There are high hopes for Hulu’s Reboot, since co-creator Steven Levitan was responsible for Modern Family, which at the time (pre-Abbott Elementary) I thought might be the last great sitcom on network TV. Levitan is going where a lot of smart streaming shows are going these days — into the past. “When a cheesy family sitcom gets an edgy Hulu reboot, the cast has to deal with issues they never worked through the first time around,” is how our Mark Blankenship described Reboot.
What caught my eye was Paul Reiser’s name in the Reboot cast. Of course, Reiser starred in a cheesy couples sitcom back in the day, but a few years ago he and writing partner David Steven Simon (who worked with him on Mad About You) created a comedy about another TV show from years gone by. It was called There’s … Johnny!
Unlike Step Right Up, the fictitious sitcom being rebooted on Reboot, this show-inside-the-show was one of the greatest TV programs of all time: The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which aired from 1962 and 1992 and ushered in the heyday of the late-night talk show.
Unfortunately, Reiser and Simon sold There’s … Johnny! to the wrong platform: Seeso, a short-lived comedy streamer that NBC Universal shut down just before their show was supposed to air. Seeso punted it to Hulu. “It was sort of like a state-mandated, foster child,” Reiser joked later. “It was like: ’We’ll feed him, but he’s not getting the good food like our regular kids’ … They put it on the air with zero promotion and nobody saw it.”
In 2020, NBC Universal launched Peacock and put reruns of There’s … Johnny! on its new streaming platform. But there’s a good chance you still haven’t seen it, which is a shame because it’s terrific. So let’s turn back the clock to 2017 and remember There’s … Johnny!.
The show’s premise was pure Hollywood, or should we say pure Burbank. The year is 1972 and a wide-eyed Nebraska kid named Andy Klavin (Ian Nelson) takes a bus to California, mistakenly believing that he’s been hired by The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. But Andy’s initiative and Midwestern naivete appeals to the show’s young booker, Joy De Cordova (Jane Levy), whose father just happens to be the show’s executive producer, Freddie De Cordova (Tony Danza).
Though various storylines weave their way through the season — notably Andy’s infatuation with Joy — what sets There’s … Johnny! apart is its ability to use actual footage from 1972 Tonight Show telecasts in the episode, thanks to a deal struck with the Carson Estate, which gave Reiser and Simon full access to Johnny’s 30-year archive of Tonight Shows.
The character of Andy, in fact, was likely inspired by Jeff Sotzing, a nephew of Johnny Carson who hails from Nebraska and was first put to work at The Tonight Show in a very low-level job, like Andy — “a little lower than the mailroom,” as Sotzing remembers it. Of course, Sotzing was family and eventually worked his way up to producer on the show, and now runs the Carson Estate. By the end of Season 1, Andy is named the show’s first archivist, a nice meta-tip of the hat to the Carson Estate (or a blatant promotion of its clip-licensing business, take your pick).
The show’s setting in 1972 is no accident. That’s the year Carson moved his show from New York to Burbank, and it’s the year he started preserving videotapes of the show. Incredibly, just 10 episodes of the first 10 years of the Carson show, between 1962 and 1972, have survived. NBC dunderheads destroyed the old film and re-recorded over the videotape because, who would ever want to watch The Tonight Show once it’s already aired? (It is still the most-watched program on Antenna TV.)
By 1972 Carson had realized those clips were gold. He had his archives moved to underground salt mines in Kansas, where they would stay in pristine condition. The best clips would be used year after year on the show’s anniversary broadcasts and were packaged into home-video compilations that sold in the millions.
But it’s the access to every minute of the show that gives There’s … Johnny! its special immersive quality, putting you backstage with the Tonight Show staff as the sausage is made and sold. In one episode, the show’s joke writers are arguing over the wording of a punchline. “Hey Klavin!” one of them shouts at Andy. “What gas station has the funniest name?” Andy thinks for a moment and says, “Shell.” Later, Andy stands backstage and watches with amazement — as do we — as Johnny delivers the “Shell station” joke, and is delighted when the perfectly-delivered punchline gets a big laugh.
This seemingly simple conceit is used to tremendous effect throughout the seven episodes of There’s … Johnny. As a bonus, episode eight is a documentary about the history of The Tonight Show, for the benefit of viewers who may not have been around when the show originally aired from 1962 to 1992. There’s … Johnny! makes only occasional references to Carson’s somewhat checkered reputation, before he was worshipped as the “king of the night.” Not only was he married four times (he joked on the show’s tenth anniversary, “I have trouble getting by the seventh year on anything”), but Johnny was a mean drunk, ruthless in his business dealings and a brooding presence who instilled paranoia in everyone around him. His campaign to destroy Joan Rivers after she launched a rival talk show remains one of the most cold-blooded takedowns in television history. And he banned his own executive producer, De Cordova, from the Tonight Show set for the last two years on NBC over a seemingly minor offense.
Here, however, Carson is the venerated Oz, who comes to life again through old shows and cleverly-edited audio clips used as off-camera dialogue. It’s unlikely Sotzing would have allowed his Uncle John to be portrayed any other way, but Reiser, appearing in the documentary episode, makes clear that this show was never going to be anything but a love letter to one of the legendary runs in show business. As love letters go, it’s pretty sweet.
All episodes of There’s … Johnny! are on Peacock.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.