Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pete on Pop #6: Carson Follow-Up (With a Touch of Lucy)



Here's the American Masters special on Johnny Carson, a guy who worked for years and years before he earned anything approaching $20 million (see latest tweet).

PBS did a good job with this, even if some portions are generalized and some aspects of his career are less than critically examined and the gifts of other talk-show hosts tend to be marginalized in the process of crowning Carson "da King." But there's only so much one can accomplish in two hours, and the production values on these specials are always incredible.

The interviews alone (not to mention the clips) are worth a viewing. And by interviews, I mean the excerpts of Carson being interviewed. That was the greatest discovery in this doc, for me, anyway. I didn't realize that, on many occasions, he was surprisingly candid about himself...




I remember years ago, American Masters did a decent documentary on Lucille Ball, but chose to focus on I Love Lucy for the majority of the two hours, then basically dismissed her later work with a clip of director Marc Daniels saying that the scripts weren't very good. (Daniels was probably referring to Life with Lucy, but the producers edited it in such a way to lead the viewer to believe that from 1961 on, Daniels was saying Lucy's work sucked.) As a Lucy connoisseur, I couldn't disagree more. There's a lot to love about The Lucy Show, especially the first few years, and a lot to love about Here's Lucy, especially the cast (Lucy, Lucie Arnaz, Desi Arnaz, Jr., and the inestimable Gale Gordon). Was either series as consistently excellent as I Love Lucy? No. But that shouldn't diminish them, because most TV series aren't as consistently excellent as I Love Lucy.

So, you have to watch these docs with an open mind to the editing, the condensing, etc. Most of them are a good starting point for discovering a topic or a subject, but if you really want to learn about that topic or subject in depth, you need to read a book. In the case of Lucy, I would recommend Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and The Lucy Book: A Complete Guide to Her Five Decades on Television.

In the case of Johnny, I would tentatively recommend King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson. Tentatively because I'm currently  reading it and only on Chapter Two, so I'll let you know if the "tentative" becomes "glowing."

As far as this special goes, Evanier has a good review of it here, and Ken Tucker over at Entertainment Weekly gives a different, less effusive take on Johnny. Tucker makes some interesting points, but mainly I think he's just trying to "stir the shit," as it were.

I wish writers (myself included) could grasp that critically examining something doesn't mean diminishing that "something" in the process. Carson's work and his accomplishments are breathtaking, and his television presence will never be equaled. Psychologically, he knew how to do TV; he knew what the medium demanded.

Allen and Paar experimented with the medium, showing its limitless possibilities, but I'm not sure they ever "grasped" that at the end of the broadcast day, TV will always be a "medium." You can take it to a higher or a lower level, but it will never stay at that level. It will settle back down (or up) to what is comfortable for the viewing public. How else do you explain the numerous incredibly gifted talk-show hosts who competed against Johnny, sometimes beating him for a time, but always being beaten in the end?

Maybe the greatest secret to Carson's brilliance was "silence." The documentary covered this. Carson knew how to be quiet and unobtrusive, something he learned from Jack Benny. Jack knew that a star still shone brightly even when it wasn't the focal point in the sky and even when it was surrounded by other stars of equal or greater magnitude. In other words, he could still be a star and let others shine.

Carson "got" this. There are numerous clips online where Johnny barely says anything. The guest is doing the entertaining. Carson, like us, listens and laughs. He is as much the audience as he is the host.

And, of course, like Jack, his instincts and his timing combined were impeccable.

Speaking of Allen and Paar, the Carson special marks the second documentary PBS has done on a late-night talk-show host. Previously, there was one on Jack Paar (another favorite of mine). Now, I think they need to complete the trifecta by producing one on Steve Allen. And as a bonus, they should throw in a special on Dick Cavett.

Then, after that, they really need to look into Stan Freberg...

Too much? ;-)

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