Time Life has released The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series, available as a single-disc release (2 shows), a 3-disc collector's set (6 shows + nearly an hour of bonus features), a 6-disc collector's set (12 shows + two hours of exclusive extras) and a 12-disc deluxe edition collector's set (24 shows + over 4 hours of exclusive extras). The 6-disc set was made available for review and appears to be the back half of the 12-disc set, as they are labeled Disc 7 through 12.
Disc 7 is entitled “Streak Week from March 1974” with episodes that originally aired March 26 and 28. The bonus clip presents Johnny Carson's monologue and Carson and Ed McMahon at the desk is from March 29 (16 min). All are available with and without commercials, but it's so much fun to see the old ads, especially when a familiar face appears.
During this week, they were shooting the show in the studio where Dean Martin's show was shot. Streaking is mentioned on 3/26 in monologue jokes and the “Carnac the Magnificent” bit so the activity must have been popular. During the 3/28 monologue, a streaking occurs by a man resembling writer Pat McCormack, and Carson refers to the incident in the bonus clip. Some of the jokes are very dated as there are references in Carnac's routine to gas rationing and Mrs. Alioto that may leave viewers puzzled as the audience laughs along knowingly.
Highlights include James Garner talking about a pilot he is just starting to shoot that he hopes catches on in the fall (The Rockford Files), Jack Haley Jr.'s clips from past Academy Awards telecasts, Gene Kelly talking about growing up being interested in dance, and Michael Landon using bloopers to promote the upcoming TV-movie Little House of the Prairie.
Disc 8 is entitled “Trip Back to November 1975, Part 1” with episodes that originally aired November 6 and 7, and the bonus clip is from November 4 (18 min). On the 11/6, Ed McMahon talks about his apartment catching fire, Jack Palance gets feisty with Steve Allen, and Buddy Rich gets feisty with everyone. The show from the 11/7 contains video dropouts during the “Stump the Band” segment as noted in a title card before the episode starts
Disc 9 continues with “Trip Back to November 1975, Part 2.” The episodes originally aired November 11 and 20, and the bonus clip is from Nov 21 (21 min). There's a warning of “tracking issues throughout as well as video dropout during the Steve Lawrence interview” from the 11/20. On 11/11, the guests are Orson Bean, Charlie Callas, Lynda Carter a few days after the Wonder Woman pilot aired, and Joan Embry and friends from the San Diego Zoo. In addition to being a comedic wild man, Callas is an impressive drummer and plays with the band. The 11/20 episode features Steve Lawrence, Buddy Hackett (who kept the censor busy), and Roy Clark. The bonus material features an appearance by Vincent Price talking art and doing a surprising cooking demo with Johnny where he uses a dishwasher.
Disc 10 is entitled “Hot Comedy from August from 1977” with episodes that originally aired August 4 and 5, and the bonus clip is from August 2 (min). On 8/4, Orson Bean, Joan Embry and Carnac the Magnificent make second appearances in the set. Pre-Taxi Andy Kaufman performs Foreign Man imitating Elvis Presley and a Caspian Sea song played on conga drums, and the music continued with violinist Eugene Fodor. On 8/5, comic David Sayh had it tough following funny guests Rich Little and Richard Pryor, who is clearly wasted and hard to hear. Pryor also disrupts consumer advocate David Horowitz's segment by laughing hysterically at something only he found funny.
Discs 11 and 12 finds “The Tonight Show in New York from November 1972,” returning for the first time after the show left to relocate in Burbank earlier that year. Part 1 offers episodes that originally aired on November 22 and 24 and the bonus clip is from November 17 (19 min) and Part 2's episodes originally aired on November 27 and 29 and the bonus clip is from November 23 (21 min). A title card at the beginning of both discs strongly recommends the shows be watched in order, but it's in not necessary.
On 11/22, they play Stump the Band with the audience, and the guests are Lorne Greene (who raves, as he did on his previous appearance on the show, about the help he received from acupuncture), James Coco, Rodney Dangerfield, and Marilyn Maye. On 11/24, the guests are Popov the Clown from Moscow Circus, Tony Randall, Jaye P. Morgan, David Brenner, and mentalist Mark Stone who Carson clearly enjoying seeing fail.
On 11/27, Heavyweight Champion Joe Frazier, a few months before fighting George Foreman, “spars” with Carson. Truman Capote talks about actors being dumb. Comic Robert Klein and actress Tammy Grimes also join the couch. On 11/29, Ed McMahon performs a song from his nightclub act with female triplets as back-up singers. I never knew he was a singer, and the jury is still out. Buddy Rich makes a second appearance in the set. Also in this episode is soprano Marilyn Horne, Margaret Truman promoting the biography about her father, and a skit by the Ace Trucking Company skit. The 11/23 bonus finds masseur Gunilla Knutson giving Johnny a brief rub.
Fans will love basking in these old shows of a bygone era. For those not fortunate enough to know Carson's work, it's evident from this collection why he became the King of Late Night for so long. He was a great entertainer, who could be a straight man when needed, but he loved jousting with comedians like Hackett. He got more laughs out of monologue jokes that bombed and delighted playing characters in sketches. But he was more than a comic, and his other interests allowed him to become a great broadcaster. Sometimes he offered serious thoughts on politics and the world, and the final third of these 90-minute shows delivered a greater variety as the guests weren't always from Hollywood.
No matter what size set one chooses (and I'd recommend the biggest one that can be afforded), it's great to have access to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the hours of entertainment the show provided many years ago.