Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tonight: 4 Decades of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson

Sifting through the elaborate contents of this box set revealed something important about Johnny Carson: he never changed. Onscreen, Carson was the same guy in the ‘60s that he was when he retired in the ‘90s. You need look no further than this set to see what David Letterman (who makes several appearances on here) was like back in the ‘80s – quirky and amiable – versus the grumpy old man he is today. Some have claimed that Carson wasn’t a particularly nice man when he wasn’t in front of a camera, but you’d never guess that watching him on TV, which is why it’s probably a difficult notion for many people to swallow. Carson was a reliably relaxed presence that people could unwind with at the end of a long, tiring day. He came out on that stage, sat behind that desk, and made his job look so damn easy – and America loved him for it.

None of this is to say that his act was perfect. Another thing that quickly becomes apparent after watching a few of these episodes – most of his jokes were really corny and haven’t aged well. But I don’t think that’s something to hold against him or this set. Anybody who watches any amount of current late night talk shows (most of which owe a huge debt to Carson) knows that these programs are created to exist in the moment. To go back and criticize this kind of material 30 years after the fact does it a grave disservice and really kind of misses the point of what it’s all about. While much of his written material may not stand the test of time, what still works today are the moments in which he’s forced to improvise, usually due to situations involving guests or animals or whatever. In those moments, he shines brighter than just about any talk show host to have ever resided inside the boob tube.

Read the rest of this DVD review by clicking here and visiting Bullz-Eye.