DVD Review: The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (Vault Series & Johnny and Friends)



The cultural impact of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson is hard to imagine in today’s climate. For the most part he was the only talkshow after dark. Both ABC and CBS ran movies or reruns of TV shows. There were a few that dared to talk against him and they vanished quickly. Carson was the game. This was where actors and comics went to be overnight sensations. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series and Johnny and Friends are two boxsets that give a true taste of what it was like to stay up until 11:30 p.m. to see the master behind his desk.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series takes us back to episodes between 1972 and 1987. The shows from the 70s are back when Johnny did a 90 minute show and filled up the couch like a clown car of acts just in from Vegas. The six DVD set is organized with special episodes. “10th Anniversary Special” pulls out all the stops with major guests in formal wear. Jack Benny and Don Rickles face off. Now while Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis are a part of the show, they were kept far apart. Dean cut an introduction from the set of his hit variety series. Jerry appeared on the specially laid out set. This appearance is interesting since he talks of just returning from making a movie in Sweden that he would have out soon. The film is The Day the Clown Cried which Jerry hid from view. An unexpected star cameo comes when an “unknown” Steve Martin is part of a comedy commercial that was supposedly done live in the studio. There’s also a trio of episodes recorded on October 23 in 1974, 1984 and 1987. Why that date? It was Johnny’s birthday. His guests over the years included Buddy Hackett, Paul McCartney and David Letterman. Showing how Carson could mess with star power order is an episode from 1975 when he has Michael Caine and Sean Connery drop by as a duo act. But they have to wait until the end. What star could make them wait in the green room? How about the network debut of Gallagher. That man who smashes watermelons stole Johnny’s heart with a Johnny in a suitcase. That’s just strange. There’s a whole weeks of episodes from 1976 that includes Charlton Heston, Michael Landon, Orson Welles, John Byner, Bing Crosby, Ray Bolger, Bob Hope, Desi Arnaz
Johnny Carson and Robert Blake. The 11th Anniversary Show brings Dean Marton onto the set with Burt Reynolds years before they teamed up for Cannonball Run. There’s also quite a few bonus clips from episodes including James Brown performing with Doc Severinsen. And before I forget, Doc’s fashion sense is amazing. The man must have work up half the country with his dazzling suits.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: Johnny and Friends provides a glimpse at how certain performers developed over the course of three visits. David Letterman’s first visit to the show he never got is on his DVD. Letterman jokes about bad local news. I won’t spoil if Johnny invites him over to the couch after his routine. Johnny’s successor Jay Leno also gets a disc. He pops up in 1977 with darker hair and the same size chin. This was his second time on the show. Johnny points out how Jay got signed to open for a major act after his first visit. Plenty of comics appear on the boxset including Robin Williams, Don Rickles, Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin and Rodney Dangerfield. There’s also Burt Reynolds who changed the course of his career by joking with Carson how bad his films were. Jim Folwer shows up with his animals on a DVD. This is interesting to follow how certain stars change their look and attitude over the visits. Eddie Murphy’s three visits tracks him from just being a cast member on Saturday Night Live to the next big thing in movie stardom.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series and Johnny and Friends are great ways to slip back into the time when he ruled late nights. Watch him constantly poke fun at Ed McMahon’s drinking and botch monologue jokes. But Carson’s guests are what helped him remain an insurmountable icon after dark.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The transfers vary since they were recorded on standard definition video. The discs to warn you if there’s any issues with the tapes. The audio is Dolby Digital Mono. The levels are fine for a recorded live talkshow.

Original Commercials are an option on all the episodes. You can recreate watching Johnny back in 1975. What’s amazing is how few ads are between the segments as opposed to today when it’s six minutes of ads for boner pills.

Time Life presents The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series. Starring: Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, Doc Severinsen & Tommy Newsom. Boxset Content: 18 episodes on 6 DVDs. Released: September 19, 2017.

Time Life presents The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: Johnny and Friends. Starring: Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, Doc Severinsen & Tommy Newsom. Boxset Content: 30 episodes on 10 DVDs. Released: September 19, 2017.

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