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. There 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 leave it to Time-Life to go into the vaults and at least bring out some gems. This is the second volume, so the discs start with # 7.
Each “episode” in this collection is complete. You have the option of watching it with or without the original network commercials. Understand that some of these commercials were local spots and varied depending on where you saw the broadcast. Obviously those spots can’t be included. The set includes some of the biggest names of the era represented here. You’ll find classic moments with the likes of: James Garner, Suzanne Pleshette, Robert Klein, Buddy Rich, Jack Palance, Steve Allen, Gene Kelly, Stockard Channing, Lynda Carter, Buddy Hackett, Vincent Price, Roy Clark, Steve Lawrence, Andy Kaufman, Rich Little, Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield, Lorne Greene, Tony Randall, David Brenner, Joe Frazier, Truman Capote, Margaret Truman, and frequent guest San Diego Zoo specialist Joan Embery, with whom I had a chance to talk with about her experiences with Johnny Carson. You can listen to that interview with Joan Embery Here.
The episodes range from 1972 right up until 1977. 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. 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 a few hours with Johnny, Doc, and Ed. It’ll be a trip you won’t soon forget. It also makes a perfect gift.
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 1000 discs? I suspect there is more coming, and while we’ll never get them all, there’s gold in these hills. “That’s not very funny, is it?”