We gave it a C+
You have to appreciate the chummy spirit behind The Johnny Carson Collection: His Favorite Moments from The Tonight Show. Not every cultural archivist would think to open a series of Tonight Show tapes with Buddy Hackett. Yet here he is, Johnny’s buddy Buddy, along with George Gobel, Dyan Cannon, and other Carson faves, as well as the ubiquitous Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen, all of them giving this Johnnyrigged collection an appropriately personalized scrapbook feel-home movies from Carson’s own cellar. Or maybe Johnny’s Funniest Home Videos, what with all the Carnac the Magnificent skits, TV-commercial parodies, and sound bites from monologues that fill out these tapes.
Throughout all four tapes — Heeere’s Johnny! (clips from the ’60s and ’70s), The Master of Laughs! (’70s and ’80s), The King of Late Night! (which concentrates on the last few shows), and The Final Show: America Says Farewell! (from May ’92) — it feels like something is missing. Or a lot, actually. Carson’s 30-year Tonight Show run included every star from here to Alpha Centauri, and so it’s hard to believe his ”favorite moments” wouldn’t have included the likes of guests Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, or Paul McCartney. Perhaps some of the old shows are lost; certainly there must have been rights-clearance problems. Whatever the reason, and despite the occasional Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, or then governor Bill Clinton — who’s cut off here before he can speak — these tapes are so heavily weighted toward comedy sketches and adorable animals, it’s like deleting home runs from a baseball-highlights reel to feature more footage of the San Diego Chicken.
That’s bothersome, because Carson Productions is making a big deal of saying no other Tonight Show videos will ever be released — geez, even the KGB archives came out eventually. Given that, and with 30 years’ worth of footage from which to cull bits, you’d expect some historical resonance. But instead, the first two volumes (51 and 50 minutes, respectively) are much the same mix of Ed Ames’ Bobbittesque tomahawk throw, Jimmy Stewart’s folksy verse, and Mighty Carson Art Players sketches that we saw year after year on the anniversary specials. On the third tape (63 minutes), Bette Midler — in the show’s penultimate telecast — performs the collection’s only serious song. The fourth tape is of the final show, excluding a montage of musical guests. (It runs 36 minutes, not the 40 stated on the box, and is available only as a part of the set; the others can be purchased separately for $14.99 each.)
Most of the segments gathered in the four tapes are funny enough, but fluff. Flip Wilson, Jay Leno, and John Mendoza do stand-up; the Smothers Brothers sing a comedy song; a good ol’ boy makes jewelry from quail droppings; child stars Joey Lawrence and Drew Barrymore act adorable; and Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki marry (only a snippet of the ceremony is shown). Some moments are indeed special, such as Albert Brooks’ performance art masquerading as prop comedy, and Steve Martin’s Chaplinesque ”Great Flydini” routine. But you have to wonder what Johnny finds so favorite about two bird-related segments on the same volume that use the same odd punchline — ”feathered colon,” if you’re interested.
Inevitably, some of this material must have seemed funnier or cuter at the time. Naturalists Jim Fowler and Joan Embery bring on the beasts, many of which are milked for laughs as the hot lights and the noise agitate them. And there are quite a few moments when a Johnny double entendre turns the audience into sniggering proto-Beavis & Butt-heads.
The saving grace, no surprise, is Carson himself. Seen across the decades, with his hair transmuting from ’60s Organization Man to ’90s silver halo, he makes his true talent brilliantly clear: to be, on screen, an average-seeming guy who manages to say those witty things that only come to most of us later, who acts and reacts as we think we would. When that tiny, persistent marmoset climbs atop his head on one show, Johnny’s ”okay-I’m-not-nervous” look draws laughter of familiarity — that’s our face. Whether looking up with a ”why me?” expression as a rooster relieves himself on the desk, or acting flustered as Dolly Parton discusses her bustline, Carson — with every agreeable nod of the head, every measured raise of his eyebrows — was the late-night Everyman of his time.
And after 30 years, he leaves us with only four short, lightweight tapes? Sorry, Johnny, but you spoiled us: We can’t help but expect more from you. All four tapes: C+