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Thursday, June 22, 2017


"Will you welcome..." Johnny would usually say when introducing his next guest.  Over the years there were countless "Will you welcome"s on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson", some who would remain in relative obscurity, and others who would parlay their once-in-a-lifetime chance at fame all the way to stardom.

Time-Life's 3-disc DVD collection THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON: JOHNNY AND FRIENDS FEATURING STEVE MARTIN, ROBIN WILLIAMS & EDDIE MURPHY is about three of those who became superstars in the field of comedy--Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Eddie Murphy--thanks in large part to their early exposure with Johnny on his classic late-night talk show which is now such an integral part of television legend. 

Johnny, of course, was no stranger to either television or comedy, having labored in both fields since the 50s as host or co-host of various comedy, variety, and game shows such as "Carson's Cellar" and "Who Do You Trust?" before finally replacing Jack Paar as host of "The Tonight Show" in 1962.

Each show began with an opening monologue, which was basically a new stand-up routine every night.  It was here that Johnny really proved himself, getting more mileage out of bad jokes than most comics do with hilarious ones. In fact, his style was to willfully tell bad jokes--even telegraph them as being bad, building audience expectation--and then mine their groaning response for humor until he had them rolling in the aisles. 

It was a totally unique comic style and sensibility that set Johnny apart from all other stand-up comics, and he excelled at it night after night.  His loyal announcer and sidekick Ed McMahon, of course, played along beautifully, adding dry asides here and there in order to invite a sarcastic response from Johnny (often a mock threat to terminate his employment).  To which Ed would respond, naturally, with his trademark belly laugh.

The show was, importantly, for everyone, regardless of their political persuasion.  Johnny did get in some topical jabs here and there, but they weren't really all that caustic and he generally kept things goodnatured, unlike the profane, rabidly partisan hacks of today's late night shows. In other words, Johnny had something called "class", a quality in short supply on TV these days.

During the nine new-to-retail episodes in this Time-Life set, Johnny gives us old viewers some of our favorite bits such as "Stump the Band" and "The Mighty Carson Art Players." (Alas, there are no visits from either Art Fern, Karnak the Magnificent, or Aunt Blabby.)  Flamboyantly-dressed bandleader Doc Severinsen and his sometime stand-in Tommy "Mr. Excitement" Newsom come in for their usual ribbing, while Johnny and Ed play off each other like the seasoned pros that they are.

Disc one features three appearances by Steve Martin, beginning in 1976 with a stand-up that lets us see young Steve in his banjo-playing, "happy feet" prime.  A 1982 show finds movie-star Steve pushing his film DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID, and in 1991 a slightly more staid, reserved Martin talks about his starring role in FATHER OF THE BRIDE.  Each appearance is loaded with plenty of comedy in his familiar style. 

Other guests include the always beloved James Stewart, a spaced-out Karen Black, Sylvester Stallone (circa ROCKY III), comic Cathy Ladman, and singer Leon Redbone.  Some of the classic commercials of the era (if you choose to watch them--the DVD gives us a choice) include "Coke Adds Life", the "NesTea Plunge", and the little guy who wants to talk to us about...diarrhea.  In a 1982 segment Johnny jokes about upcoming TV shows such as "Silver Spoons" and "Knight Rider."

Disc two is a trio of hit-and-run appearances by the always hyper-frenetic Robin Williams, who would blow into the studio like a gale force wind and never let up.  Whether in 1984 or in his two 1991 shows, Robin is a non-stop whirling dervish of gags, voices, and flailing physical comedy that dominates not only his time with Johnny but that of the other guests as well.  It was as though he had no "off" switch, and was always dialed up all the way to eleven. 

Even fellow kooky improv comic Jonathan Winters barely gets a word in while sitting there with Robin. Other guests don't stand a chance, including good sport Phyllis Newman, dulcet-toned Steve Lawrence, and southern-fried Park Overall.  While Johnny does manage to converse with them in minimal terms, their presence is pretty much just another excuse for Robin to go wild.  His fans will be ecstatic, of course.

Disc three finds breakout "Saturday Night Live" player Eddie Murphy on his blazing rocket to fame, with all three appearances occurring in 1982 but already plotting a quick trajectory to superstardom. 

Eddie's first shot on the show is brash but in a controlled way--his ego has yet to become overinflated, and there's still a hunger in his clearly ambitious attitude.  He's already at ease and in his element in the stand-up spots, wowing the audience with his sharp humor and confidence.  He handles his time talking with Johnny well, too, easily getting laughs and charming both host and audience without breaking a sweat.  (Not that we can see, anyway.)

His second appearance is much more confident, and his stand-up features a bold use of the "N" word in an innovative and borderline abrasive way that has the audience in a tizzy of laughter.  By now, Johnny's regard for him has clearly grown, and by his third show, the cocky, brash, super-confident Murphy is getting a "superstar" ovation from the audience.

Other guests on this disc include McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers of TV's "MASH", boxer Randall "Tex" Cobb, Albert Hague of "Fame", and singer Angela Bofill. 

Watching this 3-disc set, I can't help but be filled with that old warm glow of nostalgia for a time when we could turn on the TV and watch Johnny and company every weeknight.  THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON: JOHNNY AND FRIENDS FEATURING STEVE MARTIN, ROBIN WILLIAMS & EDDIE MURPHY gives both old and new fans of the show a chance to relive those times, courtesy of some of Johnny's funniest and most outrageous guests, and tune in to that unique vibe all over again. 


Format: DVD/3 Discs
Running Time: 499 minutes
Genre:  TV DVD/Comedy
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: Stereo
Original Commercials: On/Off

Street Date: July 4, 2017

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