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

STUDIO: Respond2 Entertainment | DIRECTORS: Robert Ostberg, Bobby Quinn, others
RELEASE DATE: 10/26/10 | PRICE: DVD $119.99
BONUSES: vintage clips from the 1960s, new interviews with guests
SPECS: NR | 30 hours | Classic television | 1.33:1 fullscreen | stereo

RATINGS (out of 5): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

The 30-hour Tonight: 4 Decades of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson DVD set is the second megaset to be produced by Carson Entertainment following 2007’s Heeere’s Johnny: The Definitive DVD Collection. The 2007 set is essentially an extended collection of clips and montages (with a few episodes thrown in), but the new Tonight Show box is a chronological collection of complete episodes, 56 of them in all.

Well, not really complete. The TV shows, which primarily span the 1970s and 1980s, have been edited to include only the primary guests, which is a little disappointing but not surprising as the Carson team has been taking the knife to the material for years. Still, it would be nice to see an episode in its entirety, if only to get a complete sense of the rhythm and mood. There’s a 1965 entry, for example, featuring Woody Allen and The Muppets (including an early version of Kermit the Frog) in which the psychic The Amazing Criswell also makes an appearance, which we don’t get on the disc. Woody, Criswell and Kermit all on the same panel with Johnny Carson? Now that we’d like to see!

Included in the episodes are many of the usual suspects. There are multiple appearances by such Carson favorites as Burt Reynolds (Boogie Nights) and Dom DeLuise (their beloved 1974 eggs and whipped cream battle is here), late-night TV host David Letterman, Joan Embery and her animals from the San Diego Zoo, Albert Brooks (The Muse) and Garry Shandling (The Larry Sanders Show). The guest who appears the most here is, bafflingly, actor Robert Blake (TV’s Baretta), who can be seen in four episodes from 1972, 1975, 1976 and 1984. On Carson’s couch, Blake is at once opinionated, cranky, candid and bitterly funny. Johnny must have liked that.

The DVD set also includes nearly four hours of special features, among them a group of new interviews with a bunch of familiar faces who regularly appeared on Tonight. The best of these include Loni Anderson (TV’s WKRP in Cincinnati), who laughs about her first appearance on the show playing Orson Welles’ slave girl in an ancient Rome sketch, and comedian David Brenner, who talks about getting more than $10,000 in club date bookings the day after his first appearance on The Tonight Show.

There’s also a supplemental hour of footage from various 1960s episodes in which Johnny can be seen doing the kind of stuff that endeared him to America (or, better, Americana). How else to describe bits that include cowboy stuntmen, fun animal hijinks, sketches with Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur), winners from North Carolina’s National Hollerin’ Contest and an interview with the Apollo 13 astronauts?


Buy or Rent Tonight: 4 Decades of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.