tonightshowseinfeldcoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No (young children will be bored)
1985-88, 157 min. (3 shows), Color
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Okay, families, it’s cultural literacy time.

If you’re a fan of horror-thrillers, to appreciate that famous line “Here’s Johnny” from Stephen King’s The Shining, you really ought to have seen The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson at least ONCE, and witness sidekick Ed McMahon doing his introductory thing.

Since Seinfeld tops the TV Guide’s list of all-time greatest comedies and is still in syndication, you also ought to watch some of Jerry Seinfeld’s early Tonight Show stand-up routines to see a very young Jerry honing his craft and see how his humor, from the very beginning, focused on keen observations of the small things in everyday life.

This pure genius release from Time Life features three FULL episodes of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Fans of SNL and sketch comedy will find this worth buying just to see Carson’s classic impersonation of Sylvester Stallone in a one-man skit, “Mr. Rambo’s Neighborhood.” Inspired by Eddie Murphy’s 1983 SNL ghetto version of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, this 1985 sketch features Carson doing a spot-on Sly with special effects so much fun that the talk-show host thanked all of the people involved. It’s at least as funny as Murphy’s Mr. Robinson, and possibly funnier, given how great Carson’s impersonation is. And it’s way funnier than John Byner’s SNL version of “Mr. Rambo’s Neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, tennis fans will delight in seeing 18-year-old Andre Agassi appear as a guest on one of these three shows—with a clip showing the mullet-haired Agassi, then a teen heartthrob, in three exchanges from a semi-final match he lost to Mats Wilander. It wasn’t much of a prediction, but Carson said on the air that in a few years Agassi would dominate the sport, and of course he did. There are some other great guest appearances on this DVD collection as well, including the only female drag racer back in 1986, Shirley Muldowney, whose interview with Carson is enlightening, even if Carson’s golf-cart drag racing challenge doesn’t meet expectations.

In TV, there’s probably no bigger name than Oprah, and she appears on one of these three shows to promote her appearance in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (clip shown). This was before Oprah’s talk show went totally national, as she announced that the show would be available in the L.A. market “soon.” It’s fascinating to see this icon before she became huge . . . just as it’s fascinating to see Arnold Schwarzenegger appear to plug his fish-out-of-water cop comedy Red Heat before he successfully ran for governor of California.

Of the guests, the always-annoying Shelley Winters is the only bomb, useful only for Carson to poke fun of. She comes on directly after that funny Rambo sketch, which makes it all the more painful to watch . . . so much so that the all-male King’s Singers novelty a cappella act seems refreshing.

tonightshowseinfeldscreenAs for Carson himself, these three shows offer proof enough as to why he was a late-night institution for three decades, ranked #12 on “TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.” His monologues are a course in comedy for aspiring comedians, with his gestures, his timing, and his handling of jokes that fall flat (or jokes he muffs) ultimately tweaked and twisted until they become running gags or produce more laughs than if the joke had been successful. Much of the Reagan-era humor is topical, but there’s enough here to make each monologue funny enough to watch even now. One thing worth mentioning, though, is the show’s trademark interlude tiles, with a “We’ll be right back” static message displayed on-screen while you listen to a few bars (in some cases, quite a few) from the studio band led by Doc Severinsen. Later late-night shows would put the camera on the band.

Bottom line: If you’re wanting to see a few FULL episodes of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson to boost your cultural literacy, this is the disc to get, as these shows have appeal for a broader range of ages than others might. An added bonus is that you can choose to watch the shows with or without original commercials. Families will want to watch the commercials too, because it’s always fun to see old products and familiar ones advertised 25 years ago. There isn’t a scene selection menu for each show, but the scenes are easily accessed using the skip button on your remote. Two clicks on the first show, for example, and you’re right there in “Mr. Rambo’s Neighborhood.”

Young children will be bored, but children old enough to watch reruns of adult shows on TV might find this DVD compilation as fascinating as their parents will. These three episodes would be rated PG because of the Rambo sketch and some innuendo that will fly right over young one’s heads.