Heeeeere's Appellate Judge James A. Stewart, with a review of obscure 1950s TV comic Johnny Carson! Whatever became of this Carson kid anyway?
"CBS had an idea to do a Johnny Carson Show, and then they found out they were stuck, because they didn't know who to get to play Johnny Carson, and finally narrowed it down to Eddie Albert and me."
When CBS dropped The Johnny Carson Show, featuring a young comedian who had written material for Red Skelton, onto its Thursday night schedule in 1955, few viewers would have realized that its star would be one of the most influential men in television a few years later. As you probably know, Carson later went on to host The Tonight Show, playing Jack Paar. Actually, NBC was stuck after Paar quit the pioneer late-night show, so they let Carson play Johnny Carson.
The booklet accompanying this DVD set quotes the show's TV Guide review: "At his best, he's first-rate, but it still remains to be seen whether he'll evolve into a suitable format." He certainly didn't find it on CBS, which cancelled this show after 39 episodes, then gave him a brief daytime talk show.
After sitting for 50 years in a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnall's front porch (actually, in kinescope format in the possession of Carson's ex-wife Joanna), The Johnny Carson Show is now available on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Ten episodes of The Johnny Carson Show are featured here:
July 21, 1955: As Walter Cronkite, Carson hosts a You Are There segment on "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."
Aug. 25, 1955: Carson "explains" ballet, does more roving reporting, and plays a husband who's jealous of the household robot in a look at life in 1980.
Sept. 1, 1955: Carson plays Dillinger, The Mental Wizard, takes a trip to Paris, and strains to hear the TV near the airport.
Sept. 8, 1955: James Arness (Gunsmoke) tries to outdraw himself in a mirror, while Carson looks at the future of war and finds his memory of commercials and brand names isn't as good as he thinks. Jack Albertson (Chico and the Man) appears.
Nov. 3, 1955: Carson shows viewers his record collection, introduces a couple of vaudeville acts, retells the story of the Trojan Horse, and banters with movie composer Dimitri Tiomkin (Giant).
Dec. 15, 1955: Carson plays a stay-at-home husband with a matador wife who just had a bad day at the ring, shows pets looking for a good home, and plays Alexander the Great outwitting would-be assassins with the help of a Dragnet-style cop.
Jan. 19, 1955: Carson stars in "The One Musketeer" with Eva Gabor (Green Acres), while pianist Jamie Farr (M.A.S.H.) assists the Double Daters singing group. Gabor congratulates Carson on being named 1955's most promising male television star by Motion Picture Weekly; one magazine was prescient, at least.
Feb. 16, 1955: Dr. Samuel Hoffman, who composed the score for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, demonstrates the Theremin and singer Dorothy Shay stars in a comic version of her life story.
Like many a sketch show, The Johnny Carson Show is uneven, with some sketches scoring while others fall flat. This one had an advantage in Carson; his awkwardness when things go wrong (or seem to) can be funnier than his best gags. You'll see these grace notes as he tries to remember how the saying, "Starve a fever, feed a cold," goes or stretches a "Good night" to fill dead air when the show runs short. While he describes his most striking trait as being "tall and thin" and makes jokes about this, Carson plays on that awkwardness in sketches, such as when he tries to remember the names of the products he saw on TV in the grocery store and ends up doing pantomime.
The physical comedy seems more pronounced as the season goes on; in a sketch about not being invited to a party during his bachelor days, the lonely Carson almost reminded me of Mr. Bean. Since the sketches also seem to be more conventional as the series goes on, it appears that Carson's complaints about network interference, mentioned in the booklet, are justified.
Here, he introduces sketches with a deadpan reminiscent of Bob Newhart and parodies media and the TV culture with Stan Freberg's zeal. The sketches move quickly so he can do around four bits in a typical half-hour (the running times here are short, suggesting that some material—perhaps with mention of advertisers—was cut). As with Carson's long run on The Tonight Show, much of the material was timely or topical, such as parodies of then-famous Edward R. Murrow or sketches on the then-new idea of allowing wives and families to live on military bases. His brief bits at the beginnings of shows range wildly, though, rather than focusing on the day's news a la The Tonight Show; the curtain he stands in front of looks familiar, even if it is covered with CBS eyes.
The accompanying materials point out one sketch—"Dillinger, the Mental Wizard"—as presaging Carson's Carnac the Magnificent on The Tonight Show. Unlike that standby Tonight sketch, Carson's Dillinger routine is more free-flowing as he blows a spy's cover and catches an adulterer through mentalism. It is undeniably funny, with lines like: "I will attempt to rob the Chase National Bank, some three thousand miles away, using nothing but my mind….I don't have to worry; I have a perfect alibi—I've been in your homes all evening."
The funniest bits include that grocery store sketch, a trip to Paris in search of authentic French people (in which he only meets other tourists), a physical bit in which he strains to hear the TV over the noise from a plane taking off, Carson dodging would-be assassins as Alexander the Great, his bumbling bachelor bit, and Carson's attempt to learn the Theremin. Some bits, like Carson's record collection or the Theremin demonstration, reminded me of later Tonight Show routines; if you tune in Leno or Letterman, you'll see variations on the same themes.
I can see how his failed CBS show turned out to be a good training ground and calling card for Carson's future career. At the time, though, it doesn't look like CBS had much faith in Carson and his show, since it spared most expense when doing The Johnny Carson Show. You'll see it in the backdrops during his roving reporter sketches and in the general look of the show. This is barebones sketch comedy, done live. The Johnny Carson Show also is a look at TV's early days, since CBS was still in its first decade of delivering television here.
The show is remastered, but still has some glitches, including lines, spots, and an odd penumbra that sometimes follows Carson and his co-stars as they move. Still, it's more than acceptable for kinescopes that have been sitting around for years. The DVD case didn't include sound information; the sound is adequate, though.
The extras included on these two discs help round out the portrait of Carson's pre-Tonight Show career. Disc One includes an episode of the daytime version of The Johnny Carson Show, featuring a horned-toad derby and old-time riddles. His panel of regulars here hasn't had a chance to get into the groove as well as Doc, Ed, and Tommy, but the daytime show does offer an indication of what's to come. Several Jell-O commercials—little sketches, actually—are also included. Disc Two features an episode of Carson's quiz show Who Do You Trust? in which the door jams on the soundproof booth, trapping a contestant inside. Carson mostly laughs genially as contestants tell their stories, with the disastrous mishap providing a chance to ad-lib. A three-minute clip of Carson guest-hosting The Jack Paar Show is also included. One interesting thing I noticed is that Carson used the popular song "Pick Yourself Up" as a theme song throughout his early shows.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're not already familiar with Johnny Carson, the ephemeral quality of his often-topical gags might not be for you. Other topical comedians—like Bob Newhart or Bob Hope—also did movies and TV shows with more enduring appeal to seal their status in comic history. Carson concentrated his career on the small screen and topical material. Thus, part of the appeal of the long-time King of Late Night might already be lost to time.
And how many bits about shrewish housewives do we need? Sometimes 1950s gag staples can seem like real relics.
Although this DVD set is aimed at preserving a slice of TV history, there are plenty of laughs in Carson's uneven first show. Johnny Carson's way with jokes usually gets at least a smile out of the weakest material. The extras help paint a full picture of the pre-Tonight Carson.
Although inexperienced, Carson's as funny here as he was in his Tonight Show heyday. The chance to see him as he was starting out—one older Carson fans might have passed up in favor of Lux Video Theater back in 1955—will make this nostalgic choice more appealing than Tonight Show retrospectives for fans. Prime-time's faster pace—even in 1955—helps this set as well, since the bits move at a clip that's surprising for a show done live.
Not guilty. It's a good thing that CBS picked this Carson fellow to play
Johnny Carson back in 1955. Late-night TV wouldn't have been the same with Eddie
Albert in the role.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• 1958 Episode of Who Do You Trust?
Review content copyright © 2007 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.