He’s been called the King Of Late-Night. Today when there are so many talk shows on at pretty much every hour of the day, that might not appear to be such a huge distinction. There were talk shows on before Johnny Carson, but there can be no doubt that he invented the modern late-night show. For 30 years Johnny Carson was like a member of the family for millions of Americans. He was a friendly face at the end of a long, stressful day. He was that dependable routine that you could set your biological clock by. You would lie back in bed and let Johnny bring the world to you. You could count on a wide assortment of entertainment experiences. Johnny would deliver a monolog that often touched on the hot topics of the day. The news programs might be depressing, but Johnny always gave you a reason to crack a smile at the worst of times. There were characters like Aunt Blabby and Carnac who became comfortable old friends. The top names in show business competed for precious minutes on his stage, and if you were very lucky you spent some time on the couch and some face time with Johnny and his faithful sidekick Ed McMahon. Johnny could make or break your career in three minutes. He brought you the best of the new comics and musicians while delivering the big stars just as well. When you made it to The Tonight Show, you really made it.
There will never be a complete season or complete series set for Johnny Carson. There are several problems that present themselves almost immediately. Johnny was on nearly every night for thirty years. Do the math and you’ll realize there have been thousands of episodes. The sad fact is that many of these moments are lost forever. Footage has either been lost completely or is in such bad shape as to be almost unwatchable. The was so much variety that having a full season would be a logistic nightmare to find those favorite moments. No, there just isn’t ever going to be a complete anything when it comes to Johnny Carson. But Respond2 Entertainment has come about as close as I would have believed possible with the extraordinary release of 4 Decades Of The Tonight Show. Now, I hesitate to even call this a comprehensive collection. Again, I’m just convinced that wouldn’t be possible. This comes as close as it gets.
Each “episode” in this massive 15-disc collection is about 30 minutes long. The commercials are gone and a lot of the fluff of the episode is peeled away, revealing the hearty meat of that particular night. The set includes some of the biggest names of the four decades represented here. You’ll find classic moments with the likes of: Woody Allen, Della Reese, Robert Blake, Peter Falk, Muhammad Ali, Harry Chapin, Rodney Dangerfield, Art Carney, Luciano Pavarotti, Don Rickles, Frank Sinatra, Carol Burnett, Chevy Chase, Richard Pryor, Alice Cooper, Jay Leno, Sid Caesar, Steve Martin, Walter Cronkite, Jimmy Buffett, Robin Williams, Dick Cavett, Jerry Seinfeld, Kenny Rodgers, Tina Turner, BB King, Bill Cosby, John Denver, Billy Crystal, Sammy Davis, Jr., David Letterman, Judge Wapner, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, and even the Muppets.
The episodes range from 1965 right up until 1990. Each episode is like an amazing time capsule, not only because of the many wonderful entertainers there in their prime. The jokes bring back the topics of the day, whether it be Watergate, the oil crisis, or economic ups and downs. Everything from hairstyles to the clothes they wore gives you a pretty wild evolution through the decades. I even discovered that Johnny recycled jokes from time to time. Social mores changed over the years and are also represented on the show. Who today can imagine a television host smoking cigarettes while he talks to his guests? Johnny and his guests light up in the early years as if it were no big deal. And, of course, in those days, it wasn’t.
This is it, ladies and gentlemen. It might not be the set you thought you were waiting for, but it is the set you really have been waiting for. Step back in time and spend about 30 hours with Johnny, Doc and Ed. It’ll be a trip you won’t soon forget. It also makes a perfect gift.
Each episode is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio. I do have bad news here. The material is very inconsistent. Unfortunately, better prints just aren’t out there. You’ll find incredibly problematic image issues throughout the set. Obviously, the older the show, the more likely it is to have troubles. You’ll find dropouts galore. There are odd signal manifestations that I’ve never even seen before on a DVD. You just have to get past all of that if you have any hope or desire to relive these magical moments. It’s worth the effort.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is every bit as problematic. Fortunately, it doesn’t cause the same level of frustration as the image presentation. There are also moments that go silent. I suspect there are reasons for this that might include clearance and mistakes from the time. You can hear Johnny and his guests. The musical numbers can be pretty rough, but this is all historical footage. You have to accept that there are going to be issues with both video and audio.
The 15 discs come in 4 boxes that fit into a long slender box. I have to admit I’m not crazy about this setup. It fits awkwardly on your media shelf, and many of the discs are in overlap trays.
There’s a wonderful book that provides plenty of Carson history and facts. The booklet also includes an episode list.
The Guests Remember: (1:10:57) There are four interviews of guests who share their memories of Johnny. You get Loni Anderson, Baxter Black, David Brenner, and Jim Fowler. The Jim Fowler stuff here is golden. He was one of the people who brought animals in for Johnny.
Rescued Gems Of The 1960’s: (1:03:51) There are some really old vintage pieces from both the 60’s and the 70’s. The highlight of this feature is when Johnny had the astronauts from the Apollo 13 mission on the show.
The problem with a set like this is that everyone is going to have their favorite Johnny Carson moment, and there’s just not room enough for them all. You’re likely to be disappointed that your special moment was not included. Just about everyone I talked to about the show recalled a moment they never forgot and were dismayed to find it was included in this set. You just have to look at what’s here and not dwell on what isn’t, because there’s so much that couldn’t be included. Who can afford a box set of 250 discs?
But take a look at this set, and you’ll discover one unalterable fact. The more things change, “stuff hasn’t changed a bit, has it?”