A generation of comedians grew up idolizing Johnny Carson. Now, they’re crafting series tributes to him.
Jim Carrey paid honor with “I’m Dying Up Here.” In November, Paul Reiser checked in with “There’s Johnny.”
Both are respectful looks at the comedy world, circa 1970; both miss the mark at actually capturing what the era was like.
“There’s Johnny,” a behind-the-scenes look a la “My Favorite Year,” has the advantage of using the Carson library of clips. So, characters can appear to be watching an episode unfold. It’s interesting but a bit confining. Trying to use a “Tonight Show” discussion about sex almost seems too convenient for what plays out in the offices nearby.
Clearly, this is a wide-eyed world of discovery (not unlike the one young comedians encounter in “I’m Dying Up Here”) that centers around a Nebraskan (of course) who sends Carson a letter and, naively, thinks the TV king is inviting him to work at the “Tonight Show.” With his parents’ blessing, Andy Klavin (Ian Nelson) heads to California and immediately gets on the set of the talk show. There, he befriends no-nonsense staffer Joy Greenfield (Jane Levy) and is invited into the writers room to pitch the funniest name of a gas company. (Shell, apparently, wins.)
The joke lands, Johnny winks and, in no time at all, Andy is hired to work at the talk show. Obviously, Reiser and David Gordon Green want to pull back the curtain. They stuff the comedy with references to other performers (Albert Brooks gets a nudge) and lean on the clips for support.
While Carson is a mythic creature, his executive producer Freddie DeCordova is very much a character (played by Tony Danza). He dips into scenes, says little of consequence and slips out. Danza gives him a sense of style but not much more.
The heavy hand, imagined or real, belongs to Carson.
Andy, meanwhile, looks on in awe.
In the first few episodes, his eyes are opened to a variety of things – from sex to sexism – and the business that fosters them. Because “There’s Johnny” doesn’t want to offend, this can’t be as edgy as “I’m Dying” or “Masters of Sex,” which also peeks in on another era.
Nelson is fine – even though he seems like a character from “The Office” – and Levy has “Mad Men” swagger. Still, they’re not Carson – the character who looms over everything. He’s such a presence, it’s hard to concentrate on what happens to those in his employ.
Had Reiser and Green made him less vital to the story (even to the point of eliminating the clips), “There’s Johnny” might be a better look at those who worked so hard to win his favor. Now it’s just another journey down “42nd Street” and all the potholes it has to offer.
“There’s Johnny” is currently streaming on Hulu.