Tonight: 4 Decades of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson Review

I have to confess my age in writing this particular review, because Johnny Carson was off the air by the time I was watching late night television (or rather, watching and appreciating it). For my generation, the names headlining the late night shows were and, with a little bit of controversy, remain Jay Leno and David Letterman. In my case, I had to familiarize myself with Carson through YouTube clips years after he’d retired. Tonight, the most complete compilation of episode’s from Carson’s 30-year-long career as host, starts 4 years into his career (1965) and spans up to 1990 (4 years short of his final bow) in a 15-disc set featuring some great moments and some of the best guest appearances (with a particular focus on comedians for this set, it would seem). It’s doubtful we’ll ever see a full set, just because the undertaking of committing that much television to discs would be incredible, so for now this stands as the one of the best things fans of Johnny Carson may ever own to commemorate the man’s epic late night career.

Not surprisingly, the video quality improves drastically as the discs go on, but it’s not just because there’s been some film degradation but also because clearly no one thought to thoroughly preserve the first several years. To be fair, how many people back in 1965 do you think imagined that someday people would want to own episodes of television on a portable medium? Not too many. Grin and bear it, because the picture is never too bad and we should just appreciate it was saved at all.

Going into this set, it’s important to note that these aren’t the complete episodes—it’s truly a mixed bag. Due to certain restrictions on rights, each “episode” has been pared down to be some mixture of Carson’s monologue, the interview-specific moments with the stars singled out in the episode title, and occasionally a musical guest (maybe 60% of the time) or one of Carson’s signature skits like Carnac The Magnificent and Aunt Blabby. It’s different every time and it’s hard to discern the rhyme or reason to the episodes chosen, because the guest appearances are genuinely hit-or-miss, sometimes you only get half an episode or less, and sometimes there are only 1 or 2 episodes from a given year. In the end, it’s great to see Carson in his element with some of the greatest comedians of all time as his sparring partner, but depending on what kind of nostalgia for The Tonight Show you’re looking to indulge in, you should really browse through the two other compilation sets (The Ultimate Johnny Carson Collection and Heeere’s Johnny) to see if their arrangements are more up your alley.

A complete list of the episodes and their guests follows below:

Discs 1-3:

December 31, 1965 – Woody Allen, The Muppets

Septmeber 23, 1971 – Della Reese, Bob Uecker

May 19, 1972 – Adelle Davis, Robert Blake, Gwen Davis

September 15, 1972 – Vikki Carr, Peter Falk, Albert Brooks

November 13, 1972 – Mayor Lindsay, Muhammad Ali, Harry Chapin

September 12, 1973 – Joan Embery, Better Midler, David Steinberg

February 20, 1974 – Joan Embery, David Brenner

April 9, 1974 – The Jackson 5, Jerry Van Dyke

September 2, 1974 – Doris Day, Rodney Dangerfield, Burt Mustin

September 26, 1974 – Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Art Carney

May 6, 1975 – Luciano Pavarotti, Maude Tull

September 19, 1975 – Don Rickles, Robert Blake

Discs 4-7:

September 23, 1975 – Glen Campbell, Fernando Lamas

December 9, 1975 – Carol Burnett, Burt Convy, Tom Dreesen

July 28, 1976 – Burt Reynolds, Robert Blake

November 12, 1976 - Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles, Olivia Newton-John

May 4, 1977 – Chevy Chase, Richard Pryor

June 14, 1977 – Alice Cooper, Jay Leno, Aunt Blabby

September 9, 1977 – Sid Caesar, Eubie Blake, Stump the Band

March 24, 1978 – Donna Pyle, Milton Berle

May 2, 1978 – Aunt Blabby, Sammy Davis Jr.

February 21, 1980 – Steve Landesberg, Loni Anderson

September 26, 1980 – Steve Martin, The Mighty Carson Art Players

November 11, 1980 – Carnac The Magnificent, David Letterman

March 4, 1981 – David Brenner, Walter Cronkite Sketch

March 5, 1981 – Slim Whitman

March 18, 1981 – Richard Benjamin, Garry Shandling

May 5, 1981 – Jimmy Buffett, Thalasa Cruso

Discs 8-11:

October 14, 1981 – Robin Williams, Patton Sketch

October 28, 1981 – Lance Burton, Reba McEntire, Dick Cavett

October 30, 1981 – Michael Landon, Desk Odds + Ends

November 12, 1981 – Dom DeLuise, Jerry Seinfeld, Betty White

November 19, 1981 – Suzanne Pleshette, Luciano Pavarotti

November 25, 1981 – Kenny Rogers, Thanksgiving Letters

August 31, 1982 – Bill Maher, Joe Garagiola

December 31, 1982 – Tina Turner, Joe D’Auria + Jonathan Brown

January 5, 1983 – Teri Garr, B.B. King, Bubble Man

May 17, 1983 – Albert Brooks, Brooke Shields

September 8, 1983 – Bill Cosby, Chuck Mangione

January 4, 1984 – Dabney Coleman, Paul Rodriguez

May 17, 1984 – Garry Shandling, Stephane Grappelli

May 24, 1984 – Carnac the Magnificent, John Denver, Michael Davis

November 20, 1984 – Robert Blake, Louie Anderson

November 22, 1985 – Jim Fowler, Marty Pollio, Ruben Blades

Discs 12-15:

December 17, 1985 – Bette Midler

March 27, 1986 – Billy Crystal, Buddy Rich

April 18, 1986 – David Letterman

June 27, 1986 – David Letterman, Judge Wapner

November 26, 1986 – George Carlin, Barney Odom + Flat Nose

January 8, 1987 – Robert Goulet, Waddie Mitchell, Baxter Black

May 21, 1987 – Eddie Murphy, Ellen DeGeneres

July 28, 1988 – Bill Clinton, Joe Cocker

July 29, 1988 – Michael Landon, k.d. Lang, Blown-Up Photos

November 23, 1989 – Lea Johnson, Tom Wilson

January 18, 1990 – Joan Embery, Art Donovan

April 6, 1990 – Jeff Dunham, B.B. King

DVD Bonus Features

Along with a booklet with fun facts about Carson’s The Tonight Show and other factoids on the disc cases themselves, there’s an extra features disc (disc 15) that has an extra hour of footage “rescued” from the vaults. The footage is badly in need of restoration, but I guess we should be glad to have it at all. The extra features disc also has newly recorded retrospective interviews with some of Carson’s more commonly recurring guests like David Brenner, Baxter Black, Jim Fowler, and Loni Anderson.

"Tonight: 4 Decades of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" is on sale October 26, 2010 and is not rated. Comedy. Directed by Bobby Quinn, Robert Ostberg. Starring Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson.

Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.


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