Maybe they're saving all the good stuff for Volume 2. Whatever the reason, The Best of Carson, Volume 1 is a truly baffling three-disc set of badly organized miscellanea from The Tonight Show (Starring Johnny Carson) that never once plays anything like a "Best Of" collection. In the end Johnny's much-missed classiness wins out, but only just. At $39.99 retail, it's also pricey given that the three discs offer barely four hours of mostly indifferent material.
For those too young to remember, The Tonight Show (Starring Johnny Carson) was the third incarnation of NBC's late-night talk/variety series that began in 1953 as Tonight and initially was hosted by Steve Allen. The late, great Jack Paar took the reigns from 1957-62, and after a series of temporary hosts following Paar's departure, former game show host and semi-pro magician Johnny Carson took over beginning on October 1, 1962 and remained the undisputed King of Late Night Television until he retired not quite three decades later, on May 22, 1992.
Iowa-born, Nebraska-raised Carson had a middle-America charm that connected with audiences like no talk show host before or since. He wasn't as laugh-out-loud funny as Allen could be, nor was he as acerbically witty as Paar, but on The Tonight Show Carson was accessible in a way his predecessors and disciples like David Letterman and Jay Leno never were. Audiences felt they knew Johnny, and this is apparent in excerpts with non-celebrity guests who'd come on the show and greet the host with the familiarity of a next-door neighbor. It was an intimacy that led to countless double-entendres about women spending their late-nights "in bed" with Johnny Carson. And it was one of the medium's great ironies that off-camera Carson was a deeply private man who rarely associated with his Tonight Show staff. After he retired, he became a virtual recluse in the years before his death in January 2005, and even though he was 79 and had been in poor health for several years, America was shocked just the same. A world without Johnny Carson? Impossible.
Unlike Paar and Letterman, there was never an edginess to Carson's persona. His style was neither intellectual nor low-brow, though he was unfailingly polite to his guests. He idolized radio and television comedian Jack Benny, and like Benny part of Carson's greatness was his willingness to indulge his guests. Comedians were allowed to run rampant and he'd step back into the shadows when musicians (or Vaudevillian-types or circus performers) were on, and he was generous with his praise. Indeed, praise from Carson was the Holy Grail of every stand-up comedian in America. And though his popular characters (like Carnac the Magnificent) were funny enough, many becoming icons in their own right, like Benny Carson's greatest gift as a comedian was as a reactor. He was a superb ad-libber who knew how to feed comedians straight lines and often hilarious reactions*, and was never better than responding with fear, amusement, and bewilderment to the menagerie of exotic animals brought to the show by zoologist and frequent guest Jim Fowler.
Carson's great charm comes through The Best of Carson, Volume 1, this despite the fact that the set is organized in little chunks of shows seemingly selected at random: an entire sketch here, part of a monologue there (with amusing anachronistic references to nearly-forgotten pieces of America pop culture like the Tidy Bowl Man), visits by various celebrity and non-celebrity guests. None of this is grouped any particular way. It's not chronological nor are clips thematically linked (by stand-up performances, musical guests, etc.), and instead of a "Best Of"-type collage or a carefully selected sampling of The Tonight Show's essence, one instead gets the impression of channel-surfing, stumbling across ten minutes of one show here, six minutes of another average show there.
Part of the reason for this is the curious dearth of top-drawer celebrities and the almost complete absence of musical guests. While it's true that most of The Tonight Show tapes from when the show was based in New York were stupidly degaussed and lost forever, big stars are nonetheless conspicuously absent from The Best of Carson. Instead, the three discs consist mainly of second-tier talent like Rodney Dangerfield and Super Dave Osborne, non-celebrity types like the woman who plays the flute with her nose, and Chinese acrobats. The show's signature theme is heard only peripherally.
All this suggests the Carson Productions and/or R2 Entertainment were perhaps skittish about home video rights issues concerning the bigger names, and likely avoided musical guests because of the licensing costs involved. Menu screens are notably unhelpful, while the packaging for the set is as sloppy as Alpha Video's Merv Griffin set, with misspelled names (Groucho Marks) and the like.
Video & Audio
The Best of Carson is presented in its original full frame format sourcing video technology from the 1960s through the early-1980s, and looks about as good as you'd expect it to. The English mono audio is fine for what it is (from about the mid-1980s the show was in stereo, however), and is not subtitled.
One supplement preserved on film is Return to Studio One, an episode from 1969 preserved on film because it was sent out to U.S. Armed Forces serving abroad. This heavily edited show features Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Judy Carne (from Laugh-In, and George Gobel. Tonight Show Memories is a too-short (28 minutes) montage of clips nevertheless superior to the main attraction, though it flies by so fast punch lines are delivered without set-ups, and Jimmy Stewart's amusing poem about "Lake Baringo" is abridged to the point of meaninglessness. The final extra is a fairly extensive Photo Gallery with lots of great guests not in the set (John Wayne, Madonna, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire on the same show).** Though guests and airdates on the main collection of clips are helpfully identified, the photos are not, begging the question: Will viewers even recognize Rudy Vallee?
It's too bad that of the talk show compilations released to DVD so far (Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett) The Best of Carson, Volume 1 should be the weakest by far. It's overpriced and badly organized, though fans of the series might feel pangs of nostalgia compelling enough to Rent It.
* Johnny's most-famous ad-lib is in fact an urban legend, but so close to Carson's style many refuse to believe it didn't happen. Supposedly Zsa Zsa Gabor once appeared on the show with her white Persian kitty cat in tow. Noting Carson's bemused reaction to this uninvited guest, Zsa Zsa reportedly asked him, "Would you like to pet my pussy?" To which Carson is said to have replied, "I will if you get that damn cat off your lap!"
**Included is a still of Jonathan Winters from one of the very last Tonight Shows prior to Johnny's retirement, a taping this reviewer got to attend. How was I able to secure a ticket? It was the week of 1992 Los Angeles Riot (following the infamous Rodney King verdict), and the out-of-town tourists that usually filled the show's Burbank studio were in short supply. It was a great show.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.