May 2nd, 2012
Johnny Carson: King of Late Night
Interview with Filmmaker Peter Jones

What first got you interested in doing a film about Johnny Carson?

Johnny Carson was for many, many years arguably the most famous person in the United States. But what did we really know about him? He was so accessible to millions with a remarkably easygoing style yet he remained an elusive character. I took it as a challenge to break what I have called the Carson “veil of secrecy” and suggest clues as to who this man really was.

When did you first become aware of Johnny Carson?

Like so many of my generation, I first became aware of Johnny Carson on those rare nights when my parents allowed me to stay up late. It would have always been a Friday night, I’m nearly sure, because I would never have been allowed to stay up late on a “school night”. Then I remember watching Johnny ring in the New Year on The Tonight Show – I must have been eleven or twelve years old. It was a big deal to stay up and I remember somehow thinking that this guy was funny. He reached a kid which I later discovered was his great gift: he managed to reach out to young and old alike. It was an amazing achievement.

While making the film, did you learn anything that surprised you about Johnny Carson?

What surprised me most was how much his ex-wives still loved him. Though only Joanne Carson, who was his second wife, went on-camera for an interview, I managed to spend time with his third wife Joanna and his widow, Alex Carson. Johnny’s divorce from Joanna was very public and very acrimonious. Nevertheless, in later years, they rekindled their relationship very quietly. They spoke on the phone but didn’t tell people about it. I clearly got from my time with her that Joanna considered Johnny to be the love of her life. Though Johnny and his fourth wife Alex were living basically separate lives in his later years, they remained close. She never stopped caring about him and he never stopped caring about her.

Are there any interesting anecdotes about the filming or the interviewees?

Because we had finally received the cooperation of Johnny’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing, people felt comfortable speaking more openly about Johnny Cason in a way they had not before. Their candor was moving. I remember when I interviewed Drew Carey, all I said was, “Drew, please tell me the events leading up to and including your first appearance on The Tonight Show.” Well, Drew proceeded to talk for 51 straight minutes without stopping once! This was clearly one of the most impactful experiences of his life and he wanted to make sure I heard every detail. As you can see in the film, he became quite emotional talking about his appearance. As it happened, Ray Romano had his first appearance on The Tonight Show just a few weeks after Drew had his first appearance. They knew each other back then, and Ray called Drew after Ray did his set and left the message, “Thanks, Drew for taking all the laughs.” He was kidding because Ray did very well his first night on the show, too. But for all these guys, their first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was the beginning of their real careers.

Please describe your approach to the film.

From the very beginning, we wanted to find clues to Johnny’s character and his past from actual moments on The Tonight Show itself. Johnny revealed things about himself on the show that he felt uncomfortable sharing in his “real” life, if that makes any sense. Somehow, he could tell 15 million people things that were hard for him to communicate with even close friends. It’s what made him such a fascinating subject and we knew from the get-go that the key was the clips we pulled from The Tonight Show. The clips we pulled for our film were entertaining but we also wanted them to reveal something specific about him as a performer or as a person. The other priority was to rely on first-hand memories and reflections of those that were closest to him.

What were some of the obstacles in achieving your vision of the film?

Well, without the cooperation and participation of Carson Entertainment Group, there would have been no opportunity to have a vision! Johnny famously owned all existing episodes of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson from 1962-1992. The film we had in mind could never be made without unrestricted access to those shows. When that finally happened, well, that was our biggest obstacle. For that, I will be eternally grateful to his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, President of Carson Entertainment Group and basically the “keeper of the legacy”. Jeff had to take a leap of faith because he knew his uncle had never wanted to cooperate with any production on his life and career during his lifetime. I finally convinced him that even a figure as legendary as Johnny Carson would be forgotten if something were not done. I think that is what convinced him to take that leap of faith.

Please describe your background credits, how maybe they led to this film.

I have rarely said this but do you know I made documentaries on Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen in part to get Johnny Carson’s attention because I knew those were two idols of his? True. When Johnny finally called me after all those years of turning me down to tell me he appreciated the letters but he still wasn’t going to do anything, he made a point of telling me he also appreciated the films I had sent him through the years. Two of those, he mentioned by name, were Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen! In later years, we made films about two icons that had both appeared on Johnny’s Tonight Show – Judy Garland and Bette Davis. In fact, in our Judy Garland film, we used a clip of her last appearance on The Tonight Show before she died where she sang a song entitled, “It’s All For You” about a performer’s love of the audience. We licensed that clip with Johnny’s express permission back in 1996. Well, a short sixteen years later, we finally got to make a documentary about him and we made sure to show a shot of Judy Garland on The Tonight Show in our documentary – a little full-circle tribute to the long process of bringing this to fruition.

  • John J.Grimes

    I did not watch the interview with Peter but I would like to congratulate him on this magnificent editon of American Masters. To say I enjoyed it is simply not enough since it was one of the best I have seen.
    Well written, terrific interviews with many of his friends and admirers along with illuminating comments by two of his biographers.
    Those of us who remember him from his early days had no idea what his life was really like until we watched this incredible two hour presentation. I know what a fantastic piece of work Mr. Jones created since I had tears in my eyes at it’s conclusion. Thank you very much to all who contributed.

  • HowellFilm

    I just watched the Carson documentary on PBS. HOW can you produce a program about Johnny Carson w/o including the theme to the Tonight Show!?!?!?!? I don’t care how much the rights would’ve cost….you CAN’T do a show about Johnny WITHOUT USING HIS THEME SONG!!!! The program was naked without it.

  • bcinbergen

    It was like seeing an old friend after to much time apart.

  • Mark Pitta

    To HowellFilm,

    You might have left the room but the Theme song was played when the documentary transitioned from Parr to Carson 28 minutes into the program.

  • Mark Pitta

    To HowellFilm:

    The theme song was played 28 minutes into the documentary when the story transitioned from Parr to Carson.

  • Margo Morrison

    Wonderful show. Our family would say that we will stay up to watch Johnny’s monologue. That was always so very entertaining and a wonderful way to end the day. Learned more about Johnny’s many and diverse talents, and about his dedication reading constantly to keep a pulse on his audience. Thanks for a great show.

  • Evan Cummings

    It is my understanding that the documentary was limited because Johnny held all the rights including the theme song. Paul Anka composed the theme but sold the rights.

  • Dave Popovich

    What a great piece of work Peter, and to everyone involved with it, thank you! They say that radio can be a very intimate medium, and often it has been, but I think Johnny was incredibly intimate with every one of his viewers on TV too. In my opinion, you couldn’t help but feel or think that Johnny was talking directly to you, the viewer. I don’t think TV has had many moments like that, but Johnny Carson had the ability to do it. Johnny also had this not only great sense of humor, but was also able to be seductive on national television, without going overboard. I don’t know about anyone else, but I learned a lot about life from watching Johnny Carson, whether I knew it at the time or not. Thank you especially to Johnny’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing, for finally allowing this documentary to be made. Johnny should never ever be forgotten.

  • Bill Wright

    I think Garry Shandling said it best when he talked about “he didn’t mean that much to me…..and then I found out how much he meant to me”. I, too, didn’t know how much I would miss him until he was gone. Jay has done a good job trying to keep the standard high, but there’s only one Johnny Carson. A true gem.

  • Mark Garcia

    Great documentary. Thank you, Peter, for your persistence in getting it made before more memories were lost. I own the Best of Carson collection and whenever I watch the best of clips that span 3 decades, the changes in clothing styles, political jokes, guests, and topical news stories all serve as sign posts that remind me of what I was doing over the years as I grew up from a boy to a man. As a kid, I was luckier than most because my parents let us stay up on any day when we didn’t have school the next morning. We always loved watching Johnny, no matter who was on.

    I never tired of him and continued to watch him as I got older. Even when I was in college, he was still in fashion with the college crowd and my friends and I watched him a lot, but I wish I would have known how much I would miss him later when he retired. I would have watched even more. I thought he would always be there. He made it feel so comfortable and look so easy that I never knew how special he was. When he retired, it was never the same. And even now when I ask someone where they were his last night on the show, they all know; they were some place watching Johnny Carson, and the end of an era coming to pass.

  • Jim Donovan

    Thanks for letting us spend more time with our old dear friend, as we missed him so very much. Not surprised at all the emotions shown by his former guests, ex wife Joanna, and those who worked with him. The best extra was letting us see how well he lived, how gorgeous he surrounded himself with at home, and that yacht. Very sad seeing those episodes sit alone…

  • jank

    I use to adore Carson until I heard the blatant attempt to ridicule and dismantle. Jim Garrison on his show. Much of which was proven true (Garrisons claims of a JFK plot) which. Carson could have rectified well before his may 92 departure but chose not to which makes me think that.Carson himself knew the conspiracy was true and could even had known inside info and was trying to paint Garrison as a quack to the American people. Carson was extremely nervous that night, much out of character.and quite the asshole. Funny it’s not been brought up in documentaries. Wonder what Carson really knew because it was. Obvious to me Carson.was on the defensive and claimed. Numerous times it was a bipartisan interview when clearly it wasn’t or NBC. Would not have addressed it the next day due to all the backlash on Carson.

  • Kevin

    I will always thank the Carson and his staff for exposing me to as wide of a variety of entertainment as possible on TV. I saw comics, opera singers, blues singer, rockers and on and on. There was no where else to see so many different forms of entertainment. I had no idea at the time, but in retrospect, I can see clearly of how this influenced me. I will be forever indebted.

  • KarenBK

    thank you for this wondeful documentary. i was very young when i started watching his show on friday nights and the saturday night reruns, too. by the time i was in my teens i was a regular viewer during the summer. i learned so much from the show. when he had an author, i read the book. when i didn’t understand one of the jokes based on a newspaper article, i read the paper. i was introduced to some of the greatest artists, e.g., buddy rich, george burns, pearl bailey, and more than a few infamous people such as monty rock III, and the famous bird callers. there was never another show like it, and that is how it should be.

  • Gary Fruin

    Like millions of other “Baby Boomers”, I grew up watching Johnny Carson and have always been a huge fan. This documentary is absolutely the most definitive look at Johnny that I have ever seen. Very well done and very entertaining. Kudos to Peter Jones for his persistence!

  • Eugene Talley

    Someday we’ll play golf. And i am not a golfer.

  • Earle Sperber

    What about the mighty carson art players skits & his charactors??? They kept me in stiches !!! Jay could take a lesson from Jhonny,s playbook–he has become too lazy to continue the effort–I,ve become an sometimes viewer as a result

  • Susan Swartzberg

    Wonderful! Thank you!

  • Linda

    Could anyone tell me what the closing song at the end was? Something like who could ask for more, but can’t figure out who it’s by. Many thanks!

Salinger

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