I know, I know…I lure you good people over to the new Thrilling Days of Yesteryear blog as if I were someone with a panel van and candy, and then I don’t post anything new in close to two weeks. I apologize profusely—it looks as if normal blogging has resumed.
One of the recent TDOY posts was a review of the new-to-retail DVD collection The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series, and in the piece, I alluded to another Carson set that hit the streets on September 19, Johnny and Friends: The Complete Collection. In between outside assignments and the transition from old to new blog, I have been checking out the content of this hefty 10-disc collection (close to 27 hours of material!); though I will come clean and admit that the job was made easier by the fact that three of the discs in this new-to-retail set—those featuring Tonight Show appearances from Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Robin Williams—were discussed in a blog post published in June.
The remaining discs in Johnny and Friends: The Complete Collection feature vintage telecasts with guests Rodney Dangerfield, Jim Fowler, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Burt Reynolds, Don Rickles, and Jerry Seinfeld. The disc that comes closest to matching the fun I had watching The Vault Series (most of the telecasts in that set were culled from the 1970s) is the one featuring TDOY fave Rickles; I know The Merchant of Venom is an acquired taste for many people, but thankfully I have acquired it. There are two shows—November 14, 1973 and January 6, 1976—offered up, plus the classic clip of Johnny tossing Mr. Warmth into a tub as he gets a massage from two Asian lovelies. (The date on this one is speculated to be February 15, 1968…but no one knows for certain, since it was located on a clip reel that was submitted for Emmy Award consideration.) One of the other shows on this set features the classic Diet 7-Up commercial with Don and the twin Vegas showgirls (“I’m so lonely…”) that was always one of my favorites, so I truly enjoyed seeing that one again.
I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I worshipped the very ground David Letterman walked on (when Dave packed it in, my talk show-watching days were over), and so the Letterman disc on Johnny and Friends was one that brought me the most pleasure. Dave’s first Tonight Show appearance (November 24, 1978) kicks off the three shows included on that DVD, but the best is an August 30, 1991 show in which Carson decides not to beat around the bush re: Letterman’s failed bid to replace him. “How pissed off are you?” he asks.
This breaks Dave up, and when he finally regains his composure he offers his mentor a bit of advice. “You keep using language like that…and you’re not going to have a show much longer,” Letterman admonishes him. Publicly, Letterman puts on a good face about not being tabbed to be the new Tonight Show host (“I have a show,” he states) but you know deep down he resented losing the prize…and he’s probably still nursing a grudge today, I imagine. But as a Letterman fan, I don’t think Dave was ever funnier as when he was agitated about something (he always reminded me of Fred Allen), and when Johnny remarks that it’s been written up in the press like “you want to firebomb NBC” Dave retorts: “Well, I’d have to stand in line…”
My disappointment that Letterman was not the man to replace Carson (I understand why it went the way it did…but I’m still holding a grudge, too) probably colors my enjoyment of the Jay Leno disc on Johnny and Friends. Pre-Leno Tonight Show, Jay was a first-rate stand-up comedian…but once he sat on the throne of the former King of Late Night he lost his edge, finding humor in idiotic things like The Dancing Itos, ferchrissake. His shows on Johnny and Friends will make you a little nostalgically wistful for the talent he once displayed (his anecdotes about his parents hit close to home); the first show on the disc is Leno’s second appearance on the program (April 28, 1977), and what struck me was how low-key and quiet Jay was—not like the high-pitched, obnoxious Leno that follow (“Did you see this in the paypah? I was mentioning this to Mavis…”).
The Jerry Seinfeld disc demonstrates that while I never quite understood why people laughed so loud at his shtick (“What is the deal…?”) he was clearly destined for stardom (though I still think Seinfeld was a very good sitcom). The most interesting show in this set is from February 21, 1986, in which the interest comes not from seeing Jerry but the first appearance of Oprah Winfrey—gradually building her empire and Oscar-nominated for her supporting performance in The Color Purple (1985). Again, you see someone miles and away from the self-assured celebrity of today; she’s nervous and completely gobsmacked by the opportunity to chat with Johnny. (Ed McMahon hilariously pronounces her name during the opening of the show as “Ooprah Win-fray.”)
Rodney Dangerfield promotes two of his motion pictures, Caddyshack (1980) and Easy Money (1983), in programs dated July 23, 1980 and August 12, 1983…and like Don Rickles, Rodney’s a comedian that I cannot not laugh at. I watched a lot of these Carson shows with Mom, and her favorites were the ones on the Jim Fowler disc because she loves watching animal segments (and you even get a Fowler bonus, since he’s a guest on the 1980 Dangerfield telecast). It’s amusing that Johnny always introduces Jim as Marlon Perkins’ assistant from Wild Kingdom (“You remember—‘While Jim performs that vasectomy on the rhinoceros, I’ll film from the safety of my tent, enjoying a daiquiri.’”). The remaining disc, the one with Burt Reynolds, is also a lot of fun: an August 2, 1978 telecast has the actor reminiscing about his days on Gunsmoke (“I stood around for fifty minutes while everyone called me a ‘dirty stinking half-breed’ and then Jim Arness would come in and beat the hell out of them”) and on the October 12, 1984 repeat Burt cuts up with his buddy Dom DeLuise…with things really getting blue once Dr. Joyce Brothers joins them on the couch. (Family friendly, Mr. Prager.)
A March 12, 1992 telecast with Reynolds is the best of all: Burt reminisces about a classic Tonight Show telecast (I don’t believe they give an exact date, but you’ll also spot DeLuise in the clip) in which he comes out wearing a leather outfit (he asks Ed in 1992: “If I came to your door wearing that, would you let me in to meet your daughter?”) and has a little fun putting whipped cream down Johnny’s slacks:
The hilarious thing about this is—after Burt pulls the can out of Johnny’s pants, Johnny grabs it and continues the whipped cream shower in a “don’t-stop-this-feels-great” gesture. After they show this flashback, Burt cadges one of the crew for a can of whipped cream…and decides to find out if it’s as pleasurable as Johnny indicated long ago:
Then he gives Ed the treatment, and when Reynolds takes the can away Ed repeats the same bit his boss did in the flashback. Reynolds was a favorite Tonight Show guest because he always did nutty stuff like this; it was not unlike a Laurel & Hardy routine, with Johnny always giving a perfect Hardy-like stare to the camera.
Many thanks to Michael Krause at Foundry Communications for providing the Johnny and Friends screener (and I apologize again for taking so long in getting this up); if you’re a Carson devotee, you’re going to want to see this on your DVD shelf.