Backstage with the King of Late Night
Get close to Carson’s famous couch on Hulu’s There’s... Johnny!
In a classic bit from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon did a live Alpo commercial onstage, only to watch in dismay as a dog refused to eat the food.
In a moment of unrehearsed comedy gold, a quick-thinking Carson took the dog's place, pretending to eat from the bowl as the studio audience roared with laughter.
That original clip appears in There's… Johnny!, along with an imaginary backstory (the dog didn't eat because it was mistakenly fed beforehand). It's an inspired moment in Paul Reiser's comedy, which is set backstage at The Tonight Show and interweaves fictional storylines with actual clips from the Carson archives.
"It's sleight of hand," Reiser says. "We do it very cautiously. If not done well, it can look manipulative and false."
There's… Johnny! — now streaming on Hulu — was created by Reiser and Mad About You producer David Steven Simon. It's produced by Comedy Dynamics and its president, Brian Volk-Weiss, along with Nuance Productions and Rough House in partnership with the Carson estate. Executive producers are Reiser, Simon, David Gordon Green, Jeff Sotzing and Michael Pelmont.
The show is set in 1972, the year Carson moved The Tonight Show to Burbank. Ian Nelson stars as Andy, a naïve 19-year-old Nebraskan who lucks into an entry-level job on the show. Jane Levy plays Joy, the assistant talent coordinator who supervises him. Tony Danza re-creates Carson's longtime producer Fred de Cordova, the only real-life Tonight Show personality who's been fictionalized for the series.
There's… Johnny! is a Carson aficionado's dream, with vintage callbacks to guests like George Carlin, Albert Brooks and Steve Martin. Reiser received unprecedented access to the Carson library thanks to Sotzing, who is not only president of Carson Entertainment but also Carson's nephew.
"From the beginning, we had a few clips in mind we could write to," Reiser says. "We were like kids in a candy store — we could look up any performance." Even so, the Carson clips are kept to a minimum. "If you want to see more of Johnny, get the DVD," Reiser advises. "We didn't want to milk it too much. We always erred on the side of less is more.
"Most of the time," he continues, "we had our stories and tried to find footage that supported [them]." When Joy attempts to seduce Andy backstage, the action intercuts with a clip of Carlin and a conservative sex doctor arguing about free love.
"It was the perfect counterbalance," Reiser observes. "We found things that colored our stories to give a sense of the values of the time." The fictional storylines reflect the turbulence of the early '70s: episodes deal with drug addiction, Vietnam and a closeted gay writer's struggle with coming out.
The show is rife with directorial and editorial trickery, as in the shots where viewers can see both the TV monitors (airing 45-year-old clips) and the guests on stage. As Reiser explains, "We'd get a body double for a Carlin or a Don Rickles and blur them in the background. We had a great wardrobe team, which matched the suits they wore. It was movie magic."
The trickery extends to audio as well. Most of the time when Carson's voice is heard, editors were able to find him actually saying the dialogue they needed by doing a keyword search of the archives. A few lines they couldn't find were dubbed in by actor Kevin Pollak, who also did all the Albert Brooks phone calls. Again, the device was used sparingly.
"We don't want to push the envelope to the point where the envelope breaks," Volk-Weiss says.
There's… Johnny! was originally sold to Seeso, NBCUniversal's streaming comedy network; when Seeso was shut down last year, NBCU found a home for it on Hulu, with which it has an overall distribution deal.
For Reiser, a frequent guest on The Tonight Show throughout the 1980s, it was a chance to honor the Carson legacy. "It was interesting to learn what made Johnny so impactful," he says. "Not to put him up on a pedestal, but there's no one who did what he did for 30 years."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2018