Welcome to BlissVille, Misadventures in BlissVille, and tonight we’re discussing Johnny Carson, the “King of Late Night”. Andrew asked me to watch the American Masters documentary about Johnny Carson, produced by PBS for Channel 13, here in New York City. It’s a very well-made documentary narrated by the actor Kevin Spacey.
This was a different time, perhaps a stranger time that young people may not be able to understand, or grasp, where a performer had to work very hard to make money. I remember reading an article, I think it was an interview in Life Magazine with Johnny Carson, and the article made reference to Carson starting out as a magician, really quite a talented magician. The documentary makes great play at showing the first book he bought, which was about card tricks and magic. You ever see the magician who got on the train the City every now and then? He would whistle to get everybody’s attention. Most New Yorkers keep their heads down, try not to make an eye contact, but this guy would come in – he had a big, funny hat, he wore a little cape and a tuxedo, and he had a big suitcase, from which would emerge some pretty awesome tricks. He would conjure birds from inside his hat, from up his sleeve. People always want to know how you can accomplish those tricks, and that spoils the fun for me. I don’t want to know how they do what they do.
The article didn’t do much to shed light on Carson’s personal life, and this documentary takes a brave stab at it, but it essentially tells the same story – Carson’s mother appeared to be a dominating, judgmental presence in his life, and he did everything he could to please her, but she remained completely unimpressed throughout his life – even to becoming the King of Late Night. He married four times, had children. One item I was not familiar with was Carson’s drinking problem, and I think we all sort of figured that Ed McMahon was the drunkard of the two. Imagine my surprise when I find he was sober through most of the shows, for 30 years even!
This is the end of our “William Shatner Letter Exchange” series of BlissVille episodes, and it has been incredible fun! In a little under two weeks, we go back to a Shatner-less version of BlissVille. We’ll talk the Monkees with Denny Spangler and Bronwyn Knox, and KISS with Mark Jeacoma! After that, a well-earned Winter’s break and “The Twilight Zone”!