Here's Johnny – Again

TCM specials spotlighting classic "Tonight Show" interviews offer another chance to show why Carson was king

By Jere Hester
|  Monday, Jul 8, 2013  |  Updated 4:21 PM EDT
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In this 1992 file photo, host Johnny Carson is shown on "The Tonight Show" for his final broadcast in Burbank, Calif. Johnny Carson is featured in a series of TCM specials.

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Before filling in for Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” last month, John Oliver admitted to anxiety dreams – not about getting laughs, but about chatting with guests.

His nightmares included "trying to think of an interesting question for Salma Hayek. If it was a Salma Hayek dream, that may have actually led in a different direction," Oliver told Entertainment Weekly. 

Oliver's doing fine so far on all "Daily Show" fronts. But his concern, wrapped in a one-liner, underscores perhaps the most delicate and difficult art of the late night TV comedy game: the interview.
 
Audiences and hosts alike have a chance to see the best in action this month, thanks to a TCM series of specials spotlighting classic celebrity sitdowns with Johnny Carson, whose late-night kingdom was built as much on strong guest interviews as on laugh-getting monologues and bits like Carnac the Magnificent.
 
The five shows, featuring conversations with the likes of a seven-year-old Drew Barrymore, a pre-presidential Ronald Reagan and a twilight-years Bette Davis, provide reminders of why Carson remains a vaunted figure more than two decades after his final "Tonight Show" signoff and eight years after his death. The specials also offer an appropriate introduction to the late night legend for those who think the name “Carson” only signifies a stuffy British butler.
 
Johnny Carson, as an interviewer, proved anything but stuffy during his 30-year run – he had much to say, but was a great listener. Few were wittier but he possessed enough confidence to play straight man to comics like Robin Williams, George Burns and Mel Brooks, all featured in the specials.
 
The TCM mini-series, to be broadcast over the five Mondays of July, is hosted by Conan O’Brien, who is among the few to sit in the “Tonight Show” hot seat. O’Brien, who has hosted three shows over 20 years, took a while to effectively use his self-effacing humor in the service of interviewing guests. Interviewing proved a particularly difficult skill to master for Carson's choice of successor, David Letterman, who famously sparked foul-mouthed clashes with Cher and Madonna. Letterman eventually became a welcoming and comfortable inquisitor, but admitted recently that an awkward and "awful" 2010 interview with taciturn Robert DeNiro bedeviled him.
 
Carson never let you see him sweat – he was a gracious host who made celebrities and TV audiences alike feel like guests at his after-hours party. It’s a party worth revisiting, or joining for the first time. Check out a clip below:

 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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