Wednesday, June 28, 2017

“Heeere's Johnny!”

“And I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you would like and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been…I bid you a very heartfelt good night.”  Those final words rung down the curtain on Johnny Carson’s thirty-season stint as host of NBC’s The Tonight Show (or The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, as it was officially known), when “The King of Late Night” officially retired on May 22, 1992.  Sadly, Carson never returned to TV save for a small vocal contribution (as himself) on an episode of The Simpsons and a cameo on Late Show with David Letterman in 1994; he left this world for a better hosting gig on January 23, 2005 at the age of 79.  (Correction: I wrote too soon; Mark Murphy e-mailed me to let me know that Johnny also did a monologue on a 1993 NBC special feting Peacock institution Bob Hope on his 90th birthday.  Thanks, Mark!)

Johnny...we'd hardly know ye.
I’m a little fuzzy on the exact time frame, but I remember I was on my way home from my night auditor gig at The Landmark Inn a year or two before Carson’s passing.  I took a taxi that day (I didn’t want to wait for the bus), and the cabbie was listening to a couple of radio jocks holding forth about how The Tonight Show just wasn’t the same since Johnny’s departure and that Jay Leno couldn’t carry Carson’s jockstrap.  One of the hosts—who claimed to know people who know people who know Carson—explained that Johnny had not made a return to the small screen because…well, he kind of danced around the reason but the implication was that the former talk-show host had really “let himself go” (see photo at left).  Then came the observation that he (the jock) would rather watch an obese, bloated Carson drooling all over himself than that poltroon Leno any day of the week.  I’m not proud of this—but I laughed like a hyena at his remark.

Those of you who get the substation Antenna TV in your area are aware that they added reruns of Johnny Carson (the retitled Tonight Show) to their schedule in August of 2015 (the shows from 1972 on, since only a handful of the pre-1972 Tonight Shows have survived due to “wiping”), and occasionally a segment surfaces on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (their presentation, Carson on TCM, went great guns at first before eventually doing a slow vanishing act).  Time Life has released several DVD compilations—notably the 22-disc Johnny and Friends (SRP $199.95), with 61 hours of material—and next Tuesday (July 4) they’ll roll out a new-to-retail DVD collection of nine classic Carson telecasts (on 3 discs—the SRP is $29.95) with the emphasis on appearances by comedians Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Eddie Murphy.

My good friend Michael Krause at Foundry Communications graciously gifted me with a screener for this upcoming release, which not only features these telecasts in their entirety (the musical guests are often excised from the Antenna TV repeats for copyright reasons) but the original network commercials as well.  This appealed to the old-time radio fan in me (I love to listen to broadcasts that have the commercials intact), though I admittedly only watched one of the shows with commercials (you have the option of watching without—something that I’m sure would please my father if Carson reruns were his particular meat).  That would be the oldest show in this collection, a July 21, 1976 telecast on the disc spotlighting Steve Martin.  For an hour-and-fifteen minutes (the Carson show was a ninety-minute program from 1966 to 1980) I got to reminisce about taking the Nestea plunge and how Heinz ketchup is “slow good” (voiceover by Casey Kasem) …not to mention seeing familiar faces like Betty White (plugging Spray ‘n Wash) and Doris Roberts (a Glade air-freshener commercial—she won a Clio award for those spots).

I cannot come up with the name of the actor playing Doris' husband in this commercial, and it's nagging at me because I've seen him in so many other things.  (It's hell getting old.)

Wild and crazy guy.
In high school, I thought Steve Martin was the funniest man to walk the planet.  I owned all four of his stand-up albums, mimicked all of his routines (“Excuuuuuse me!”), and relished every time he hosted Saturday Night Live.  With the passage of time, however…well, I find myself pondering what the hell I thought was so funny about the guy.  (Now I know why Los Parentes Yesteryear looked at me so strangely…though that may not have entirely been all Martin’s doing.)  His 1976 appearance on Carson features much of his “wild-and-crazy-guy” shtick, and to be honest, I enjoyed the other guests on that particular telecast more—Jimmy Stewart, plugging The Shootist (1976) but also reminiscing about It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and Karen Black…who seemed to be on some sort of narcotic that night but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what it was.  A May 21, 1982 program brings Steve back along with Sylvester Stallone—both stars plug their current movies (Sly’s Rocky III; Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid) but again, because I’m just weird this way, I got more of a kick out of the “Stump the Band” segment…because one of the songs suggested to stymie Tommy Newsome and the NBC Orchestra (Doc Severinsen, amusingly enough, was out of town—performing a concert in my home town of Charleston, WV) was Sunday Driving, a novelty tune recorded by Jerry Lewis.  The last show on the Martin DVD is the most fun: a December 19, 1991 outing that allows Martin to plug Father of the Bride (1991) and it also features one of my favorite funny ladies, Cathy Ladman, along with singer Leon Redbone (performing Christmas Island).

Nice threads, Eddie.
The third disc in this collection highlights three 1982 appearances from Eddie Murphy, who at that time was wowing SNL viewers weekly with his shtick—the July 30th telecast mentions that Murphy is working on his first feature film (the one that put him on the map), 48 HRS.  I’m quite fond of many of Eddie’s movies—48 HRS., Beverly Hills Cop (1984), The Golden Child (1986—don’t think I can’t hear you judging me out there)—and enjoyed many of his SNL characters (prison poet Tyrone Green never failed to make me fall to the floor), but his stand-up always left me stone-faced, particularly the homophobic Honeymooners bit he did in his 1983 HBO TV special Delirious.  (Try explaining it to both of your parents, who decided to watch with me.)  A February 10, 1982 appearance has him starting his routine by encouraging the audience to shout out the N-word…and I don’t mean “Norbit.”  (Edgy!)  If you’re a Murphy devotee, you’ll enjoy seeing the twenty-year-old trading yuks with Johnny on the cusp of Murphy’s phenomenal stardom; his January 1, 1982 debut on the Tonight Show is presented in this collection in its entirety.

Robin Williams, circa 1984.
If you need a solid reason to pick up this collection, the second disc—featuring three shows with the manic Robin Williams as guest—more than justifies the purchase.  Just as I prefer Eddie Murphy in movies, I thought Williams was at his best when he was simply turned loose on The Tonight Show, where his machine-gun stream-of-consciousness would always reduce the host to helpless laughter.  (It’s no surprise that Robin was the guest on the penultimate Carson Tonight Show telecast, along with Bette Midler.)  Williams’ April 3, 1984 appearance allows him to plug what I think is his finest film comedy, Moscow on the Hudson (1984—this and the 1983 movie he did with Walter Matthau, The Survivors, are my favorites) and his co-guest Phyllis Newman reminds the audience multiple times that her husband is lyricist-playwright Adolph Green (something that both Robin and Johnny start to mock after a fashion).  A January 10, 1991 show (with Steve Lawrence) coincides with Robin’s turn in Awakenings (1990); Williams relates the incident where he accidentally hit co-star Robert DeNiro in the nose while filming and it’s hysterical.

Comedy greatness.
The final telecast on this disc is a September 19, 1991 free-for-all that allows Williams (plugging 1991’s The Fisher King) to riff alongside his one-time Mork and Mindy co-star (and acknowledged influence) Jonathan Winters.  Honest to my grandma, I laughed so hard during this show I was literally in tears.  Winters enters the stage wearing a Union uniform (his first words are “We lost the fort—the Indians were sober…we were drunk this time.“) and when Park Overall (of Empty Nest) comes out and asks Johnny “Why is he wearing a Yankee uniform?” Jonathan comes back with “Cause I’m a Yankee—we’re gonna go through Chickamauga twice!”  It is classic comedy, and while I’m not a religious or spiritual individual, I like to think that if there is a better world after this one these two mad geniuses are cutting up in the afterlife to thunderous appreciative laughter and applause.  Thanks again to Michael for the screener—if you’re a fan of Johnny Carson, you’re going to want this one for the DVD shelf.

Addendum: Both the Mayor of Toobworld (Dr. Tobias O'Brien) and member of the TDOY faithful Mark Murphy have identified the actor with Doris Roberts in the Glade commercial as character veteran J.J. Barry.  The blog is grateful for their tireless efforts in small screen research.

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