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Johnny Carson’s highs and lows topic of PBS special

Johnny Carsvalued loyalty professionally but was anything but loyal his wives.

Johnny Carson valued loyalty professionally but was anything but loyal to his wives.

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Updated: June 14, 2012 8:12AM

PASADENA, Calif. — A PBS “American Masters” biography of Johnny Carson (9 p.m. Monday, WTTW-Channel 11) paints a portrait of the comedian as a man of contradictions: He valued loyalty among friends and co-workers yet exhibited rampantly disloyal behavior in his marriages.

Carson was a product of an Iowa and Nebraska upbringing who used his Midwestern wholesomeness as cover when he’d make an innuendo-filled joke.

And he grew up as a self-professed shy child who found that performing allowed him to be in control, boosting his self-confidence. (“You can be the center of attention without being yourself as such,” Carson told actress Bea Arthur during an episode of “The Tonight Show.”)

While it may be an obvious observation to those who grew up with Carson’s “Tonight Show,” the show is a much-needed reminder:
It was 20 years ago this month that Carson stepped down as host; a new generation of TV viewers and pop-culture consumers have grown up in a world where they know Carson only as a historical figure.

“Johnny Carson: King of Late Night” delves into the psychology of Carson’s relationship with his mother, who didn’t like boys and was the host’s frequent critic. After watching an episode with a reporter working on a story about her son, Ruth Carson said, “That wasn’t funny.”

“His whole life, his relationship with women was really defined, I think, by that principal relationship or lack of relationship he had with his mother, because none of the marriages ever worked,” writer-director Pete Jones said. “

The program offers plenty of opportunities to glimpse a young Carson at work, but a significant chunk of “Tonight Show” history has been lost.

“NBC taped over the prior night’s episode because tape was very expensive, $500, and they didn’t want to save the shows, and Johnny only found out about this in 1972 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of ‘The Tonight Show,’ “ explained Jones. “They wanted to do a greatest-moments kind of anthology show, and there was nothing but kinescopes that fans made or collectors made. So the first 10 years of ‘The Tonight Show’ virtually do not exist.”

Scripps Howard

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