THERE’S . . . JOHNNY! Review
It’s tough to look at the current television landscape without grimacing. Gone are the days of feel-good TV shows about life’s simple pleasures; now every drama provides a primer on hot-button political issues and comedies are confessionals/therapy sessions. What happened to LEAVE IT TO BEAVER? Ever since audiences developed a taste for complex commentary and flawed characters, shows with less to say have fallen by the wayside. Someone noticed this wholesomeness void and decided to make a loving tribute to one of the most universally beloved programs, THE TONIGHT SHOW with Johnny Carson. Finally, a return to what television was made for: stories about white people succeeding by being nice to everyone.
That nice successful white person isn’t Johnny in THERE’S . . . JOHNNY! though; we’re instead given the perspective of Andy Clavin, a bright-eyed, All-American from the heartland of Nebraska. He’s a huge fan of Johnny’s, so he writes a letter asking for a picture and a job. He gets a form letter back and somehow misreads it as a job offer, so he flies out to Los Angeles, and, through a series of deeply improbable wacky mishaps, he stumbles backwards into a job at the Tonight Show. That’s a plot summary of the pilot, and also the entire show. The majority of this bite-sized miniseries (only 3 ½ hours!) serves mostly as a Carson highlight reel, especially since Andy’s actions are presented as the reason for the famous moment.
One huge problem with that right off the bat: most viewers haven’t seen THE TONIGHT SHOW outside of the current incarnation hosted by the lesser of two Jimmys. I understand that this could be seen as an advantage, since jokes are funnier the first time, but these jokes depend on the thrill of the moment. Most of the clips—and they are literally clips of THE TONIGHT SHOW, not recreations—involve a gag that went horribly wrong, but ended up being funnier than the original gag. THERE’S . . . JOHNNY wants us to laugh at its stilted retelling of these jokes, but like your least interesting drinking story that you know in your heart-of-hearts is super hilarious, you kinda had to be there.
Dog/Millennial similarity #856239: Both are disinterested in THE TONIGHT SHOW.
The clips have lost some impact over the last 40+ years, but so does anything that survives that long. What that doesn’t excuse is the awkward shoehorning of Andy into every situation. For those reading on muted computers at work: the clip above is a sponsored Tonight Show segment in which Ed McMahon, Johnny’s sidekick, was supposed to feed Alto brand dog food to a doggo. The doggo sniffs the food and walks away instead. After an awkward moment passes, Johnny leaps in on all fours and pretends to eat the dog food, saving the show. I didn’t laugh, but it’s an impressive improvisation nonetheless, and quaint enough to make me feel warm. What that clip doesn’t need is 21 extra minutes of Andy’s “find the dog” hijinx, which ultimately serves only to explain that the doggo didn’t eat the food on stage because Andy accidentally fed him beforehand. That story wouldn’t be interesting even if it was true.
The saccharine naivete of the show irks me to no end, but I can’t honestly say that it would be any better as a realistic takedown of ‘70s television production culture. THERE’S . . . JOHNNY tips its hat to the larger issues of the era, and while I suppose I shouldn’t expect a show about Johnny Carson to dole out heavy political punches, the show teases us with whispers of depth through Joy Greenfield. Daughter of a powerful agent, Joy’s ceaseless battle for respect and success serves as the dynamic contrast for Andy’s accidentally perfect life, and as a stand-alone character, Joy works pretty well. But her complaints about pay equality and boorish writers fizzle out quickly as more and more time gets devoted to Andy’s incidental influence on Tonight Show history. Other under-developed outlets for social commentary within THERE’S . . . JOHNNY include Rasheed/Evan, a young stand-up somewhere between Richard Pryor and Malcolm X, who vehemently decries the evils of the white man before his seven minutes of screen time is up, and Andy’s brother Buddy, a traumatized Vietnam vet who gets about as much time as Rasheed until he arrives to set up a second season at the end of the finale.
One thing I can’t take away from THERE’S . . . JOHNNY is its consistency. This is a brazen love letter to Johnny Carson’s THE TONIGHT SHOW, revelling in its own sticky sweetness. There’s a lot to love here for Carson aficionados, and were this a magazine for baby boomers, I’d be dusting off the approval stamp. But this is Crossfader, and most of us are currently dancing upon Old Hollywood’s ashes. With all due respect Mr. Carson, THERE’S . . . JOHNNY feels about as fresh as a hatchet to the groin.
JOKE REFERENCE CONTEXT