The headline above is a bit misleading. The actual title of summer’s best “new” show is “Carson on TCM.” It’s a fast-moving hour every Monday night on Turner Classic Movies of memorable interviews from the vast library Johnny Carson assembled during a remarkable 30 years as host of “The Tonight Show,” still the most formidable late-night effort of all (Carson’s time on it, that is).
Actually, the interviews featured in this retro delight are culled from the 20 years Carson hosted the show in Burbank. Carson’s first 10 years behind the “Tonight” desk were spent in New York City, where the show had originated in 1954 (with Steve Allen as host, until 1957, followed by Jack Paar until 1962 and then Carson until 1992, when Jay Leno took over). NBC legendarily junked most of Carson’s New York tapes, proving that network executives could be just as short-sighted back in the so-called glory days of television as so many of them are today.
Everything about “Carson on TCM” makes it the most enjoyable hour of television on any network’s summer schedule, at least for anyone old enough to remember watching the man on “Tonight,” not to mention people with a genuine interest in movies, television and popular culture that predates the current millennium. It’s an opportunity to see a smart and sophisticated master interviewer at work, the likes of which weren’t all that uncommon in an era that also included Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, David Frost, David Susskind and Merv Griffin, but seem to be in spectacularly short supply now. It’s a vivid reminder that late-night talk shows didn’t always come across like wacky frat parties, and that watching and listening to grown-ups talk to each other in an adult environment can be enriching and rewarding. It’s a window into the entertainment industry in the ‘70s, a decade filled with extraordinary work by incredibly forward-thinking movie-makers and television producers that forever changed both media. It’s a chance to see legendary performers such as Doris Day, George Burns, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Charlton Heston in their prime, reflecting on work they had done as far back as the ‘40s and ‘50s.
It’s also a chance to see currently popular stars when they were much younger (such as Chevy Chase and Steve Martin) or much, much, much younger. In fact, the first interview featured in the first edition of “Carson on TCM” was a 1982 gem with Drew Barrymore, who was only seven years old at the time and was basking in the success of the blockbuster “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” Knowing the personal and professional triumphs and challenges to come in Barrymore’s young life made this 31-year-old interview all the more compelling. In fact, it was a perfect example of the deeply fascinating experience to be had in watching such conversations in their entirety, as we all too rarely get the chance to do, rather than in edited bits and pieces.
Also, “Carson on TCM” is a smart little prime-time showcase for its host, Conan O’Brien, who landed at TCM’s sister network TBS with a late-night talk show after surviving one of those legendary network bungles referenced above. (That would be NBC’s decision in 2009 to jettison Leno from “Tonight” and install O’Brien as its new host, which proved to be a disaster for everyone involved. Tellingly, even though Leno has dominated late night since 2010 when NBC restored him to “Tonight” and sent O’Brien packing, the network is once again giving him the boot, this time turning the show over to Jimmy Fallon early next year.) O’Brien is so smart and easygoing during his introductions to the Carson interviews that I have to think he might interest more people in sampling his late-night show “Conan,” which seems to be somewhat below the radar as far as ratings and all-important buzz are concerned.
One can only wonder if Carson, a relatively humble and mild-mannered fellow, would even get a shot at so high-profile a position in the current television environment. He certainly appealed to kids and teenagers in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when he was largely the only option they had to late-night test patterns or heavily edited movies, but would younger people show an interest in him now, absent the often adolescent antics they have come to expect from Leno, Fallon, O’Brien, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson?
Those late-night guys are all very talented, and all of their shows can sometimes be worth losing sleep to see. But none of them are as skilled at consistently putting the spotlight squarely on their guests, as Carson almost always did. Nor are they as gifted at getting guests to open up without being obvious about it. It isn’t that much of a stretch to assert that TCM is performing a public service by making so many of Carson’s interviews so readily available in their entirety. But the network might be doing today’s talk-show hosts a favor, too. They could all benefit from this unique refresher course, watching and learning from the man who made it possible for all of them to be where they are today.