The thing that’s most striking about Johnny Carson’s papers is how little is actually there. The venerable talk show host, revered by millions for decades in a brand of stardom that may never be surpassed, died in 2005, but his life is more extensively documented in his papers than just about any living human is. The “Late Night” monologue and footage from the Olympics air over 140 times. Everything is there. But not much else.
The public has been given the rare chance to admire his papers online since 2012, and now they’re in print for the first time, courtesy of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation’s new Carson Archive Project. Taking up six high-resolution booklets in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the collection features nothing as pervasive and seductive as “The Tonight Show” monologue or “SNL” sketches, but rather a great deal of monologue reading, including excerpts from Orson Welles, Ray Bradbury, the Beatles, John Malkovich, Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand, Fess Parker, Tom Selleck, Mickey Rooney, Tom Hanks, Jason Alexander, and Johnny Carson himself. There are also personal essays, which provide snapshots of Carson and his rarefied, high-class upbringing and consciousness.