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"Heeeere's Johnny!" The indisputable king of late-night television once was and still is Johnny Carson. NBC's The Tonight Show drew ratings that, when adjusted for population growth, dwarf those of his successors. Carson ruled the midnight airwaves for thirty years, but because he retired in 1992 many people have seen him only in brief clips. Much more than just a comedian or a talk show host, he was a fixture in American life, a close family member.
The Carson Entertainment Group has begun the release of a DVD series of uncut Johnny Carson Tonight Shows, commercials and all, just as broadcast. The only thing missing are local TV spots and station IDs. Nothing has been removed. We see the show's vintage graphics (simple art cards) and the occasional errant microphone or crewmember in the shot. Carson tried to be discreet about his chain smoking but we sometimes catch him with a cigarette in his hand. The uncut format also allows us to marvel at the terrible live commercials performed by Johnny's announcer and loyal sidekick Ed McMahon, and the show's bandleader Doc Severinsen.
Carson was famed for his comedy skit characters "Carnac the Magnificent" and the terrible afternoon movie host "Art Fern". His opening monologues were packed with recurring gags and joking byplay with McMahon and Severinsen, a format that has remained standard for later nighttime hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman.
The disc The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series Volume 1 contains two full shows and a Bonus Clip from 1972, all taped shortly after Carson & Co. relocated from New York to NBC Burbank. The first episode is a commemorative 10th Anniversary episode from October 2, taped in a different studio and dropping the usual show format. Carson isn't even sitting behind a desk, and jokes that he's not sure what to do with his legs.
Johnny's first anniversary guest is then- California governor Ronald Reagan, who is at his most friendly and charming. Originally a radio and sports announcer, Reagan is completely at ease offering a series of friendly jokes with his congratulations. He then reads a note from President Nixon. This was only a few days before the FBI established that Nixon's re-election team coordinated the Watergate break-in. After Reagan departs, Ed McMahon suggests that Carson run for political office as well. Escorting each new guest onto the stage is the smiling starlet Carol Wayne, in a glittering tight dress. Ms. Wayne served as the "shapely" female assistant for various Carson comedy skits.
Jack Benny arrives next, and presents an interesting challenge. He does his usual pinchpenny act ("I took the bus!") but seems slightly uncomfortable. Johnny spends most of his effort praising him. By contrast, Joey Bishop is all charm. As a frequent guest host, Bishop calculates that this is actually Carson's 6th anniversary on the show, and Bishop's fourth. The only time Bishop seems taken aback is when he speaks up to ask Benny not to blow cigar smoke in his direction. Benny keeps on doing it.
Insult comedian Don Rickles brings the exact right tone to the gathering. His remarks are more endearing than grating. Holding back on his edgier attacks, he offers a heartfelt expression of gratitude to Carson, who helped launch Rickles' career with frequent bookings on the show.
The great George Burns is given a big welcome, but he and Jack Benny disrupt the proceedings somewhat with a long-standing personal feud, as if they were still competing for Top Banana bragging rights. Carson and the other guests defuse the tension, only for Burns or Benny to stand up and pull attention to themselves. Interestingly, the arrival of Jerry Lewis, who we might expect to have ego issues of his own, is what calms the waters. Lewis tries out his squeaky nerd voice for a couple of lines and then presents the picture of graciousness, praising Carson and receiving praise for his own charity work without hogging the spotlight. Lewis fans will note that he talks about completing a "new movie" in Sweden, which may be his never-screened, legendary Holocaust film The Day the Clown Cried.
The show finishes with the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, who do a standard routine and then conduct a Presidential poll with the audience: George McGovern or Richard Nixon? The group then welcomes singer Dinah Shore, who makes a bright impression even though she doesn't get her fair share of time. The anniversary show lets us appreciate Johnny Carson's talents as a host, as few people could keep the show-biz egos gathered here on their best behavior. Well, almost best.
The second show on the disc is another all-star gathering from September 19, just a week before. This setup uses the familiar desk-and-sofas that became the standard item for all talk shows. Johnny does a full opening monologue, while Ed McMahon earns his keep selling Alpo Dog Food and telling us to get excited over National Bake A Chicken Week. He and Doc Severinsen also tout for the AMC Hornet, one of the most miserable cars of the 1970s.
Up first and too big to sit with the other guests is Bob Hope. A genuine legend, Hope lets his presence do the entertaining and tells Johnny about his busy schedule: "This is my first day off in a month." Hope takes applause honoring his charity work appearing at benefits but then mutters, "...as long as they pay." Hope was perhaps booked for this night because he wasn't going to be available for Johnny's anniversary show. He shows a reel of clips from his latest comedy feature, probably Cancel My Reservation.
Johnny's other guests are delightful. Comedian Dom Deluise is utterly charming, directing his jokes and goodwill at Johnny, Ed and the audience as well. He also seems impossibly thin at this young age. Singer John Denver addresses Carson as "Sir", as if he wants to be an ambassador for longhaired youth. Denver tells us that the NBC producers talked him out of singing a controversial song, but the one he does sing has lyrics about 'bringing the boys back home', presumably from Vietnam.
The strangely tall and thin Peter Fonda is all smiles. We witness the odd moment when he compares himself with the evangelist Billy Graham, as they're both filmmakers. Fonda does mention that his own movie efforts since Easy Rider have been having problems.
Throughout both shows Johnny Carson is casual and relaxed, yet he's always prepared with an appropriate comment. He somehow juggles those competitive comedians without using an umpire's whistle. It's clear that most guests want to be on their best behavior out of general respect. The key to Carson's appeal must be his self-confidence. His improvised quips are never mean-spirited or calculated to draw attention to himself.
Perhaps aware that these all-star shows lack the kind of eccentric guests that were Carson's nightly fare, the Vault Series Volume 1 has a bonus skit in which Carson's guest is Peaches Jones, an attractive stuntwoman. Jones performs two judo flips on Johnny, who seems game for more. McMahon: "I don't think the camera got that one, let's do it again." Jones then does a high fall from a platform up in the studio rigging. Future Tonight Show volumes will presumably feature Carson performing his cornball comic skits and interactions with wild animals and the occasional erratic guest.
The Carson Entertainment Group's DVD of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series Volume 1 is a good-looking color encoding of a show recorded on 2" videotape of the era. Most of the first decade of the show was reportedly thrown away (!), which may explain why the series begins with episodes from 1972. The image is excellent, even if some white shirts 'bloom' a bit in a few shots. Most of the TV commercials have weak hues, but viewers that remember color TV from 1972 know well that most home reception looked no better than what we see here. Johnny Carson fans, and fans of the famous guests on these two broadcasts, will be pleased. They're like a time machine: everybody looks so young!.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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