For anybody raised on watching Johnny Carson host The Tonight Show, these two The Johnny Carson Show DVDs may be a revelation. Granted, Carson worked a lot of sketch material into his famous late night talk show. But this precursor program was comprised of wall-to-wall sketches, with little to no talk.
The very first episode opens with Carson interviewing his real life wife, Jody, in character as newsman Edward R. Murrow, spoofing Murrow’s Person To Person program. It also features Carson’s three young sons, who steal the show. This is a touching introduction, and gives the show a from-our-family-to-yours feel.
While watching him in these various roles, it’s hard not think of Carson’s more developed characters of latter years. His most familiar characterizations included Floyd R. Turbo, a dumb editorialist, and Art Fern, an advertising crazy man. Carson’s most famous character was Carnac the Magnificent, of course. This regular skit found him wearing a silly hat and humorously divining the questions as co-host Ed McMahon fed him the answers. One episode in this early black and white program features Carson playing Dillinger, The Mental Wizard. It’s a parody of Joseph Dunniger, the popular mind reader at the time. But the DVD booklet notes how Dillinger was also the inspiration for Carnac.
It’s not until DVD number two that Carson begins to look comfortable in his weekly television role. These shows feature more expansive set pieces, such as the Trojan horse prop viewed during a Greek-Trojan War sketch. Carson especially gravitated toward the historical, it seems, which is also exemplified by an Alexander The Great piece.
Johnny Carson and Eva Gabor play “Twister”
This second disc also ups the star quota ante, if you will. For instance, Jack Albertson appears in a bit about Carson and his fan club. Also, a very pre-M*A*S*H Jamie Farr plays a piano-playing-songwriter and musical group leader. His self-loving character is obviously jealous of other more famous songwriters. Folks like the Gershwin Brothers are described as talent-less nobodys. And speaking of future sitcom icons, Eva Gabor looks distinctly cosmopolitan during her appearances, which starkly contrast with her Green Acres down home fame.
Although comedy was obviously the primary aim of this show, Carson’s love of music is also exemplified in many scenes. Remember how he always drummed his pencils on The Tonight Show desk? Clearly, music – or at least rhythm—was always in his blood. There’s a sketch on disc two where Carson displays his fictitious record collection. In it, he has fun with the way record companies endlessly tried to create and market full-lengths for every imaginable human mood.
There’s another section which finds Carson morphing into Yasha Carson, a gypsy violinist who will stop at nothing to keep playing music. Best of all is an appearance by Dr. Samuel Hoffman. His name may not be familiar, but he’s the man behind the soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. While on screen, Hoffman demonstrates how to play a theremin, which is a spooky electronic gizmo often heard during horror movie scenes. This odd instrumental device would also go on to accent pop records, like “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys. Carson even takes a crack at playing the theremin himself, and his lack of success shows why this musical oddity is not as easy to play as it looks.
As good as The Johnny Carson Show can be in its best moments, it is never as funny as The Tonight Show would eventually be. You can see hints of what the future would hold in various places, but it took late night television freedom to bring out the best in Carson. And let’s not forget the rapport he had with Doc Severinsen and Ed McMahon, which made the latter sketches flow so naturally. But then again, maybe it was pre-show alcohol that made the comedy flow the way it did. I don’t know.
During these beginning stages, Carson’s comedic ideas were trapped inside ‘50s cultural stereotypes. One particular bit, for example, imagines what life would be like in 1980. But this sketch is no Future Shock. Instead, it features humans interacting with hokey robots where these robots imitate the patriarchal patterns they witness in humans.
Watching this set is a little like listening to The Beatles during their pre-fame days: It is fun to hear what they sounded like before they were fab. Carson shows potential during The Johnny Carson Show, but it only hints at the man’s eventual greatness. That was revealed when Carson began walking out from behind a multi-colored curtain each night on network television.