Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is still waiting for the chance to review The Best of Night Heat on DVD. He expects to be waiting for a long, long time.
"I'm Johnny Carson, a firm believer in Darwin's theory of comedy. Tonight, you're going to hear 2 million year old jokes that have adapted to their environment and survived."
"As somebody who has been getting his brains beat out by you for 12 years, I'm not going to miss you in the least," Ted Koppel said on The Tonight Show in 1992, as Johnny Carson was wrapping up his TV career.
When Johnny Carson took over The Tonight Show from Jack Paar on Oct. 1, 1962, most viewers had only three or four choices, and NBC's late-night variety and talk show was dominant. By the time he left the air in 1992, more Americans could surf through 50 or more channels. Carson's reign as "King of Late-Night Television" had held off multichannel reality for a few years, but today's late-night talk titans—Jay Leno and David Letterman—face tough competition from, among other things, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Sportscenter, and Family Guy reruns.
During Carson's 30 years, the show moved from New York City to beautiful downtown Burbank, was trimmed from 105 minutes nightly to 60 minutes, and brought dozens of comedians—including his sparring successors—into prominence. Wikipedia notes that he reached his peak of 40 million viewers when offbeat singer Tiny Tim got married on network television.
The Best of Carson: Volume 1 starts off, naturally enough, with the worst of Carson: a monologue in which nothing goes right. There's a reason for it, though. In addition to showing viewers Carson's old faithful setups, like "How wet is it?," it also shows that Carson's recovery from bad material can be funnier than his good material. Here, he quips that "My producer's explaining the jokes to me" as he covers a mistake and protests that "I'm not done yet," only to have bandleader Doc Severinsen retort, "Oh, yes, you are." A level of self-deprecating charm that can carry you when the material can't is one of the keys to succeeding on television on a nightly basis. After all, when you're going through that many jokes, they can't all be winners.
You'll also notice through the segments in the DVD sets the way Carson laughs along with guests, showing his supportive nature whether the guests are seasoned veterans, young performers, or ordinary people; he shares the spotlight as easily as he grabs it. He's even laughing with Steve Martin in a bit where the Wild and Crazy Guy quotes from his diary about all the times he's been on when "Johnny seems sluggish."
This three-disc set contains three packages of excerpts fresh from a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnall's porch, each roughly an hour:
Disc 1's best segment, by far, finds Johnny getting nervous as Dom DeLuise performs a magic trick involving eggs and empty glasses. It could get messy, especially when Carson and DeLuise start throwing eggs at each other. There's also a funny feud bit in which Don Rickles damages Johnny's beloved cigarette box and some good exchanges with a sawblade musician who's having a bad day. Super Dave Osborne and comedian Darryl Sivad also are featured, along with visits from Aunt Blabby and Carnac the Magnificent (two of Carson's comic guises).
Disc 1's bonus feature is "Return to Studio One," a 1969 Tonight Show episode. Carson's hair hasn't turned white yet here, although the banter between guests Bob Hope, Dean Martin, and George Gobel might age him pretty quickly. The trading of quips here, along with the sharing of an unidentified beverage that looks like beer, shows off Johnny's couch; after guests were done with their interviews, they moved over onto the couch where they could continue quipping away when they felt like it. Unfortunately, there are some cuts in this classic episode so that the final running time is only about 38 minutes; disappointingly, it looks like someone thought it should move faster.
Disc 2's got a sketch from 1975 that seems eerie today, because it asks what would happen if a comedian became president several years before actor Ronald Reagan took on the role of Commander in Chief. If you've seen the ads for Robin Williams's Man of the Year, they might remind you of Carson's press conference of one-liners. Two other great bits are found near the end: Jim Fowler brings a Czechoslovakian legless lizard (the animals who stood in for snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark) along in his pocket ("How would you like to be a pickpocket and stop him on the—?," Carson asks), and self-described "busty blonde" Jennifer Richards shows how she tested prospective dates while in college (Carson gamely flunks her test, of course). Garry Shandling (his name mispelled "Gary" in on-screen text), Peking Acrobats, and child star Kaleena Kiff also are featured, along with a visit to the DMV sketch and a martial arts demonstration.
Disc 2's bonus feature is "Tonight Show Memories," which takes viewers through 30 years of Carson's shows in 30 minutes. It's too fast, but it does include Ed Ames tossing a tomahawk, a square, clean-cut George Carlin, and Carson's 1992 farewell.
Disc 3 opens with Carson's jokes about a TV legend retiring; in this case, it's Walter Cronkite. Next up, there's an early Ellen DeGeneres routine in which she calls up God, Bob Newhart-style; it plays better today because it seems like a backhanded answer to her religious critics. Also featured are Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, and renaissance faire players teaching Carson how to climb a rope ladder. A tedious comedy sketch finds a Japanese comedian doing Carson's shticks after a takeover of NBC, echoing the Japanese purchase of controlling interest in Rockefeller Center.
Disc 3's extra is a photo gallery with a lot of pictures of young Carson starting his Tonight Show career.
Add a few sketches and interviews with ordinary people here and there, and you've got a pretty good description of The Best of Carson: Volume 1. The goal here seems to have been a general overview of Carson's material, and the DVD set gives you a fairly good representation of what he did on a nightly basis. I noticed that it's very light on musical acts, perhaps because of rights issues.
The picture is video of varying quality, reflecting the varying quality of the source material. There's some bleeding and flaring of the picture, but there's one place where Carson wears a bright red coat that should flare a little bit on camera, but doesn't. Some bits, particularly the couple of black-and-white segments, have flecks and scratches. The sound is also typical of as-live TV videotaping.
Would you buy this one if you're not a Johnny Carson fan already? Probably not; several late-night comedians—David Letterman and Conan O'Brien come to mind—have taken over Johnny's aw shucks persona to the extent that you might find it too familiar. Since the material's topical, much of it is ephemeral if you don't remember the news stories. Fans will enjoy the clips here, but probably will want them to run longer. It looks like the packagers were assuming short attention spans; I'd like to believe they were wrong.
Attention, K-Mart shoppers! I acquit Johnny Carson, since fans will still find plenty of laughs in his material, but instruct R2 Entertainment to let segments run a little longer in any future releases.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: R2 Entertainment
• "Return to Studio One"
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