‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’: Unflappable, supremely confident, with laser-precision timing

Just a minor administrative note before the review: Drunk TV has a new official mascot for the foreseeable future. Enjoy!

By Paul Mavis

I’ve been tuning into Antenna TV a lot lately, partly for the nostalgia factor of watching free, OTA TV with commercials…but mostly because the elevator to my vast, subterranean DVD vault has been on the fritz for months now (when all the elevator repairmen get government checks to sit on their asses…you tell me what the results are going to be). And one of my favorites from their line-up are the reruns of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. A few years back, R2 Entertainment, in association with Carson Entertainment Group, released a massive, nicely packaged boxed set of previously released material from the King of Late Night, Johnny Carson: Heeere’s Johnny: The Definitive Collection from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

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Years ago, I wrote for a DVD website that now, sadly, seems to be defunct (um…hahahahahahaha!). And one of my earlier reviews there was for a set of kinescopes of Johnny Carson’s very first foray into primetime TV, back in 1955: The Johnny Carson Show. Part of the appeal of that collection was watching the impossibly young Carson going about creating a recognizable persona, while working out the various techniques of comedic timing that would stand him in good stead during his subsequent thirty years on NBC’s The Tonight Show.

You won’t see any of that, however, in Heeere’s Johnny: The Definitive Collection from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. This is the Johnny most of us know: the polished, genial, almost-too-cool-for-words professional comedian and host who effortlessly combined his all-American Midwestern appeal (you know: the people that woke Disney hates now…) with a barely submerged, hipster swinger persona. Johnny knew exactly how far to go when titillating his audience with a naughty double entendre, and he always got away with it because he was smart enough to pull back, and disassociate himself from the “Hollywood crowd” that so obviously tickled him. There was always a discernible reserve to Johnny’s act (no doubt learned in the gently rolling hills of his hometown, Norfolk, Nebraska), a feeling that Johnny, regardless of his ability to hang with the best, knew that he had to maintain a distance from the people he was interviewing, to stay on our side―the viewers.

Growing up in the early 1970s, before cable started to destroy the commonality of America’s shared TV viewing experiences, I certainly was aware that Johnny Carson represented the absolute elite of TV-made personalities. Even though I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words at that time, just watching Carson do his thing every night (…or at least on the occasional Friday, or during summer vacation)―unflappable, supremely confident, with laser-precision timing―was enough to get a sense that this guy owned his particular corner of the entertainment field. Others tried to match him (I remember Dick Cavett failing miserably), but nobody could touch Carson’s unique combination of “aw shucks” posturing over a sleek, sophisticated, clear-eyed approach to his hosting duties.

It’s absolutely a fact that no one will occupy the same place in the entertainment field that Carson held, simply because the media today is so fractured, so niche-oriented (and so nauseatingly one-sided), that nobody could possibly reach the same number of people in so significant a manner. And when you factor in that Carson did it successfully for thirty years; well…that just won’t happen again. Ever (do we even know what grade Z Hollywood jag-off hosts the show today? Do we even care?).

Which makes, then, a collection like Heeere’s Johnny: The Definitive Collection from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson so valuable to historians (and a delight for fans). This isn’t a definitive look at the popular culture of the 1960s through the 1990s, by any means. But it’s a pretty hefty slice of who and what Carson and his production team felt were important enough, and interesting enough, to present to the American viewing public. And considering the unparalleled success of the show over a thirty year period, they must have been tapping into something that worked for the TV viewing audience.

Of course, the point of the show was to allow Carson to react to his guests (if you want to be really honest, the point of the show was to make money for all concerned), but Carson was smart enough to vary his guests, breaking down a typical show to include perhaps a big-name celebrity plugging a new movie, an exotic animal brought to the show by either Jim Fowler or Joan Embery, a musical guest, perhaps a stand-up comedian, and if there was time, a visit with an ordinary “citizen,” someone who had a weird or quirky hobby that the producers thought might tickle Johnny’s funny bone.

Watching Johnny interact with these various guests revealed the genius in his method. When interacting with celebrities, Carson was adept at altering his style to suit the person: Jack Benny was treated with reverence, while Charles Grodin was slayed with (staged) dismissiveness. Stand-up comedians were either given a polite round of applause from Johnny (the majority of them), or, if they were lucky, they received the coveted “wave over,” where Johnny, much like a king maker, would bestow his personal approval on a young talent by inviting the incredulous comic over for an unscheduled chat on the couch.

But with the “civilians,” Johnny showed perhaps his most appealing side. Always respectful and warm with the various farmers, old schoolteachers and odd collectors that appeared over the years, Johnny could still seem like he was having a little harmless fun at their expense, but after close examination, it was just the opposite. Carson, the King of Late Night and power-player at NBC, momentarily dropped the sophisticated, distanced reserve necessary for his thirty-year ride at the top, and just had fun jawing with people who no doubt reminded him of the very people he grew up with in Nebraska.

For me, that’s the strongest appeal of a big boxed set like Heeere’s Johnny: The Definitive Collection from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. You get a chance to really study Carson, and watch, frankly, with awe as he effortlessly negotiates his way through thirty years of some of the most memorable moments in TV history. Let’s look at the individual DVDs included in the Heeere’s Johnny: The Definitive Collection from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson boxed set.



The Best of the 60s & 70s:
This collection of clips probably represents the period of The Tonight Show that people remember most fondly. This was The Tonight Show where, prior to the 80s and 90s when entertainment news coverage began to saturate the media, America got a glamorous party every night, seeing big stars―whose every move wasn’t yet covered by a 24 hour-a-day entertainment news media―chatting casually with Johnny. This is the swinging Johnny phase, the smoking and drinking Johnny period where “good times” were heartily endorsed by Johnny and Ed and Doc.

Highlights from this collection include the oft-repeated clip of Daniel Boone‘s Ed Ames’ tomahawk circumcision, Jack Webb’s hilarious Dragnet-style “copper clappers” bit with Johnny (one of the great missed opportunities of 1980s big-screen comedy was frankly brilliant farceur Webb turning down a part in Airplane!), Johnny and Ed’s girly slap fight, the dog that wouldn’t eat Ed’s Alpo (so Johnny obliges), Johnny as an eager flasher, Johnny offering a year’s pay to peek under Dolly Parton’s blouse, and Ed McMahon, totally blasted, talking about animals.

CELEBRITIES: Bob Hope (3.6.69), Buddy Hackett (5.20.66), Dean Martin (3.6.69), Dolly Parton (12.14.77), Ed Ames (4.29.65), George Gobel (3.6.69), Jack Webb (2.19.68), Jay Silverheels (9.9.69), Pearl Bailey (9.21.64), Tiny Tim (4.6.68), Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki (12.17.69).
COMEDIANS: David Letterman (2.22.79), Don Rickles (2.16.68), Flip Wilson (9.30.65), George Carlin (9.9.66), Jay Leno (3.2.77), Steve Martin (10.28.76).
CIVILIANS: Elizabeth Martineau (5.10.73), John Twomey (5.15.74), Mary Storrs (1.27.72), Putt Mossman (3.27.73), Yoga Demonstration (1966).
ANIMALS: Beetle (9.21.78), Cheetah (9.13.74), Myna Bird (1.27.72), Twin Orangutans (2.20.74).

The Best of the 70s & 80s:
This collection of clips gives us a glimpse of the show running perfectly in-synch, year after year, with Johnny, settling in a bit but not losing his razor-sharp timing or delivery, hosting celebrities such as Eddie Murphy and Charles Grodin. Highlights from this collection include Johnny’s classic “Gina Statutory” joke, the rooster who won’t crow (“Let me point something out, Donna; we didn’t bring him out 1800 miles to take a dump on my desk.”), Doc Severinsen’s classic Thanksgiving invitation from Johnny (just…incredibly well-timed ad-libbing), Doc, the Celebese monkey taking a shot at Johnny (“‘Playing,’ my ass!”), and Johnny, in a blonde wig, walking off with a hunky cowboy (“Ah, screw it; let’s go!“).

CELEBRITIES: Albert Brooks (8.14.81), Betty White (2.24.83), Charles Grodin (4.6.82), Drew Barrymore (7.28.82), Jimmy Stewart (7.28.81), Joey Lawrence (3.31.82), Richard Dawson (11.5.82), Stephanie Zimbalist (9.14.83).
COMEDIANS: Bill Maher (8.31.82), Eddie Murphy (1.1.82), Garry Shandling (3.18.81).
CIVILIANS: Elizabeth Tashjian (10.13.81), Frank Hill (5.7.82).
ANIMALS: Baby Gorilla (7.25.79), Celebese Ape “Doc” (6.18.81), Rooster (12.29.82), Kinkaju (11.2.79), Marmoset (3.24.78).


The Best of the 80s & 90s:
This collection might be more familiar to “younger” (i.e.: “not quite dead”) viewers, with Johnny hosting celebrities like disgraced ex-President Bill Clinton and disgracefully inept game show host Drew Carey. Highlights include a bear cub drinking out of Ed’s cup (“That bear will hibernate for a year!”), Johnny as Ronald Reagan, doing a variation of the classic A & C bit, “Who’s on First,” Jane Fonda’s “pet my pussy (cat)” joke, Albert Brooks’ hilarious Buddy, the Electronic Dummy routine, Shelley Winters, totally out of it, forgetting that she made a movie with Annie Potts, who’s seated next to her, Jim Fowler’s bat, who goes for Johnny, Charles Grodin getting no respect from Johnny (“I’ve got to do an hour a night. I’m looking for warm bodies.”), Steve Martin as The Great Flydini, and Ted Koppel, hilariously telling Johnny he won’t miss him one bit when he retires.

CELEBRITIES: Albert Brooks (5.17.83), Annie Potts (6.20.84), Ann-Margret (10.11.91), Bette Midler (5.21.92), Bill Clinton (7.28.88), Bob Newhart (5.12.92), Cathy Guisewite (3.20.92), Charles Grodin (9.5.90), Chevy Chase (12.12.86), Dyan Cannon (10.25.85), Jane Fonda (9.15.86), Madeline Kahn (7.18.91), Shelley Winters (6.20.84), Siskel & Ebert and Chevy Chase (12.12.86), Ted Koppel (4.9.92), Zachary LaVoy (9.13.89).
COMEDIANS: David Letterman (10.23.87), Drew Carey (11.8.91), George Carlin (11.26.86), Joe Piscopo and David Letterman (10.23.87), John Mendoza (10.27.89), Robin Willians (5.21.92), Roseanne (11.6.85), Steve Martin (5.6.92).
Myrtle Young (10.16.87), Rohan Varavadekar (3.12.87), Vlasta Kresk (12.10.85).
Bat (3.27.87), Bear Cub (6.23.83), Flatnose (11.26.86), Snake (4.25.86).

Johnny Goes Home
This is my favorite segment in the Heeere’s Johnny: The Definitive Collection from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson set. Produced in 1982, this documentary hosted by Johnny Carson shows The Tonight Show host returning to his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska. Seeing the sites (that don’t look too much different than when he was a boy), Johnny revisits the places that helped shape him into a young man. Highlights included Johnny and a few of his old school pals getting a pen-and-ink refresher course from their old schoolteacher, Mrs. Gordon, Johnny’s return to the neighborhood theatre (sadly, closed) where he ushered as a teen, Johnny settling up with Mr. Mauk for “borrowing” his car, and a crazy stunt, performed by Johnny, where he hangs off a train trestle while a train goes roaring above him.

Certainly the most telling segment is Johnny’s return to his old house. Now occupied by a growing family, Johnny makes friends with a kind, charming young boy who lives in Johnny’s old room. As they explore the house together, shoot hoops, and drive Johnny’s father’s original car, the warmth, honesty, and openness of Carson and this young boy interacting together is incredibly touching. A moving, surprisingly resonant documentary.


5.21.92 Episode:
This is the second-to last episode of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, with the only two guests featured: Robin Williams and Bette Midler. Why Johnny chose these two performers over everybody else to (almost) end his show is anybody’s guess (they would have been my 1000th and 1001st choices…), but he’s obviously moved throughout the program at the homage they pay him.

The Final Episode:
I distinctly remember watching this final episode of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson (more out of curiosity of a legendary show ending than for any interest in the show itself by that point), and there’s a moment in it that still strikes me. At the very close out of the show, when Johnny is accepting the applause of the audience, he looks off to his right, overcome with emotion. He’s obviously looking at something, or perhaps remembering something. There’s an indescribable look of searching or expectation on his face that we’ll certainly never understand, but it’s an incredibly powerful moment, when the traditional Carson guard is finally let down in front of the cameras. No guests appear on this final tribute, just clips from other shows, and of course Doc and Ed.

CELEBRITIES: Bette Davis (2.9.83), Bob Hope (2.26.82), Elizabeth Taylor (2.21.92), George Foreman (5.16.90), Groucho Marx (11.10.65), Jimmy Stewart (10.26.76), Loni Anderson (2.21.80), Michael Landon (3.10.89), Madonna (6.9.87), Muhammad Ali (11.13.72), Raquel Welch (3.5.74), Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy (1960s), Tiny Tim (4.6.68).
David Letterman (12.7.90), Jack Benny (7.20.73), Mel Brooks (2.13.75), Robin Williams (10.14.81).


For any aspiring stand-up comedian, a shot at playing Carson’s The Tonight Show was the equivalent of playing the Palace or Carnegie Hall. If you scored on The Tonight Show, you were guaranteed bookings at the major clubs and on other TV shows. This two-disc collection gathers together bits (mostly from the 1980s) of a wide range of comedians, from future superstars like Jerry Seinfeld, to lesser-known, even obscure (to the general public) comedians. The quality of the bits vary, but the clips are short enough (around five minutes each) where you certainly won’t get bored. Strangely, after watching all these comedians, the two most common topics among this disparate group: fruitcake and “Do Not Walk” signs.

Roseanne (8.23.85) God, that voice.
Rich Shydner (8.30.84) In a word: horrifying.
Steven Wright (8.8.82) I’ve never been a big fan; he’s too studied and secretly pleased with himself. But he does get the coveted “wave over” from Johnny.
Brett Butler (5.14.87) Way smarter, faster and funnier than Roseanne. “Lamar, is the safety on?” has to be one of the funniest lines on this disc.
Bill Kirchenbauer (8.28.78) A personal favorite from his Make Me Laugh days, Kirchenbauer manages to fly close to both bombing out and being hilarious at the same time. Overall, he just misses the mark here.
Jerry Seinfeld (5.6.81) You’ll be astounded at how mediocre he is here.
Louie Anderson (11.20.84) Two words: He kills.
Ronnie Shakes (2.10.84) No connection with the audience, and poor delivery. But Johnny states, for some reason, “You’re going to hear a lot from that guy.”
Kelly Monteith (11.21.74) His “Thank you!” bit is a classic.
Garry Shandling (3.18.81) Letter-perfect.

Drew Carey (11.8.91) Jumping out of his skin. Funny and fast, and he gets the “wave over” from Johnny.
Sean Morey (6.8.81) Lame.
George Carlin (11.26.86) Too tight and uncomfortable. Don Ho jokes? In 1986? He says it best himself: “Not all of these things are intended to be funny.”
David Brenner (10.13.81) Always thinks he’s funnier than the audience actually does.
Gallagher (2.17.82) Almost as annoying as Roseanne’s voice. And not funny in the slightest.
Daryl Sivad (2.24.88) Totally anonymous.
Rita Rudner (2.2.88) Slick, but she gets the laughs.
Maureen Murphy (10.15.80) Think Phyllis Diller with an Aussie accent, and then not nearly as amusing.
Rich Hall (4.21.81) The guy who everyone thought was going to be Seinfeld-big. He gets the “wave over.”
Rodney Dangerfield (2.3.81) May have the greatest stand-up delivery ever. Has a talk with Johnny, and gets by with saying, “Sh*t” on the air and the censors missed it. Priceless.


Probably the weakest collection in the Heeere’s Johnny: The Definitive Collection from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson set, only because the groupings of clips have the vague “country” theme applied that doesn’t always make sense. Still, there are some real gems in this collection (as well as some repeats from other discs), including Jay Silverheels (Tonto) bitching about the Lone Ranger, Michael Landon‘s story about Lorne Greene’s hairpiece, and John Wayne‘s walk-on (when Wayne doesn’t stay, Johnny goes back to his desk and deadpans, “He’s obviously afraid of me,”).

CELEBRITIES: Jay Silverheels (9.9.69), Michael Landon (3.10.89), Roy Rogers (2.3.75), John Wayne (3.22.73), Doug McClure and James Drury (1.12.68).
Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owen (8.29.88), The Judds (11.21.85), Johnny Cash (3.3.64).
Blake Clark (7.20.82), Ronn Lucas (2.3.84), Baxter Black (1.8.87), Brett Butler (5.14.87).
Merritt Heaton (2.3.88)), Dan Kujchcinski (4.6.68), Sheriff Katherine Crumbley (11.18.76), James M. Whitney (3.19.82), Dewey Jackson and Henry Parsons (early 60s).
Bush Dog (2.6.75).


This six-disc collection is quite good in that it gives you (mostly) complete monologues and sketches, along with interview clips. These aren’t intact episodes: clips are borrowed and assembled from a variety of sources, and then put into 41-minute episodes. However, you get a closer feel of what the show was actually like, than in the previous rapid-fire clip shows. Highlights include Johnny giving Doc guff for stealing a laugh (“I’m busting my balls out here and he gets a big laugh!”), Johnny and Ed’s brilliant, surreal discussion about the swit bird and the shark, Johnny as Carnac the Magnificent and his various audience put-downs (“May a nearsighted busboy wash and stack your sister.” “May a toothless yak gum your grandmother’s Wheat Thins.”), a hysterically twisted monologue from Floyd R. Turbo American, Aunt Blabby giving Ed a hard time, Johnny putting down the audience in his monologues (“Didn’t I see this group scalping tickets to a cockfight last week?” “This audience would lob a grenade at Bambi’s mother.”), the celebrated “Doc the Monkey” taking a poke at Johnny’s face, wood sculptor Jon Walter topping Johnny in the joke department, the infamous “Shower with a Star” skit, Ed totally losing it at a Carnac joke (“Sis Boom Baaaaa!”), and the classic 1969 episode featuring George Gobel, Dean Martin and Bob Hope, presented here in its entirety.

Show 1
Guests include a charming farmer who makes jewelry from quail droppings, Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, and Garry Shandling.

Show 2
One of Roseanne’s first TV appearances, a visit by Carnac the Magnificent, Vlasta the International Queen of Polka, and Jim Fowler with Doc, the Celebese ape.

Show 3
Johnny pays tribute to America’s most trusted newsman, kids cowboy poet laureate Baxter Black, the loveable Aunt Blabby, legendary Las Vegas magician Lance Burton, and finally, Super Dave Osbourne.

Show 4
“Nose flute” player Abbe Jaye, actor Charles Grodin, commentator Floyd R. Turbo, comedian Mark Schiff (in his Tonight Show debut), wood sculptor Jon Walter, and finally, Johnny offers some female audience members a chance to “Shower with a Star.”

Show 5
Johnny shares his observations on the recession of 1982, followed by Rene Hall, the accident prone musical entertainer, a visit from Carnac the Magnificent, Michael Landon looks back on Bonanza, comedian Richard Jeni, a performance by the Peking Acrobats and finally, Johnny gets “billions” of laughs with his impression of Carl Sagan.

Show 6
This compilation features Johnny’s comments on President Reagan’s Thanksgiving traditions. Rodney Dangerfield still gets no respect, actress Jennifer Richards, a hilarious State of the Union address with Johnny as the President, Wild Kingdom‘s Jim Fowler, the unpredictable Don Rickles, and a visit from Carnac the Magnificent.

Show 7
Johnny discusses Miss America’s breast implant scandal, comedian Garry Shandling, smoke-ring blower Harry Garrison, bird trainer David Frank, magician Lance Burton’s debut performance, actor Kevin Pollack, and get answers to all your DMV questions.

Show 8
Comedian A. Whitney Brown, Jim Fowler, Carnac the Magnificent and the Mighty Carson Art Players. Dom DeLuise attempts a stunt involving raw eggs, Art Fern and the Tea Time Movie, and finally, Johnny joins the Renaissance Fair.

Show 9
Buddy Hackett talks about his days as a Marine, comedian Rich Hall, martial artist Hugh McDonald, the Mighty Carson Art Players, Joan Embery and Super Dave Osbourne.

Show 10
Johnny with his “twin,” Tommy Newsom, a visit from Carnac the Magnificent, comedians Garry Shandling and Ellen DeGeneres (gad), a Tonight Show public service announcement, child actress Kaleena Kiff, a rare stand-up routine from Bob Hope, and Don Rickles.

Johnny’s Animal Hijinks
Some of The Tonight Show‘s most unforgettable moments occurred when Joan Embery of the San Diego Zoo and Jim Fowler of TV’s Wild Kingdom introduced audiences and Johnny to the always unpredictable world of wild and exotic animals. These critters reminded us that the King of Late Night was no match for the animal kingdom.

Return to Studio One
This classic “Lost Episode” of The Tonight Show is regarded as one of the most hilarious in television history. On this particular night, Johnny and his guests had no idea what was in store for them when Bob Hope and Dean Martin decided to drop in unannounced. The spontaneous and unrehearsed antics that followed are now show business legend.

A short word about Heeere’s Johnny: The Definitive Collection from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson‘s extras. On The Ultimate Collection Starring Johnny Carson: Volume 1 – 3, disc one, a backstage tour of Studio 1, Johnny’s Burbank facilities where The Tonight Show was filmed, is available. The viewer gets to see exactly how the studio looks from behind the cameras (as with most sets and studios, it’s surprisingly small). On disc two, several “Danger Johnny” filmed segments, sans audio, are included. Johnny filmed these segments back in the 1960s, to be shown to the audience prior to taping. We get to see Johnny skydive, race cars, and other macho 1960s activities.

On disc three, three ISO camera feeds are provided of the final show, giving a terrific alternate view of that historic event. It’s great to see feeds of Johnny, “off camera,” still laughing his head off at clips he must have seen a hundred times before. As well, there’s a text history of the show, a list of awards and honors, scripts and notes of final rundowns for various shows, along with original interview questions for various stars, including Mel Brooks and Madonna. On Carson Country, you get expanded information on the Johnny Cash kinescope, the “Barroom Brawl,” Michael Landon’s appearance and John Wayne’s walk-on.

TV’s truest, greatest icon, Johnny Carson, ruled over the late night airwaves for 30 years. If you grew up during his heyday, you understand the impact he had on the entertainment field, and his reach within pop culture. If not, the Heeere’s Johnny: The Definitive Collection from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson is the perfect, massive dose of Carson hilarity to get you up to speed on one of the seminal figures in 20th century entertainment.


Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

One thought on “‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’: Unflappable, supremely confident, with laser-precision timing”

  1. There was something to be said for having one brilliant late night talk show vs 1000 wannabes. The Tonight Show has never been the same since. He was the best and always will be. Letterman was my second fave (even his morning show was fun and way ahead of its time.)


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