Johnny Carson Is Back On The Air — And Still Pure Gold

Johnny Carson remains the standard against which all late-night hosts are measured. Some (like me) believe David Letterman is the better, greatest, and final old-school host, even as others can make counter-arguments ranging from pre-Carson (Steve Allen) to post-Carson (Conan O’Brien). But Johnny is the guy who teed up the template (monologue, desk chat, sketches, celebrity interviews) and sent it spinning like the imaginary golf ball he would mime hitting at the end of his monologues.

Now you can see Johnny Carson the way he was meant to be remembered. Antenna TV, a cable channel available in a majority of markets, is airing full-length, uncut episodes of Carson’s version of The Tonight Show under the title Johnny Carson, most of them from the late-1970s through the mid-1980s, and they are a pure delight to behold.

The reruns, airing weeknights at 11 p.m. and thus giving Jimmy Fallon’s Adderall-paced Tonight Show at least a little symbolic competition, return us to a time when an opening monologue could include jokes about government officials several layers deeper than President, when it could be assumed that the nation knew about world events beyond the Kardashian-verse. Carson’s monologues are filled with then-timely jokes about the Watergate break-in, about Jimmy Carter-era gas lines and malaise.

Carson presided over the Tonight Show for three decades, during which time he oversaw a shifts from establishment show-biz (Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, and Elizabeth Taylor proceed to Johnny’s sofa with full deference paid by both audience and host) to an industry fractured into cult segmentation and eccentricity (the key example: George Carlin morphs from suit-and-tie stand-up to hippie-dippy radical over the course of any given week’s-worth of reruns).

Antenna TV broadcasts the shows (some of them 90-minutes long) in a mixed-up order, and that’s great: I like tuning in one night to see a 1985 Robert Blake, fingering an unlit cigarette and inveighing against NBC for disrespecting his post-Baretta pet project Helltown (the future accused-murderer played a battlin’ priest!), then the next night checking out a 1977 Tonight Show with Jane Fonda discussing why she was considered a “national security risk” by the Nixon administration.

The Fonda episode was especially fascinating for what Carson did. Fonda was there to promote her movie Julia, but Carson’s intro was about something else: “Here’s a gal I admire highly,” he said, “as a person who has taken a stand on issues that at times were unpopular… called a radical. It’s a funny thing, how people who were called radical at the time are now considered people who were right on.” No current host would introduce such controversial topics before a guest had even taken her seat.

(It also demonstrates how the political pendulum swings back and forth — and back again: Fonda, excoriated in conservative circles in the late-’60s/early-’70s as “Hanoi Jane” for her anti-Vietnam War stance, was being treated by a very Establishment figure like Carson as a principled person. Nowadays, the Fox News-fueled demographic has resuscitated the Hanoi Jane tag even when the 78-year-old Fonda appears in something as anodyne as the Netflix sitcom Grace & Frankie.)

Most of the time, of course, the Johnny Carson shows are lighter-than-air affairs. Look — there’s Don Rickles breaking up Johnny and sidekick-announcer Ed McMahon with machine-gun-speed insults! Look — there’s Goldie Hawn, telling Carson she’s just completed a movie with Chevy Chase, saying “I think it’ll be fabulous!” (The movie in question: Foul Play.) Look — there’s Johnny as huckster Art Fern, doing variations on burlesque jokes with Carol Wayne!

What I really enjoy about Antenna TV’s full-length presentations is that they place Carson in history as a man of his time, in ways that are as serious as TV talk shows get (watch him tussle with Norman Mailer over the murder-theory of Marilyn Monroe’s death) and as silly as TV gets (a monologue joke like “This audience would laugh at Dinah Shore backing into a meat thermometer” now needs footnotes, and has the fingerprints of joke-writer Pat McCormick all over it).

Whether you’re a long-time fan looking for a way-back machine or a post-millennial looking to expand your sense of popular culture, these reruns are gold — often tarnished, gold-plated gold, but gold nonetheless.

Johnny Carson airs weeknights at 11 p.m and weekends at 10 p.m. on Antenna TV.