Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Here's Johnny -- a long time ago

The Johnny Carson Show (Shout Factory): When it comes to talk show hosts, there can be no doubt that Johnny Carson was the king. Even in his later years when he could have walked through his show each night, he knew how to push the buttons to make his audience laugh.
He wasn't always so smooth, though. The Carson on view in Shout Factory's "The Johnny Carson Show" is young and a bit nervous, maybe even a little self-conscious. But the qualities that made him such a favorite with audiences years later were there, even if they were still developing.
There was the boyish charm, the down-home, relaxed attitude and the genial humor, even if he was still a bit unsure of himself.
And there's a lot more of his stand-up humor in the 10 episodes of this early Carson work than "Tonight Show" viewers would see in his later years. That's because Carson's humor was a lot more of the show. He had guests, but not the parade of celebrities that begged to come on "The Tonight Show" in his later years. He did TV parodies of then-current shows such as Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" and "Dragnet."
Shout Factory's two-disc set includes some extras: an episode of his later ABC show "Who Do You Trust?" co-hosted by Ed McMahon, a rare episode of a 1956 CBS daytime show he hosted and a clip from a 1958 stint as substitute host of "The Jack Paar Show" -- in a role he'd replace Paar in in 1961.
Given the age of these films, the quality is rough. Compared to his later work, "The Johnny Carson Show" definitely shows Carson had some development as a comedian to do. But they're also fun to watch.
Carson fans will also want to hunt down a budget two-disc release by Timeless Media Group also called Here Is...The Johnny Carson Show. The set has four episodes from "The Johnny Carson Show," an episode of "Who Do You Trust?", an episode of "The Jack Benny Program" with Carson as guest, commercial bloopers and a rare 1972 color promo film done on the set of "The Tonight Show." "The Tonight Show" promo film alone makes this one worth it. Since this is a budget release, it's very easy on the wallet. Note: If you do hunt for this, make sure you get this two-disc set (the link will get it). There are several single-disc releases by various budget disc companies. This is the one you want.
While on the subject of vintage talk shows, let's mention a couple of others. When Johnny Carson burst on the TV scene, the king of late night at that time was Jack Paar. Shout Factory has a three-disc set called The Jack Paar Collection that includes celebrity interviews, monologues and full episodes from "The Jack Paar Show," which was the precursor to Carson's "The Tonight Show." One disc includes the PBS documentary "Smart Television: The Best of Jack Paar," disc two has interviews with Bobby Kennedy (done shortly after the assassination of JFK), Richard Nixon (including the famous incident when Nixon played the piano) and Muhammed Ali, while the final disc has interviews and rare footage of Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Richard Burton, Bill Cosby and others. Paar's delivery wasn't as relaxed as Carson's would be later, but he was great in getting his guests to open up about themselves. Paar's often pointed questions would probably be nixed by p.r. reps from celebrities nowadays, who like to super-manage their appearances nowadays. Here's a look at a time when that wasn't the case.
And there's Edward R. Murrow - The Best of Person to Person, a dazzling three-disc collection of superb interviews from the '50s and '60s by outstanding journalist Murrow. Unlike talk show interviews today that are done under bright lights and with a studio audience, these were transmitted generally from the homes of those interviewed with Murrow asking questions from the studio. The relaxed atmosphere brings revealing comments from the subjects as they relax their celebrity persona. Those interviewed here include John F. Kennedy, Sammy Davis Jr., Humphrey Bogart, Billy Graham, Liberace, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Martin and Bette Davis. Highly recommended.

Here's a memory piece we wrote and that was published shortly after Carson died about the three times we saw Carson in person, once on "Who Do You Trust," the other two on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."

Viewing Carson was best from seat in studio audience (Originally published Jan. 26, 2005)

Watching Johnny Carson host ''The Tonight Show'' was seeing a master comic at work.
Over the years, I saw Carson do his magic in person three times -- twice on ''The Tonight Show'' and once on ''Who Do You Trust?,'' the game show he emceed (with perennial sidekick Ed McMahon as announcer) before he took over the NBC late-night show.
Watching Carson at home was, of course, like seeing an old friend. But seeing the show live was a different experience. When you were an audience member, the larger-than-life Carson heard you laugh at the jokes that were funny, as most of them were -- and your groans at the jokes that didn't quite go over. You -- we -- were the target of his witty retorts.
''Who Do You Trust?,'' which Carson -- who died Sunday of emphysema -- hosted from September 1957 to December 1963, was taped in New York. On a trip to visit an aunt in Jersey City, my dad took my sister and me -- we were in grade school -- to see several TV shows.
The ''Who Do You Trust?'' taping was filled with a lot of joking between Carson and McMahon, including a noisy mishap involving a washing machine being used in a commercial.
After the show, with no connections to anyone with pull, my dad somehow got us backstage to meet the very tall McMahon. We didn't get to meet Carson, though I recall seeing him stand a short distance from us. Little did I realize he would become the king of late-night television.
More than 15 years later, in 1977, as part of a honeymoon trip to Southern California, my wife and I managed to snag tickets to ''The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.'' After waiting a couple hours in front of the NBC Burbank studios, we were allowed in and discovered, to our surprise, how small ''The Tonight Show'' studio was in comparison to how it looked on TV. We were warned by the ushers not to yell anything out during the show, but that didn't stop the familiar sounds of ''hi-yo'' resonating when Carson walked out on the stage.
About six months later, we decided to go back to Southern California again, and because we enjoyed it so much, we figured we'd pay a return visit to ''The Tonight Show.'' We scored tickets to two shows, one on Monday, Carson's usual night off (with guest host George Carlin, a favorite of ours), and one the next night.
In the pre-show warm-up for the second show, producer Fred De Cordova announced proudly that Carson was in the building and would be hosting the show, which brought a big round of applause from the audience.
The audience got a few extras the home viewers didn't see.
The warm-up featured some extended music and jokes (often of a more risque variety than on the show) from De Cordova, McMahon, Doc Severinsen and members of the Tonight Show band. (Carson didn't appear until you heard the familiar ''He-e-e-e-e-e-re's Johnny.'')
During commercials, the lights on stage were turned off, leaving Carson and the guests in the dark.
One of the guests on that show was film star Ann-Margret. She and Carson chatted in the dark during the commercial break. With other guests, Carson might throw out the occasional ''How is everyone?'' to the audience.
But most memorable was something he apparently did at all tapings. Remember the famous golf swing he would enact after his monologue as the show faded to a commercial? Well, Carson would hold the pose, and after the camera light clicked off -- assuring he was not on the air -- he would say, ''Oh, shit.'' Of course, the audience, not expecting anything like that from the normally genteel Carson, burst out laughing.
That was the final time we saw ''The Tonight Show'' in person. Unfortunately, neither of the shows we saw had any moments that would have made ''best of'' compilations.
In 2001, I wrote a review about the newly released DVD collection of highlights from ''The Tonight Show,'' called ''The Ultimate Carson Collection Vols. 1-3.''
Though Carson himself wasn't available for interviews, his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, told me the words no Carson fan wanted to hear. ''He's retired; he's thoroughly enjoying his retirement. I don't expect him to do any new production whatsoever.''