The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy

The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was the place where stand up comics went to become stars. After you got invited to the couch, you weren’t done being a TV pal with Carson. You begged for time on Carson so you could give a hint to audiences of what you’d be doing on stage when you moved up to playing auditoriums instead of the Chuckleheads Club in Tempe. Even more importantly was to visit Johnny to plug your transition from live stand up to major motion pictures. The Tonight Show set was the perfect place to grow up in public for a comic. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson – Johnny and Friends: Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy gives us a glimpse at how a trio of comedy icons changed over the course of three appearances.

Steve Martin’s used his appearances on the Tonight Show to go beyond being an Emmy winning writer on various comedy variety shows. While he first was introduced by Johnny in 1972, the first appearance here is from 1976 when Steve’s comedy career was climbing quick. A few months later he’d become a superstar with his first hosting of Saturday Night Live and amazing HBO stand up special at Troubadour in Los Angeles. He does a few jokes that would later show up on the Let’s Get Small album. He seems so at ease with Carson because his man in the white suit was supposed to be the greatest talk show host ever. This was a 90 minute of Tonight Show so there’s a bit more time with Steve and Jimmy Stewart. The second appearance is from 1982 when Steve was early in his movie career with the experimental Dead Men Wear Plaid. He’s gone beyond being a regular on SNL. He shares the show with Sylvester Stallone on tour to plug Rocky III. Luckily the prediction for this episode isn’t pain. The final visit is from 1991 during a year where Steve had done well in cinema with L.A. Story, Father of the Bride and Grand Canyon. He’s still the world’s greatest talkshow host, but now we all knew who he was.

Robin Williams didn’t appear with Johnny until a few seasons after he became a star on Mork & Mindy. Why this delay? NBC didn’t exactly like plugging stars from rival network shows on The Tonight Show. Anything that appeared on ABC or CBS was referred to as being on “another network.” But by 1984, Williams was done play Mork and was getting serious in the movie Moscow on the Hudson. Johnny delights as Williams goes through his manic comedy. He returns in 1991 as a bigger star yet still able to go nuts like a top on Johnny’s desk. The last visit here is doubly wild when Robin gets to play with his idol Jonathan Winters. He’s supposed to plug The Fisher King, but here’s there to riff with Winters.

Eddie Murphy’s three episodes are a marvel since in barely six months, we see Eddie go from comic on Saturday Night Live to star on the brink of movie fame. He was in Los Angeles that summer making 48 Hours with Walter Hill. He is eager to work his stand up on the visits so he can prove he can do more than play characters on what was a weak time on Saturday Night Live. Eddie is honing his comic craft since during this period he was planning and recording his first comedy album. This trio of performances are a fine taste of what Eddie was like before he was reduced to dorky comedies and animated donkeys without having to bleep it for the kids.

The Tonight Show served as many things for performers besides a chance to rub elbows with Johnny and Ed McMahon. Seeing these three iconic comics change in subtle ways over their visits is enthralling. You get a deeper sense of them as personable performer as they create their talkshow personas while making the transition from TV to movies. These are complete episodes so you get more musical elements of the show including “Stump the Band.”

The video is 1.33:1. The series was shot on standard definition video so the resolution isn’t amazing. The digital transfer does make the image look good. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. The levels are fine so you get to enjoy all the lines from Steve, Robin and Eddie.

Original Commercials are an option to watch. This is fun for two reasons. It’s always interesting to see what was being sold to America after dark. Secondly it’s amazing that the ad breaks were so damn short. When Colbert goes for a break, you can take a nap before his return.

Time Life presents The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson – Johnny and Friends: Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy. Starring: Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy & Robin Williams. Boxset Contents: 9 episodes on 3 DVDs. Rated: R. Released: July 4, 2017.

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