‘There’s…Johnny!’ Picks the Worst Time for Nostalgia

When Johnny Carson took over as host of The Tonight Show in 1962, there was no sense that he would last 30 years in the job. Television talk shows were in their infancy, and The Tonight Show’s previous two hosts (Steve Allen and Jack Paar) had done such different jobs there was no real standard format yet. By 1972, when the show moved its production from New York to Los Angeles, it was a juggernaut, outpacing its imitators handily and earning alone 17% of NBC’s profits by the end of that decade. It was regular viewing for roughly 20% of American households. Johnny Carson as an individual was famously opaque and mercurial; Johnny Carson as a TV host was warm, friendly, and the life of the party. There’s…Johnny!, a new show on Hulu (originally produced for the late Seeso), is set behind the scenes at The Tonight Show in 1972, serving to both explicate Carson’s celebrity and contribute to his often apocryphal legend. It is often sweet and charming, but its mostly-fawning view of its absent star (Carson is seen only in silhouette or in real video clips) make it feel even more out-of-time than its period setting. This is the behind-the-scenes-at-Carson show that would have been made while Carson was still on the air.

There’s…Johnny! is co-written and produced (with Mad About You writer David Steven Simon) by Paul Reiser, and its pilot is directed by David Gordon Green, who worked with Reiser on another rosy-lensed period series, Amazon’s Red Oaks (a few episodes are also directed by Andrew Bujalski in his first TV work, presumably selected thanks to his period piece Computer Chess). As a setting, behind the scenes on a variety show has been a common showcase for celebrities playing themselves (as on The Larry Sanders Show, After Lately, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, to name only a few). Since There’s…Johnny! is a period piece, it could also have featured performers playing celebrities, like on American Dreams or even What Would Diplo Do?. Instead of either, There’s…Johnny! confines its action to the supporting crew of The Tonight Show, including Andy (Ian Nelson), the audience surrogate who moves out from Nebraska to work on the show, Joy (Jane Levy, who’s typically very engaging but isn’t given enough to play here), a handful of writers including one closeted homophobe (Andrew Schulz), an openly gay wardrobe designer (Roger Bart), and irl Tonight Show producer Freddie de Cordova (played very well by Tony Danza). While their stories of scrambling to put the show on each night can be fun, they are unnecessarily trammeled by the show’s exclusive use of Tonight Show clips for appearances of Johnny, Ed McMahon, or any celebrity guests. The show occasionally uses the Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid technique of having There’s…Johnny’s cast interact with the taped action on The Tonight Show (usually when Johnny comments on a show-disrupting backstage screw-up), but mostly it’s a few minutes each episode of just watching old Tonight Show clips, many of which are available on YouTube.

It’s no secret that There’s…Johnny! was inspired by Paul Reiser accessing the Carson archive and seeking a way to use it. It’s fair to be enchanted by the footage – a plot point of this season does revolve around the fact that Carson’s first decade on the air was thought entirely lost or destroyed. Today only a few dozen episodes from 1962-1972 have been salvaged. Within There’s…Johnny!, turning up these old episodes eventually involves Andy, who is otherwise pretty terrible at his job. One can feel the frustration of the writer characters, who all expect to be laid off soon, watching Andy fail his way to the top over seven episodes. The writers’ contract is one of the few ways that the imperfect world hinted at by There’s…Johnny! (Joy’s parents are miserable and Andy’s brother is in Vietnam) infiltrates the Oz-like world of The Tonight Show. Even there, There’s…Johnny! turns the regular thirteen-week turnover of the writing staff into a single arbitrary firing. When Joy demands to be paid the same as her male equivalent she faces some pushback from de Cordova, who then gives her a raise at her powerful father’s request, which she refuses on principle. This storyline, where Joy turns down an important raise, is the show’s only real mention of the toxic sexism that pervaded The Tonight Show.

In reality, Johnny Carson was a physically abusive husband who rarely gave women professional opportunities in front of or behind the camera. There’s…Johnny! has instead chosen to share a Johnny Carson avatar with The Tonight Show, further iconizing a classic chauvinist at a cultural moment when media critics and fans are pushing for more transparency and consequences for violent misogynists. There’s…Johnny! was originally set to premiere this summer on Seeso, which would have perhaps given it a different context, but it’s still entirely unclear who wants to see a show set behind the scenes at The Tonight Show that essentially suggests that Carson was who we saw on television (the title sequence, which zooms in close through a television showing The Tonight Show and emerges on The Tonight Show’s actual set, also demonstrates this theme). It may be that most of what can be covered already has been by The Larry Sanders Show, whose Larry-Artie-Hank dynamic was largely modeled on Carson’s insecurities and addictions, de Cordova’s paternal sycophancy, and Ed’s buffoonery and devotion to the show. Since Arthur Godfrey fired Julius LaRosa live on the air in 1953 on his series Arthur Godfrey Time, the disparity between television hosts’ loving personas and their cruel realities has offered plenty for viewers and academics to pull apart. Johnny Carson may himself be the ne plus ultra of this dynamic, and it’s unfortunate that There’s…Johnny! has left no room whatsoever to explore that. It’s clear that the series was made out of love for Carson and The Tonight Show, but love requires honesty, and to refuse to engage with Carson’s darkness does television history a great disservice. The closest There’s…Johnny! comes to touching this legacy is portraying a true anecdote in which Carson was being blackmailed (for what, the show won’t say) and refuses to pay up.

Hulu has offered More to Come, a documentary about The Tonight Show designed to explain to people who have just watched There’s…Johnny! that the characters and scenarios are historically and culturally significant. Like There’s…Johnny!, More to Come mostly fawns over Carson’s Tonight Show, particularly singling out the way his material was “political, not partisan.” Numerous individuals cite the show’s Vietnam jokes (largely made late in the war, when Carson’s sons were in danger of being drafted), which, like much of Carson’s political humor, followed the wave of public opinion; Carson was never in danger of joking about something his mass audience wasn’t ready to agree with. While a few of There’s…Johnny!’s best jokes come from the writer characters repeating a joke ad nauseum to attempt to perfect what Carson’s delivery of it should be, there is little suggestion of the way what was happening to the crew could get sanitized for broadcast. While Reiser is obviously drawing from his own experience as a young comedian getting booked on The Tonight Show, both the documentary and the series offer less of an insider view of Carson’s Tonight Show than The Larry Sanders Show did.

In 2017, late night television is much more crowded than it was 45 years ago. There are plenty of talk shows, almost all of which use some variation on Johnny’s desk-couch template, three of which are hosted by white men named Jimmy. Hulu’s own talk show offering, Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America, features Mather Zickel as a standard late night talk show host that Silverman sends her audience to whenever the show gets too uncomfortable or unpredictable. Bill Carter has chronicled a few tumultuous Tonight Show handoffs in his books The Late Shift and The War for Late Night, the former of which was made into an HBO movie. While late night talk shows have changed in many ways since 1962, the ways they’ve stayed the same – white, male, mainstream – need exploring. A show set behind the scenes at The Tonight Show in 1972 would offer excellent context for Jimmy Fallon cuddling up to Donald Trump. There’s…Johnny! is light and fluffy at the worst time, and exciting mainly for audiences who see Andy in themselves – young, untalented white men with unlimited futures in the entertainment business. That this was also a feature of Red Oaks should speak volumes about David Gordon Green and Paul Reiser’s choice of projects, and about anyone who can look at Johnny Carson and still see broad appeal.

Photo by Lisa Rose.

Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout living in Riverside, California. He is also the writer of the webseries Doing Good.

‘There’s…Johnny!’ Picks the Worst Time for Nostalgia