Appellate Judge Kent Dixon once pitched a concept for a talk show he would host called "Gotta Be KD." He's still in a legal battle with Kraft, but is optimistic he'll win!
"Frooooooom Hollywood…The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. This is Ed McMahon, along with Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Orchestra inviting you to join Johnny and his guests…And now, ladies and gentlemen, heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere's Johnny!"—Ed McMahon
"And so it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the gentlemen who've shared this stage with me for many years, Mr. Ed McMahon, Mr. Doc Severinsen. You people watching, I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. And I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you will like and come back, that you will be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight."—Johnny Carson, May 22, 1992
Doubtless one of the most famous talk shows that has every aired on TV, The Tonight Show is now in its 52nd season, with no sign of ever going off the air. The format and hosts have changed over the years, but at least for me, the show has always represented a consistent quality that is becoming increasingly harder to find on television.
Facts of the Case
Hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Jay Leno over its history, The Tonight Show has been a staple of North American television for more than half a century, and Johnny Carson presided over that empire for 30 years.
Likely the best collection of the Carson-era show available, Heeere's Johnny: The Definitive DVD Collection from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson delivers a ton of material spread over 12 discs. In reality, we're looking at several past releases gathered together into one set, but the whole package comes nicely packaged together in a fold-out box that proudly displays The Tonight Show set's colored curtains on its cover.
I've never been a regular or dedicated viewer, mostly because work or family schedules prompted an early bedtime, but when I have had the opportunity to watch, I have always been impressed by the show. Throughout its history The Tonight Show has led the way in both its pure entertainment value and also the quality of the show's writing and guests. The Tonight Show is the third longest-running TV program in U.S. television history, behind only the soap opera Guiding Light and news show Meet the Press; a hard act to follow indeed.
When The Tonight Show, then simply known as Tonight, premiered in 1954, original host Steve Allen greeted the audience by saying "this show is going to last forever," referring to the show's running time; little did he know how true his prediction would be. The longest-running host in the show's history, Johnny Carson, has become a TV icon, synonymous with style, class, and unique comedic talent.
It's almost insulting to refer to The Tonight Show as simply a talk show. What started out as more of a variety show in the earlier days has developed into more of a straight talk show in more recent years, but it's also much more. The opening monologues have always been known for their witty jabs at political and entertainment figures, as well as providing insightful commentary on current events and other hot topics. And how many other talk shows can boast as strong musical component as the likes of Doc Severinsen, Branford Marsalis, and Kevin Eubanks?
Since Heeere's Johnny: The Definitive DVD Collection from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson is essentially split into a few separate releases within the overall 12-disc set, it's best to take a close individual look at each of the sets that are included.
Stand-Up Comedians is an absolute treat! This two-disc set gathers the network television debuts and performances of some of the most legendary comedians in TV history. I found it very interesting to see legends like Jerry Seinfeld (he had his style down right from the start), Roseanne Barr, and Drew Carey appear with the same billing as other names like Rich Shydner, Ronnie Shakes, and Kelly Monteith; I'm not too sure where these last three disappeared to, but they're certainly not household names like their colleagues. The appearances range from the mid-'70s into the '80s, and the picture quality varies widely between more grainy to clearer picture quality throughout the set. The intro menu to both discs is funky, fun and colorful, setting the stage nicely for the presentation to follow; there are 10 performances included on each disc. The audio presentation is clear for all the performances, but remains solidly grounded in the center channel, with minor support from the front speakers. If you are a stand-up comedy fan of any sort, this part of the set is a real gem you'll be sure to enjoy. There are no extras of any kind on this set.
Carson Country includes 18 chapters, all very loosely tied together by a country theme. From Johnny singing a western ballad to a bush dog (a wild animal brought on by show regular Joan Embery) to a chat with Merritt Heaton (at 97, the oldest active living farmer in the state of Illinois) and appearances by southern comedians Blake Clark and Brett Butler, and actor Jay Silverheels (TV's "Tonto"), this is a diverse collection of material, with varying audio and video quality, dating back as far as 1968. I'm really not sure why this was billed as a "down home country line-up," because to be honest, it seems like a totally random assortment of clips with little rhyme or reason behind it. If the Brett Butler appearance seems familiar to you, that's because you also saw it on one of the Stand-Up Comedians discs. Extras features on this disc include "Johnny Cash Kinescope," "John Wayne Walk-on," "Barroom Brawl,"!; "An Invitation to the Couch" (if Johnny felt inclined, he would invite guests over for an impromptu chat on the couch…a real compliment!), and "Michael Landon's Practical Joke."
The Original Ultimate Collection Starring Johnny Carson is a three-disc set, broken up into "The Best of the '60s and '70s," and "The Best of the '70s and '80s" on Volume 1, "The Best of the '80s and '90s" and "Johnny Goes Home" on Volume 2, and "5.21.92 Episode" and "The Final Episode" on Volume 3. One interesting feature on this set is that viewers can see a list of the notable "Celebrities," "Comedians," "Civilians," and "Animals" that appeared during those decades, and the dates of their appearances. As you can imagine, with the wide variety of episode dates on this set, footage ranges from black and white to color and in various levels of quality from poor to average.
Highlights from Volume 1 include Ed Ames throwing a tomahawk; a clean-cut George Carlin in a suit in 1966; Bob Hope, Dean Martin, and George Gobel on at the same time; Tiny Tim's first appearance; Joan Embery and her animals; performances by Carnac the Magnificent; Jay Leno performing in 1977; some great comedy sketches; David Letterman performing in 1979; and some classic Carson monologue segments. The only extra feature on this disc is "Studio 1 Backstage," a collection of clips that give a behind-the-scenes view of The Tonight Show.
Volume 2 of The Original Ultimate Collection Starring Johnny Carson is the era of The Tonight Show I remember most. Highlights on this disc include more classic comedy sketches, classic opening monologues, and a fantastic variety of '80s and '90s-era guests both famous and quirky. As Carson's hosting era drew to a close in the late 1992, it was touching to see so many stars pay tribute to him and express their often irreverent views of his departure, most notably Robin Williams and Bette Midler as his last two guests. Extras features on this disc include "Danger Johnny," "Magazine Covers," and "More to Come Art."
Volume 3 of The Original Ultimate Collection Starring Johnny Carson includes the complete second last and final episodes of Johnny Carson's run as host of The Tonight Show on May 21 and 22, 1992. It's touching to hear the audience's extended applause and cheering on May 21, and see Johnny's obviously emotional reaction to the warm and heartfelt adulation; he has a hard time calming them down to get on with the show. If you're going out as a talk show host, what better way to close out your run is there than welcoming both Robin Williams and Bette Midler? Midler sings a fan letter to him she wrote for the occasion that is both funny and incredibly touching. A slightly more subdued tone accompanies the final episode, as Johnny sits front and center on a stool, speaking more directly to the audience. Along with Carson's personal thoughts, the show also includes clips of many highlights from throughout the years, including interviews with Robin Williams (in leather pants!), Jack Benny, Muhammad Ali, Raquel Welch, Loni Anderson, Joan Crawford, Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, and many, many others; there is also a montage of more than forty legendary guests who have appeared on the show over the years. The show wraps up with some touching personal moments with Carson, Ed McMahon, and Doc Severinsen alone on the main set—the end of an era indeed. A short feature included in the final episode runs viewers through a day at The Tonight Show from morning prep and rehearsals, to cue-card prep, make-up and then it's show time! Extra features on this disc include biographies of Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, Doc Severinsen, and executive Producer Fred de Cordova, as well as "Final Show ISO Cams," "The Johnny Carson Story," "History of the Show," "Awards and Honors," and "Scripts and Notes."
Timeless Moments rounds out the set nicely and makes up the remaining six discs of Heeere's Johnny: The Definitive DVD Collection from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. This set is a compilation of performances and interviews from throughout the show's history; from the looks of things, the majority of the material is from the '80s and '90s. With 4,531 episodes to draw from over 30 years, there is a wide variety of material and a lot of entertainment packed onto a mere six discs. The video quality varies widely from extremely grainy and washed out, to fairly stronger visual quality in more recent material. The audio is relatively consistent but stays anchored in the center channel. There are no extras of any kind on these discs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I mentioned earlier, Heeere's Johnny: The Definitive DVD Collection from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson really seems to be a re-release of several preexisting titles, simply pulled together into a brand new box. Reading some of the negative reactions to the set online, you can understand why long-time fans would be choked to see yet another "definitive" collection of their beloved show. It seems some of the included material may have been available more exclusively to "Carson Club" members in the past, but is now open to a broader retail audience. It's bad enough to be subjected to the dreaded double dip on a single DVD scale, but to make fans have to buy multiple boxed sets and endure some overlap to have a complete collection of material from The Tonight Show really is inexcusable.
After thirty years, more than 4,500 episodes, and more guests and laughs than anyone could likely count, the Carson era of The Tonight Show will always be remembered for many of the show's greatest moments. Although by no means a true definitive collection, and in some ways a re-hash of existing releases, Heeere's Johnny: The Definitive DVD Collection from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson makes a pretty solid effort at gathering some classic moments and archival footage into a worthwhile 12-disc collection. If you are a fan of The Tonight Show and don't already own any of the various smaller sets that have been released over the years, this is a must-have set that can be found for about $70—a pretty exceptional value; considering the set clocks in at 1,102 minutes, you're getting your entertainment at about six cents a minute! However, if you already own an assortment of previous releases of The Tonight Show on DVD, make sure you take a close look at your existing sets before buying this new release to avoid an irritating and potentially expensive double-dip.
As the proud hosting mantel passes from Jay Leno to Conan O'Brien some time in 2009, let's hope the kooky guy with the crazy red hair takes the ball firmly and runs for all he's worth. Although Johnny Carson will forever be remembered as the king of late night TV, I'm looking forward to seeing footage of Jay and Conan being added to future DVD collections of The Tonight Show.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: R2 Entertainment
• "Johnny Cash Kinescope"
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