Carson Legend Included Cutthroat Ways; Obesity: TV Review

Johnny Carson
Johnny Carson hosts "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." The TV profile "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night" airs Monday on PBS's "American Masters" at 9 p.m. Source: The Carson Entertainment Group via Bloomberg

Master of the quip, maker of careers, mean drunk, frequent philanderer and TV legend: Heeeere’s Johnny.

“Johnny Carson: King of Late Night” is an appreciative if pointed “American Masters” entry, crammed with archival footage, “Tonight Show” clips and testimonials, complimentary and otherwise, from acolytes and arm’s-length friends (the only type Carson seemed to have).

Carson replaced Jack Paar in 1962, and at least through the ’70s “Tonight” was the only party worth watching consistently. His banter with cigarette smoking guests gave mainstream America a watered-down sip of Playboy Club sophistication.

If the final decade was formulaic and predictable, “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” remains revered by TV’s Conans and Fallons.

And they all pop up on “King of Late Night.” David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno, Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles and Bob Newhart, among others, sing Carson’s praises.

Steve Martin, getting to the point, simply calls him “the best.”

Off screen, Carson was harder to love.

“He was a tough, aggressive killer,” says Joan Rivers, who incurred Carson’s ire when she traded her gig as his permanent guest host for her own rival program.

Natural Reticence

Friends without axes are more sympathetic, recalling a man whose natural reticence grew in direct proportion to his fame. Bandleader Doc Severinsen gets choked up recalling Carson’s last days, even though he was often “intimidated” by his standoffish boss.

With unprecedented access to Carson’s archives and “Tonight Show” tapes, filmmaker Peter Jones compiles the most comprehensive Carson documentary to date. The monologue fodder -- four marriages, network feuds, business rifts -- is well covered and footage from Carson’s early career is charming.

But much of “King of Late Night” seems familiar and handed-down. Just once I’d like to hear a comic admit that Carson’s “okay” gesture was more routine than rarity, that his vaunted laugh often seemed forced, and that Aunt Blabby was never, ever funny.

“Johnny Carson: King of Late Night” airs tonight on PBS at 9 p.m. Rating: **1/2

‘Weight of the Nation’

HBO’s four-part “The Weight of the Nation” should scare the soda out of you.

Running nearly five hours over two nights, it’s the centerpiece of an obesity awareness campaign sponsored by HBO and the Institute of Medicine, in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

Does that sound like a heaping dose of spinach? Certainly “Weight of the Nation” can feel like a public service announcement bloated with statistics and “Biggest Loser” profiles. The first two installments, which provide an overview of obesity and its health risks, can be particularly tiring.

There’s a payoff, however, in the final two episodes, which take a harder-hitting approach to the link between childhood obesity, government farming subsidies and, in the words of one industry expert, “powerful, pernicious and predatory” junk food marketing.

“The Weight of the Nation” airs tonight and tomorrow on HBO at 8 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

**** Excellent
*** Good
** Average
* Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Today’s Muse highlights include Lance Esplund on art and Elin McCoy on wine.

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