” is comprehensive about Carson’s life, and the ambitions and outlook that drove him in his career success, and sometimes to personal failings, such as divorces and abusing alcohol. The documentary also contains a generous helping of all current and former NBC late-night hosts (Letterman, Leno, O’Brien and Fallon) paying homage to Carson by describing his impact and influence, and in some cases, their personal relationships with him.
Especially poignant, and where viewers really get previously unknown parts of Carson’s life, is the documentary’s treatment of Carson’s post-retirement years in semi-seclusion in Malibu, Calif., until his death at age 79 in 2005, from cancer caused by years of smoking. Until then, it seems like Carson had many good years lounging poolside, enjoying his well-earned solitude. The documentary provides flashes of Carson’s solitary loner tendencies, even at the height of his fame, and alludes to how the stern character of his mother affected him well into his successful years.
Like its subject, “King of Late Night” is smooth, authoritative and amusing. Also like Carson himself, the documentary leaves an air of mystery, only pausing at one point to suggest what his “Rosebud” might be.
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© 2005-2017 Michael Shashoua