RESPOND 2 / Carson Entertainment
Available Nov. 6, List Price $99.99
The king, CEO and night watchman of TV comedy, Carson reigned for nearly 30 years on The Tonight Show. Every current late-night comedy host learned from him: how to win over audiences, establish a show's pace, charm or confront guests. But as someone who watched and enjoyed The Tonight Show more or less regularly over the span of Carson's tenure, I had a strange revelation from cruising the contents of this 12-disc, 18-1/2hr. box set: he wasn't that funny. The punch lines to his monologue jokes can often been seen (and not just remembered) two sentences before they're delivered. His ad libs can be wry and surprising, but he's not as fast as Craig Fergsuon, as cutting as Jon Stewart.
The problem is not that topical humor the meat of Carson's monologue is a perishable commodity. On the contrary, that's just what makes Heeere's Johnny worth sampling. The box set is a giant time capsule of fashions in social attitudes, comedy stylings and hair styles. (That's why the absence of the tapes of most of his '60s shows is such a loss.) Carson's guest list comprised a wide range of entertainers and, especially in the first decade, intellectuals, whose pontifications now sound charmingly pompous and naive. Watching the parade of comics, you're less likely to laugh at what people are saying than what they're wearing the gaudy plaids and helmets of hair that passed as showbiz couture in the '70s. On these discs the incubation of celebrity can be monitored: Burt Reynolds became a star not so much from his movies as through the masculine charm and ready wit he radiated on The Tonight Show.
For a man who spent something like 5,000 hours "being himself" on late-night TV, Carson was an expert guard of his emotional privacy. Hardly less than Stephen Colbert, who on his own talk show plays a character named Stephen Colbert, "Johnny Carson" was an amiable fiction sustained brilliantly and carefully by the real Johnny Carson, whoever he was. Not that this cool professionalism, this ringmaster's discipline, was a handicap to a talk-show host. Indeed, after the nightly primal scream of Carson's predecessor, Jack Paar, the new guy's sang-froid was a signal that America could relax and laugh a little before it went to sleep. Now, in this huge set, which is also available in its less expensive components ("The Original Ultimate 1ohnny Carson Collection," "Timeless Moments," "Stand-up Comedians" and "Carson Country"), we have reminders of why we stayed up.