American Masters does Carson to biographical perfection - except for that masculinity thing

From Norman Rockwell and Leonard Bernstein to Baltimore's Cab Calloway, no one does biography like "American Masters" on PBS.

I've been reviewing these superb productions for all of the 26 seasons that "American Masters" has been on the air, and have written some variation of that line for at least 25 of them. And tonight's "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night" is one of the 10 greatest biographies this sublime series has delivered. Maybe one of the five best. But let's not quibble. It's simply superb and not to be missed at 9 tonight on MPT and WETA.


If you were one of the millions of Americans who ended each night with Carson and his "Tonight" show before turning in, you don't need me to try and explain him to you. The two-hour film is stacked with talking heads including David Letterman and Dick Cavett who do a superb job of that.

One of the voices gets it just about right when he explains that the nightly ritual of watching Carson's "Tonight" at the end of the day brought a kind of order and security to viewers in an increasingly complex and challenged America. The show is deftly described as having been a "bedtime story" for adults.

The greatness of this production by Peter Jones is in the way it explains both the man and the massive body of work he did with "Tonight Show," effortlessly moving back and forth and back and forth from person to persona, from text to how the show's were produced.

Jones pulls few punches on the man, at least to the extent that the remote Carson could be known. His drinking problems are explored, and he's described by more than one witness as a nasty drunk.

His emotional issues with women are also put out there without the biographer doing too much amateur psychoanalysis. Believe me, enough facts are presented and dots connected to see how the line from Carson's Nebraska childhood and denying mother runs straight through the comedian's four marriages and three divorces.

The short version: Mommy taught Johnny how to hold back on love lest he be found wanting and rejected again. There's enough here that each viewers can do his own psycho-job on Carson and compulsive sexual infidelity.

But, ultimately, the film is more about the show than the man. And that's as it should be. During his 30 years on the air, Carson created one of the greatest TV and pop cultural institutions in American history. Heck, NBC and Jay Leno are still feeding off the remains Carson left behind when he walked away from the show.

As the film correctly explains, NBC and Leno might still be using the "tonight Show" name, but the show-biz greatness ans cultural power of the production ended the night carson walked away.

And, yes, Bette Midler's unforgettable ona-ir farewell to carson is included -- and Jones edits and places it exactly where it belongs in this nearly flawless film.

I say nearly because I feel the film could and should have spent an extra beat or two on the way in which Carson defined masculinity for almost three decades ion American life. More than Frank Sinatra or Esquire magazine, he was an ideal of masculinity for millions of American men who didn't have a clue.

Culturally, I didn't think that was a good thing, but it was true and representative of the way in which white male hegemony dominated throught TV long after the woman's movement was supposed to have changed the nation.

Letterman is in the film saying Johnny Carson and his sidekick, Ed McMahon, essentially taught young men like him all they needed to know about being men.

Looking at Letterman, I rest my case about Johnny Carson not being the best male role model.

But what a great American master he was.