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

Late night TV is a rather crowded space with so many talk show hosts doing their best to be the viral sensation in the morning. Between broadcast and cable, it’s hard to keep everyone straight with their various bits. There’s two guys named Jimmy behind prime desks. Once upon a time back in the early ’70s, there seemed to be only one talkshow that mattered after dark. The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on NBC was a monolith from 1962 to 1992. The series is having a bit of a comeback with reruns now airing across the country on Antenna TV. But those episodes have been slightly edited for various reasons. Thankfully you can now get a taste of the uncut Tonight Show that your mother keeps talking about when she waxes nostalgic on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson: The Vault Series.The Vault Series has numerous variations including a single disc release (2 shows), a 3-disc collector’s set (6 shows), a 6-disc collector’s set (12 shows) and a 12-disc deluxe edition collector’s set (24 shows). The review was done with the 6-disc set.

These episodes are from the ’70s when Johnny had to fill a 90 minute time-slot. Along with averaging about 4 guests a night, Johnny does sketches as part of the Mighty Carson Art Players. His time at the desk joking with sidekick Ed McMahon is a little bit longer. The true star of his inner circle is bandleader Doc Severinsen. The trumpeter astonishes the world with a sense of fashion that is now only approached by Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh. A great option allows you to watch the show with the original commercials. This turns out to be rather shocking because most of the ad breaks are two minutes long with only two ads. This is a stark contrast today where it seems like 10 ads are strung together. You almost forget what show you’re watching before the second boner pill ad finishes. It was special to get a commercial on Carson since he’d plug a sponsor or two.

The 12 episodes stretch out from 1972 to 1977. The most “landmark” episode of the batch is when a streaker zipped across the stage in his birthday suit. Unlike other streakers, this was a bit since The Tonight Show was tape delayed and could have cut out the moment if it was unwanted. Johnny is hilarious as he keeps hyping the impending streaker claiming rumors had been swirling. The truly momentous interview involves Lynda Carter arriving in 1975 shortly after the Wonder Woman movie of the week aired. Lyndia is rather open about how ABC hadn’t picked up the show as a full series yet so she’s considered unemployed. She glows on the screen in a black dress. Even though she’s the last guest of the night, her time next to the desk is two segments long. There’s a few episodes form 1972 when Johnny had the show in New York City.

There are a lot of great guests at their prime on these shows. Among the comics are Robert Klein, Shecky Greene, Charlie Callas, Rich Little, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett and David Brenner. In a strange coincidence, Joan Embery brings animals from the San Diego Zoo on the same night as Orson Bean (Being John Malkovich) twice in this collection. Even thought Johnny had guests stick around after their segments, he really didn’t like them talking amongst themselves on the sofa. Getting to watch a complete Tonight Show with the commercials really gives a sense of what it was like to lay in bed back in 1975. The slow pacing is remarkable compared with the over stimulation found on today’s talkshows. Johnny was the king of late night and ruled it without overwhelming is sleepy audience.

The videos is 1.33:1 full frame. The show was recorded on standard definition video so the resolution isn’t too sharp. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. The sound levels are fine although you can see the boom microphone running around on top of the guests.

Vincent Price (20:36) spooks around with Johnny as they talk art and food. The Prince of Darkness could scare up a meal and has a great cookbook. He gets Johnny to cook trout in something besides a stove.

Show Opening and Desk Fun with Ed McMahon are featured on five DVDs.

Time Life presents The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series – Archive Classics. Starring: Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon & Doc Severinsen. Boxset Contents: 12 episodes on 6 DVDs. Released: October 4, 2016

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