Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On DVD: "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson- Show Date: 05/04/77"

So what’s an even bigger rip-off then packaging a bunch of incomplete, badly edited Tonight Show episodes into a big, seemingly definitive box set? That’s easy—break out a bunch of those incomplete episodes and sell them individually. How’s 13 bucks sound for a 37-minute truncation of a mid-level episode of Tonight? Quite a bargain, eh? The May 4, 1977 edition finds Carson welcoming a pair of very funny men (Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor), but the results are somewhat mediocre; of the three, only Pryor really brings the funny.

As with the other episodes in the set, we don’t get the original opening credit sequence, but a new one created for these releases. But we do get Ed’s distinctive “Heeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrre’s Johnny!” and then out comes Carson, who begins his monologue by noting, “I’m here to entertain you… would you like me to take you to a movie?” The monologue, with topics ranging from Alex Haley to GM lawsuits to the Frost/Nixon interviews (which were airing that night for the first time), is predictably dated, but that’s less of a concern than the general weakness of the material; “Never purchase an egg from a hen in an alley” is a typical punchline. Yes, part of Johnny’s shtick was the corniness of the jokes, but—in the golden glow of our current reverence for the great Carson—we tend for get how often (particularly in the later years) the monologue was just plain unfunny.

The monologue appears to have remained mostly intact—with the exception of his announcement of the full guest list. There’s a cutaway to the audience after he announces the two guests that are included, but the editors missed one mention; when coming back from the break, we find out that the excised guests were singer/actress Marilyn Sokol and someone named “Jimmy Hatton” (as best as I could make out). Their exclusion is perhaps not a huge deal; more inexplicable is the cutting of the second act comedy sketch, reportedly an appearance by Carson’s character “Aunt Blabby.” Instead, we basically fade in on Johnny in mid-sentence, introducing his first guest, Chevy Chase.

Chase appears to promote an upcoming NBC special (the clip he brings is pretty funny), but with Carson, the normally smooth performer is clearly nervous and surprisingly gawky. Perhaps there’s some unspoken tension happening; no one ever accused Carson of being much of a Saturday Night Live fan, and rumors were abound in this era that Chase was being groomed to take over The Tonight Show (that rumor is brought up, hilariously, later in the show by Pryor, and Chase gets even more awkward). In his second segment, Chase talks about physical comedy, and does an enjoyable demonstration of how he takes a fall.

Pryor is also promoting an NBC special—one airing right after Chase’s, in fact (“I wish I had a special on tomorrow night too,” Johnny muses). That special, and the subsequent (short-lived) series, would turn into a bit of a nightmare for Pryor, but he’s all roses when talking about interactions with the network here—though, tellingly, he gets censored twice in the interview (Johnny’s reaction to Pryor’s nonchalant dropping of “asshole” is priceless).

Pryor is genuinely funny in his interview; he talks about divorce (some of the material is recycled from That Nigger’s Crazy, but it’s still fun to hear), has a slightly tense back and forth with Chase, and, when asked if he has a clip from the special, responds in the negative—“but I have slides!” As he holds them up, Johnny helpfully—and immediately—holds up his cigarette lighter, so’s to help illuminate them.

And then, as Pryor finishes talking, it just fades out—no closing guests, no end credits, no nothing. Thanks for buying, suckers!

Fans of Carson, Chase, and (definitely) Pryor may want to give this episode a look, and it does offer a glimpse of Carson’s Tonight at the peak of its popularity, so there’s some interest for TV buffs. But the notion of paying $13 for an incomplete single episode is mind-boggling, and neither these single discs nor the full set appear to be available for rental, so the smart call here is probably to just let this one go.

"The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson- Show Date: 05/04/77" is available now on DVD.

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