Tonight: Four Decades of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson review, Tonight DVD
Starring
Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon,
Doc Severinsen
Director
Various
Tonight: 4 Decades of
The Tonight Show
with Johnny Carson

Reviewed by Ross Ruediger

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ifting through the elaborate contents of this box set revealed something important about Johnny Carson: he never changed. Onscreen, Carson was the same guy in the ‘60s that he was when he retired in the ‘90s. You need look no further than this set to see what David Letterman (who makes several appearances on here) was like back in the ‘80s – quirky and amiable – versus the grumpy old man he is today. Some have claimed that Carson wasn’t a particularly nice man when he wasn’t in front of a camera, but you’d never guess that watching him on TV, which is why it’s probably a difficult notion for many people to swallow. Carson was a reliably relaxed presence that people could unwind with at the end of a long, tiring day. He came out on that stage, sat behind that desk, and made his job look so damn easy – and America loved him for it.

None of this is to say that his act was perfect. Another thing that quickly becomes apparent after watching a few of these episodes – most of his jokes were really corny and haven’t aged well. But I don’t think that’s something to hold against him or this set. Anybody who watches any amount of current late night talk shows (most of which owe a huge debt to Carson) knows that these programs are created to exist in the moment. To go back and criticize this kind of material 30 years after the fact does it a grave disservice and really kind of misses the point of what it’s all about. While much of his written material may not stand the test of time, what still works today are the moments in which he’s forced to improvise, usually due to situations involving guests or animals or whatever. In those moments, he shines brighter than just about any talk show host to have ever resided inside the boob tube.

While this set is billed as “4 Decades…,” that’s slightly misleading. Yes, it does cover four decades, but there’s only one episode on here from the ‘60s (featuring Woody Allen and the Muppets on New Year’s Eve, 1965) and only two episodes from the ‘90s. The reason for the lack of ‘60s material is apparent when you watch the episode from ‘65 – clearly the tapes from that time are not in the best of shape, and frankly it wouldn’t have been fun to sit through hours of subpar audio and video. As far as the ‘90s go, well, Carson retired in ’92, so of course there isn’t going to be much from that decade. So that means the bulk of the set is comprised of material from the ‘70s and ‘80s, which really were the decades in which Carson’s star shone the brightest anyway, so there’s really no reason to complain.

But hardcore fans will likely complain anyway, because all of the episodes are edited, and most run between 25 and 35 minutes. Again, though, I return to the “TV of the moment” notion. Late night talk shows are not created to be genius from start to finish. There’s always filler along the way, or guest shots that don’t work out so well, or musical performances that aren’t up to par. This set offers up some pretty choice material, and once you watch the whole thing you’ll see that what’s offered here and the manner in which it’s presented was a smart way to go about it. Occasionally, the audio isn’t up to par, or the video flutters, but it seems unlikely when this stuff was taped and archived that anyone ever thought of its future value in the home video market. All things considered, it looks and sounds pretty damn good for what it is.

So what’s on here? Jeez. What isn’t? If you knew nothing about Johnny Carson prior to watching this, you’d know far more about him and his show than most people can remember after you’re finished with it. 56 episodes are represented across 14 discs and pretty much every aspect of his version of “The Tonight Show” (at least as far as I can recall) is presented at some point or another. Each episode begins with Johnny’s monologue. It’s in the monologue where much of the material falls flat, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re brief looks back into different times, chronicling the passing years with commentary on pop culture, politics and more. Hell, many of the references are so obscure by today’s standards that in order to keep up you’ve got to hit pause and run to Wikipedia. Then again, many are not. In one show from ’77, Johnny walks out and asks the audience, “How many of you are here because you couldn’t get a ticket to ‘Star Wars’?”

The guest list is long, and it’s the real reason to buy this set, as Johnny was a class interviewer and made people feel at home. There are stars like Burt Reynolds, Robert Blake, Carol Burnett, Bill Cosby, Chevy Chase, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin – the list could go on and on. In some instances, we’re seeing comedians getting their first shot on “The Tonight Show.” Bill Maher shows up in an episode from ’82 joking about religion (!). Robin Williams – whose late night talk show antics have long since worn thin for me – appears in an episode from ’81, during his fourth season of “Mork and Mindy,” and just takes over the show, captivating the audience and Carson himself in the process. Plenty of great musical performances as well – folks like Jimmy Buffett, Reba McEntire (whom Carson describes as a “young lady with a new record” or somesuch), Glen Campbell, k.d. Lang, Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavarotti, and B.B. King to name but some. Again, the list could go on. And finally there are the salt of earth guests – regular Joes and Janes from across America who show up to strut their wares, whether it’s yodeling or a rooster that crows on command. Carson gracefully and humorously did this kind of thing long before Letterman. There’s no shortage of entertainment in this box, folks.

The set is also loaded with plenty of old Carson standbys, such as his characters Carnac the Magnificent and Aunt Blabby, as well as the sketches the show did under the name “The Mighty Carson Art Players.” A lot of those sketches are, well, sketchy, from today’s vantage point, but some are positively priceless. One sees Johnny playing Walter Cronkite, and it was taped a few days before Cronkite was set to retire. The idea of the sketch is “What might Cronkite’s final broadcast look like?” By the time Carson/Cronkite had puffed on a joint (allegedly given to him by David Brinkley) and thrown a chair through a mural of Dan Rather, I was in stitches. If the idea of this sketch means nothing to you, this set probably isn’t what you’re looking for. If I’ve at least made it sound funny, then by all means, this is the Christmas gift for you.

Special Features: There’s a 15th disc on this set that features an extra hour of bits and bobs from the ‘60s, and once again it’s easy to see why that decade isn’t the primary focus of the box, due simply to quality, but there’s some good stuff in this hour that’ll take you way back, including a final bit from the ‘70s featuring the astronauts from Apollo 13. There’s also a series of interviews about Johnny with Loni Anderson, Baxter Black, David Brenner and Jim Fowler.

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