Strolling Through Johnny Carson’s Vault via DVD

Usually here at From the Archives, the titular archives refers to the incredibly vast one at the Paley Center, but this week we’re going to be dipping into a different, equally vast archive: Johnny Carson’s. During one of his many contract negotiations with NBC over the years, Johnny negotiated the ownership rights to all of his episodes of The Tonight Show, and all 3,300 hours of this material exists in the Carson Archives, deep in a subterranean salt mine, beneath Hutchinson, Kansas. Of course every episode of Carson’s show isn’t there. The first ten years of Johnny’s career encountered a problem that we’ve seen several times in this column when the tapes were wiped so they could be reused for new programming.

Okay, so I didn’t travel underground in Kansas to check out some old Tonight Shows. Recently the Carson Entertainment Group put out the first volume in what will hopefully be a long-stretching series of DVDs called The Vault Series. The DVD contains two complete episodes of the show from 1972 (back when the shows were a massive 90 minutes), including Carson’s 10th Anniversary Special.

The last time we checked in with Johnny in this column it was to look at his final episodes of The Tonight Show before going off to live the life of a TV hermit. The episode was guestless, full of clips, and a rather somber affair. Carson’s 10th anniversary, which aired October 2nd, 1972, a full twenty years away from his last night on the show, is the exact opposite. In fact, it’s pretty different from most episodes of The Tonight Show. Yes, there’s the “Here’s Johnny!,” the monologue jokes, and Ed McMahon’s “hi-oh!,” but instead of a desk and a couple of chairs, Johnny sits in a chair in the center of the stage, flanked by two very large couches to accommodate the many guests on that night’s program.

One of the key differences between modern late night shows and those of the past is the pace. Today, if a minute goes by without a laugh, your guest had better be telling a really heart-wrenching story about their struggles with alcoholism or something, because otherwise, you’re dying. During this era, however, an entire segment might go by in which host and guest earnestly discuss a topic and be completely devoid of laughs. Whether intentional or not, such is the case with Carson’s first guest, the only one who doesn’t stay for the entirety of the program because he was probably pretty busy, then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan. Reagan talks about how he and Nancy enjoy watching the show and how happy he is to have Johnny in California following the show’s recent move from New York, but on the whole it feels kind of wooden and perfunctory. Perhaps it’s Reagan wrestling with his current career as politician and his former career as showman as the two intersect on the stage, or maybe he and Johnny just didn’t have the same type of relationship of genuine friendship that Carson and the other guests seem to have. Whatever the reason, the segment falls kind of flat and kind of sets the show off on a shaky foundation.

Then Johnny stacks the couches with some folks that he can feel more comfortable with. The guest list for the evening was full: Jack Benny, Joey Bishop, George Burns, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Laugh In’s Rowan and Martin, Dinah Shore, and Carol Wayne. Everybody sticks around, so by the time Dinah Shore gets out there it’s hard for her to get a word out as Benny, Burns, and particularly Rickles shout out bit after bit. It’s fun to watch a different kind of late night show in which not one person is there to promote anything: they just want to hang out with their buddy who happens to host a late night talk show. It’s probably the closest thing 1972 had to a podcast (besides a ham radio, I guess). There are some really entertaining moments as the guests come out, including a weird bit in which longtime friends George Burns and Jack Benny pretend to be upset with one another, though by the end of it I don’t think either one of them understands the premise of the joke they’re doing. Many of the guests poke fun at the fact that Johnny never wants to meet with them socially off the air, and Rickles starts spinning into a riff on this premise saying he doesn’t want to hang out with Johnny and end up sitting “up in the room in the nude, looking at stars.” He continues, “he loves astrology and sits there in the nude looking up going ‘Oh! Venus is sick!’” When Carson calls Rickles out for not really having a punchline and just putting together nonsense at the end of that last joke, he responds, “I don’t know, but they’re laughing! What do you care?”

The second episode on the set aired a few weeks earlier and is just a standard episode of The Tonight Show, but no less star-studded. It features Bob Hope, John Denver, Dom DeLuise, and Peter Fonda. At the top of the show Johnny and Ed make a few references to this not being their usual set, and that they moved from their usual studio to accommodate Bob Hope, who was filming a special next door, which is something I can’t imagine happening today. Also of note is the dynamic between Ed and Johnny. It’s an interesting interaction that I can’t quite nail down. It’s not exactly fair to call Ed a punching bag, though he does take more than a few hits from Carson’s quick wit, but there’s not a lot that he seems to add in terms of comedy either. In fact, I would consider Paul Schaffer more of a comedian than Ed. But he gives Johnny someone to bounce off of, and whether intentional or not, he certainly provides Johnny with a lot of material with random interjections and non-sequiturs.

This particular episode offers a neat little window into the traditional Tonight Show experience of the seventies. John Denver performs two songs, sandwiching a brief interview with Johnny. Dom DeLuise talks with Johnny, and it’s clear that there was no pre-interview, or if there was, it was ignored. No blue card to reference. Dom drives the conversation, and he steers it all over the place, touching on his childhood, to raising his own children, even asking Johnny to delay a commercial break so he can finish his story. Johnny obliges. It’s a different pace and a different time that we don’t often get to see. 

There’s not much in the way of bonus features on the disc, save for a clip from another 1972 episode featuring stuntwoman Peaches Jones, who performs a few of her stunts for Johnny. It’s fine, but nothing all that spectacular. (As a bonus feature. That’s no reflection on her cool stunts.) But one of the best parts of the DVD, that I would kind of consider a bonus feature are the original commercials left in the episodes (it gives you the option to watch with or without them included). Not just the ones for Canada Dry that show you how to make a cocktail called the French Wench, but the ones that Ed McMahon did live in the Tonight Show studio each evening for dog food and the new 1972 AMC Hornet. It’s fun to see the program as a complete package, and there was something particularly neat about watching a full episode with the commercials late at night, around the time the show would have actually aired.

The people who run the Carson archive did a nice job putting these shows out and I hope they’re able to continue doing so. If you enjoy this column each week, then I think you’re just the type of person who would enjoy this disc and relive the mellow, friendly world of 1972’s late night television.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

Strolling Through Johnny Carson’s Vault via DVD