American Masters Celebrates the King of the Night, Johnny Carson

A new documentary sheds light on the undisputed king of late night television

Credit: PBS

While more than 15 million viewers tuned in to see Johnny Carson every night, few new the man when the cameras turned off

Johnny Carson: King of Late Night tells the behind-the-scenes story of The Tonight Show host

As host of The Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992, Johnny Carson enjoyed an unprecdented 30-year run as the undisputed king of late-night television. Yet despite his massive audience — at one point exceeding 15 million viewers per night — Carson was an intensely private man whose off-camera life remains shrouded in mystery.

As The Simpsons exec producer Al Jean puts it, Carson is “the Citizen Kane of comedy . . . you knew a little about him but not very much, and you try to piece it together, but it’s still not the full picture.” 

Filmmaker Peter Jones attempts to rectify this in a new American Masters documentary, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, tracing Carson’s journey from small-town Nebraska to television icon. 

King of Late Night Interviews the Comedy Greats

Narrated by Kevin Spacey, the film boasts interviews with various comedians and Carson contemporaries, including Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Drew Carey, Arsenio Hall, Ray Romano, Bob Newhart, Garry Shandling and Don Rickles — and that’s just within the show’s first three minutes. 

Carson’s gift was his innate ease in front of a TV camera, making viewers feel comfortable and welcome, yet the image that emerges of the off-camera Carson is that of a socially awkward, thrice-divorced loner who had difficulty relating to others. 

Guests on The Tonight Show were often surprised by the way Carson could turn his personality on and off, his easygoing charm seemingly vanishing the second the camera’s red light went off. Funnyman Carl Reiner admits he found the off-camera Carson to be “standoffish and aloof,” and even Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen admits he was “often intimidated” by him. 

Who was Johnny Carson?

Professionally, Carson could be highly competitive, even cutthroat. Comic Joan Rivers — once Carson’s permanent guest host, later his sworn enemy when she dared launch her own competing talk show — describes her former mentor as a “tough, aggressive killer . . . that’s how he got to be Johnny Carson.” 

When Carson left The Tonight Show at age 66, many expected he’d return to the spotlight in some fashion, but he never did.

“Some people were saying, ‘Well, he’ll come back when he finds the right project,’ ” says Jones. “But when he was done on that last show, he was really done. He didn’t need any more adulation . . . once he was done with The Tonight Show, he really did just pack up and disappear.”