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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Best of The Tonight Show - King of Late Night
The Best of The Tonight Show - King of Late Night
R2 Entertainment // Unrated // June 5, 2007
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Phil Bacharach | posted June 1, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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The Show:

Allow me to get nostalgic for a moment and just say that, for me and many others of my generation (that DMZ between baby boomers and generation X), The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson is television comfort food.

Growing up in the late Seventies, I officially knew that I had tempted the gods and stayed up too late whenever I heard Ed McMahon's familiar "Heeeere's Johnnnny!" booming from the Zenith set in the family room. There was an irresistibly conspiratorial sense to it all. When Carson sauntered out on stage from behind that huge multicolored curtain, I felt like I had crept into the forbidden land of grownups, where everyone was spry and funny and sophisticated and cool.

There are glimmers of nostalgic wonder to be had from The Best of the Tonight Show: The King of Late Night, a two-disc set that ostensibly pays tribute to Johnny Carson's 30-year reign on The Tonight Show. Alas, this unimaginatively assembled package barely captures the charisma that made Johnny an American treasure. The four shows included here make for a pleasant stroll down memory lane, but the uninitiated might wonder what the fuss was all about.

Each disc features two shows, which are described below:

Disc One

Johnny's Animal Hijinks, Vol. 1

This 30-minute program showcases Johnny's various interactions with the animal kingdom. Visits from zoologists Jim Fowler and Joan Embry usually meant Tonight Show gold, with the appearances following a pattern that has since been copied (with less success) by Leno and Letterman. The critter, having been let loose on Johnny's desk, would typically latch onto the unflappable talk-show host's clothing or person. Johnny's expression would belie surprise and then genial fear, and he would cap things with a perfect deadpan look.

The routine served him well, as evidenced in Animal Hijinks. The menagerie includes a tarantula, Siberian tiger, bear, sea lion, sloth, baby wolves and an aardvark relieving itself in a sandbox. Good stuff.

Tonight Show Memories

This 30-minute best-of show is a brisk overview of Johnny's Tonight Show years, beginning with his debut in October of 1962. Many of the most legendary bits are included, from Ed Ames' moil-approved tomahawk throw to Carnac the Magnificent and an array of flubbed skits that managed to be all the funnier because they tanked. It's also a kick to glimpse a very young George Carlin and Roseanne Barr. Even so, the clips fail to register much beyond the level of infomercial.

Disc Two

Return to Studio One

This celebrated March 6, 1969, episode (38:37) was preserved on film because it was broadcast to armed forces overseas. It's a doozy of a show, featuring Judy Carne (the "Sock it to me" girl from TV's Laugh-In), Bob Hope, Dean Martin, George Gobel, Robert Wagner, Carol Wayne and a rollicking "drum-off" between Buddy Rich and Louis Belson.

This is easily the best thing on The Best of the Tonight Show: The King of Late Night, a time capsule of the freewheelin' Sixties and an example of Johnny Carson at his best. The episode captures that era's particular brand of naughtiness, with the scantily clad Carne practically getting mauled by Martin and Gobel.

There's a definite ring-a-ding-ding vibe here. Dino, a cigarette dangling between his fingers, is either drunk or a damn fine actor. And Gobel, whom this reviewer primarily knew as a regular on The Hollywood Squares, is actually hilarious. Referring to his diminished celebrity beside that of Dean Martin and Bob Hope, Lonesome George muses: "Do you ever get the feeling that the world is a tuxedo and you're a pair of brown shoes?"

The Final Show: America Says Farewell

It's a milestone episode, but Johnny's swan song on May 22, 1992, isn't essential viewing. The show includes best-of clips, a behind-the-scenes vignette, a montage of guests and a genuinely choked-up Carson saying goodbye to his audience. The result is a moving piece of boob-tube history, but it has nothing to do with what made Johnny Carson the true king of late night.

The DVD

The Video:

Presented in its original 1.33:1, three of the four episodes are exceedingly well-preserved, boasting a reasonably sharp picture and no discernible defects. Return to Studio One's soft, somewhat fuzzy quality is the lone exception -- but we're lucky to have it.

The Audio:

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is crisp throughout with the exception, again, being Return to Studio One and its muffled audio.

Extras:

None.

Final Thoughts:

The Best of the Tonight Show: The King of Late Night is a mixed bag. Animal Hijinks and Return to Studio One are entertaining and nostalgic fun, but Johnny Carson fans are likely to be disappointed with the other featured programs. Oh, well. When the only Carson you'll find on NBC these days is a why-the-hell-is-he-famous Carson Daly, a little Johnny is better than none at all.

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