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EVERYTHING you'll ever need to know about The Tonight Show is contained within this box set!
It's ironic, but 2010 has turned out to be the absolute right time to release a compendium of Carson. As it was in the wake of Johnny's retirement in 1992, late night television over the last year was a chaotic, rudderless affair, with Leno hopscotching from his 17-year reign behind the Tonight desk to an ill-fated primetime wreck that reminded non-late night viewers just how bland the once-edgy comic had become. In the wake of that disaster, the grassroots "I'm with Coco" campaign made the blink-and-you'll-miss-him Tonight host a folk hero who ultimately found a home on cable, further splintering the post-primetime audience and making it even harder to remember when there really was a "king" of late night.
Carson's ascendency to his royal status began during Kennedy's administration and continued into the Clinton years. During his reign, Carson found fodder for funny in Nixon's crookedness, Ford's clumsiness, and Carter's folksiness. He was around for stagflation, Billy Beer, and fifty-three-cent-a-gallon gas, and he made constant callbacks to nature freak and Grape-Nuts pitchman Euell Gibbons.
But does the new box set do justice to the king's legacy? Or is it a slapdash hodgepodge more worthy of late night infomercials?
Facts of the Case
Tonight: 4 Decades of the Tonight Show is a 15-disc set that features one of the few surviving episodes of The Tonight Show from the 1960s—one featuring Woody Allen and the Muppets from New Year's Eve, 1965. The remainder of the content spans from 1971 to 1990, when Johnny's couch was filled by everyone from David Brenner to Robert Goulet to Burt Reynolds to Slim Whitman.
Sure, the time is right for a retrospective on the era when Johnny was the only game in town, but Tonight: 4 Decades of the Tonight Show is a major disappointment. Assembled with the same care that goes into the discount DVD rack at Wal-Mart, the set features thirty hours of The Tonight Show in poorly edited chunks ranging in length from thirty to forty minutes apiece. Without one full episode in the box, the truncated shows offer none of the relaxed pace that made the original Tonight—which was ninety minutes long in its early days—such a distinctive animal: Carson would open the show with a fairly long monologue, then chat with Ed at the desk, maybe do a piece of comedy, and introduce the first of four or sometimes five guests. In addition to the usual stars plugging a movie or TV show, Carson always found room for an author, an opera singer or classical musician, or a regular Joe who just tickled him.
But the problem with Tonight: 4 Decades of the Tonight Show is the scattershot nature of both the choice of episodes and the way they are cut. Each episode opens with Carson's monologue almost intact, running almost ten minutes, or about a third of each of the cut episodes. Then Johnny sits down with his guests, who range from superstars like Sinatra and Burt Reynolds to what-the-hell-are-they-doing-in-this-box obscurities Bob Uecker and Steve Landesberg. Lacking the context of the entirety of the episodes from which the interviews emanate leaves most of the discussion feeling unanchored, as if it were just another excerpt in a clip show.
With literally thousands of hours of Carsonia sitting in a vault—overseen and curated by the king's nephew, Jeff Sotzing—there was an opportunity to create almost a museum of bygone television artifacts, but both the randomness and repetition of the set (do we really need two David Brenner appearances and three visits from Joan Embery of the San Diego Zoo?) make watching Tonight: 4 Decades of the Tonight Show a frustrating experience. Was Robert Blake really such a compelling guest that he needed to be included twice in the set? And is there any reason, any reason at all, to have to sit through Carson's conversation with Bert Convy? Bert Convy!
Granted, the box includes appearances from Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, and Rodney Dangerfield, and seeing Carson bob and weave with his fellow comics is a joy. Though it's become clichéd hoo-hah, it remains true that a Carson appearance for a comic was often a straight shot to superstardom. Few people were as appreciative of the art of standup as Carson was, and the obvious delight he gets watching Shandling and Seinfeld and Carlin ply their trade is one of the delights of the box.
Sotzing also smartly includes some iconic moments, such as the night Carson stole the truck belonging to his Malibu neighbor David Letterman and brought Judge Wapner in to negotiate the issue of Letterman's eyesore blighting the neighborhood. And there is something to be said for watching Carson make his way through those signature monologues, dated though they may be. When they were funny, they were good, and when they weren't funny they were even better, as Carson's takes and savers following bombs were gems.
Visually, Tonight: 4 Decades of the Tonight Show is surprisingly rich, considering the age of much of the source material, with the transfer highlighting the color and crispness of the video. The production values of the discs themselves are somewhat lacking, as each episode opens with the same cheesy fly-by shots of Carson and his guests. The packaging itself is swanky, with foldout cases housing the discs and a two-tier, flip-top box—like a Crayola 64 pack—to hold the cases.
The extras are an odd lot, as some are gems and others just plain weird. The good stuff is over an hour of clips of comedy and interviews salvaged from pre-1970 Tonight shows, featuring Charlton Heston, John Byner, and the astronauts of Apollo 13. The oddities among the extras are a series of Tonight memories with the disparate quartet of Loni Anderson, David Brenner, animal handler Jim Fowler, and Baxter Black, a self-described "obscure cowboy poet." Thought the recollections are fine, the b-levelness of the guests makes their segments more quaint than interesting.
I suppose any Carson is better than no Carson. And I'm not looking for the Ed Ames tomahawk throw or the tongue-twisting Dragnet parody Carson did with Jack Webb—those have been making the rounds for years. But the things that made The Tonight Show The Tonight Show are all but absent from Tonight: 4 Decades of the Tonight Show. The spontaneity and anything-can-happen feeling when the couch was crowded with guests at 12:45 are nowhere to be found in the box. Instead, it's an uneven melange of great moments and head scratchers—Baxter Black? Really?—that amount to a melancholy memory of a time when late night television had a king and Tonight was his castle.
Guilty of insensible episode choices. Sentence suspended due to mitigating
appearances by classic comics.
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