DVD Review: The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson - The Vault Series - (Six-Disc Set)

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There are several collections of classic episodes of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson currently available from Time Life. Whichever of these Vault Series sets suits your budget, get it. Don't think about it. Just go for it and help keep alive the legacy of Johnny Carson, the greatest late-night talk show host we've ever seen. These sets are really time capsule material. As much as I enjoy the current Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, nothing captures the very particular atmosphere of Carson's version of the show.

Younger viewers might not quite "get it." That's not meant to sound exclusionary or elitist. It's just that, when compared to the slickly-produced Tonight Show airing nowadays, Carson's show looks downright offhanded. There was less hullabaloo than has been seen in subsequent years. The monologues (as well as, more often than not, the guest interviews) were conversational. When Carson was firing on all cylinders, no one's opening monologue has been funnier. But sometimes the off nights turned out to be the funniest, most memorable monologues—Carson was a master of rolling with the punches. If his jokes were bombing, he managed to make it work to his advantage with his unflappable confidence.

What are your choices from Time Life? Simple put, there's something to meet every budget. There's a single disc version (with two complete episodes), a three-disc version (six episodes, plus almost an hour of extras), and six-disc version (12 episodes plus two hours of extras), and a mammoth 12-disc deluxe version (24 episodes, plus more than four hours of extras). 
rsz_tonight_show_johnny_carson_dvd.jpg For review purposes, I was able to survey the six-disc edition—its discs are actually numbered 7-12 (corresponding, apparently, with the full 12-disc release). The dozen shows chronicle much of '70s political and pop culture, as that's the decade from which they're exclusively culled. For many viewers under 40 (and especially under 30), name-recognition of many of the guests will be rather spotty. For specifics on who's featured in each episode, visit the official Johnny Carson site.

It's also worth mentioning that this era of The Tonight Show was largely the domain of white men. Whether you're comfortable writing off the relative lack of people of color and the casually sexist treatment of female guests as being "the way things were then" is of course every viewer's prerogative. Times have certainly changed for the better in those regards. I don't think the attitudes and standards of the era negate the entertainment value of these classics. These 40-ish-year-old episodes provide an opportunity for a true "compare and contrast" session.

Here's a real bonus trip for nostalgia buffs: the original TV commercials are included with each episode. This provides a very cool opportunity to relive (or experience for the first time) the original broadcast. (For a more streamlined viewing experience, the episodes can be watched commercial free as well.)

All culled from decades-old, standard definition broadcast tapes, don't go into The Vault Series expecting great visual clarity in these episodes. They vary somewhat from episode to episode, but keep in mind these archival pieces are far from pretty. Older viewers will know what to expect more or less, but if there are young'uns watching with their parents, expect some questions about why it looks the way it does. Come to think of it, the topical jokes will probably confound them a whole lot more than the dated visual presentation.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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