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Review of THE TONIGHT SHOW: JOHNNY & FRIENDS – STEVE MARTIN, ROBIN WILLIAMS, EDDIE MURPHY (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family:  Heck no
1976-91, 499 min. (9 full shows), Color
Talk-Variety
Not rated (would be PG for sexual innuendo, jokes)
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features:  n/a
Clip of Eddie Murphy monologue (PG-rated)

On one of the nine episodes included on this three-disc installment of Johnny and Friends: Steve Martin, Robin Williams, & Eddie Murphy, guest Phyllis Newman complains that Williams is a tough act to follow, adding there’s nothing left for her to do but take off her clothes. “Please don’t do that,” Carson says. “This is a family show.”

“What family?” Williams asks. “Weird family. Weird families living in caves somewhere,” Carson says to audience laughter.

As the topic turns to Carson’s divorces, Williams intones, “Divorce—from the old Latin divorcero, which means Having your genitals pulled out through your wallet. You can kiss your assets goodbye.” Then, a few minutes later into Williams’ non-stop improvisations, “I have learned the difference between love and lust. Lust never costs over $200.” I have never seen a talk show break down into comic chaos like this episode featuring Williams and Newman.

Families who only know Williams from voicing the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin or Murphy as the voice of Donkey in Shrek and Mushu in Mulan might find it shocking the amount of sexual innuendo and sex jokes fast-talking guests were able to get away with on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. But remember: it was late-night TV. Your family doesn’t have to be weird to appreciate these nine full episodes, but your children definitely have to be in their mid-to-late teens.

Johnny Carson wasn’t the first host of The Tonight Show (he followed originator Steve Allen and Jack Parr) nor the last. But he was popular and his 30 years as host stand as a record that will probably never be broken. He was accompanied by sidekick announcer Ed McMahon (“He-earrrrrrs Johnny!”), band leader Doc Severinson, substitute band leader Tommy Neusom, and a parade of guests, most of them promoting movies, books, and record albums. There are several installments of “Stump the Band” that aren’t as funny as others, and a completely dead “Might Carson Art Players” sketch that flops. But two segments that Carson does from his desk are very funny, and his opening monologues continue to be a study in stand-up comedy delivery.

Time Life already released all of these episodes on larger collections of Johnny and Friends, but fans of Martin, Williams, and Murphy will enjoy seeing three episodes each from the many appearances they made on the show. The earliest episode is from 1976, Carson’s 14th season as host of the popular talk-variety show. Here’s what’s included:

Steve Martin
Original Show Airdate: 07/21/76
Steve Martin, Jimmy Stewart, Karen Black
—Original Show Airdate: 05/21/82
Steve Martin, Sylvester Stallone
—Original Show Airdate: 12/19/91
Steve Martin, Cathy Ladman, Leon Redbone

Robin Williams
Original Show Airdate: 04/3/84
Robin Williams, Phyllis Newman
—Original Show Airdate: 01/10/91
Robin Williams, Steve Lawrence
—Original Show Airdate: 09/19/91
Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters

Eddie Murphy
Original Show Airdate: 01/1/82
Eddie Murphy, McLean Stevenson
—Original Show Airdate: 02/10/82
Eddie Murphy, Wayne Rogers, Albert Hague
—Original Show Airdate: 07/30/82
Eddie Murphy, Randall “Tex” Cobb, Angela Bofill

Williams is the funniest and Murphy holds his own—especially when he shocks TV viewers by proposing to lead the audience in a soul-cleansing shouting of the “n” word. It could have been a drumroll countdown to disaster, but with Carson’s permission Murphy went for it and it made his routine based on race uncomfortably but spot-on funny. The only weak link on this set is Martin, who is surprisingly unfunny. You find yourself wishing they had included another comedian instead. Even Sylvester Stallone and Jimmy Stewart are more amusing, and fans of It’s a Wonderful Life will enjoy hearing Stewart talk about the film. But it is interesting to see film clips from the comedians’ “coming to theaters” movies that we’re now well familiar with.

If your family is like mine, they may actually enjoy the commercials as much as the show. It’s fun seeing commercials from 35-40 years ago, and viewers have the option of watching the nine shows with or without original commercials.

But remember, this is late-night viewing . . . for “weird families” only.

Review of HEE HAW: PFFT! YOU WAS GONE (DVD)

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Grade: B-/B
Entire family: Yes
1969-74, 191 min. (4 episodes), Color
Variety show
Not rated (would be G despite occasional innuendo)
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C-/D
“Rindercella” clip
Amazon link

Hee Haw debuted in 1969 as the rural answer to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and while Laugh-In lasted two years longer on primetime network television, anyone who’s recently watched episodes from both shows knows that Hee Haw got the last laugh. Laugh-In’s gags were way too topical and tied to the news, or else they were silly catch-phrases that have long since lost their funniness. Either way, the show isn’t nearly as funny today, and you can bet your sweet bippy on it.

Hee Haw is another story. This show, hosted by country music stars Buck Owens and Roy Clark, was unapologetically devoted to cornball humor. Writers plumbed the depths of rural stereotypes for jokes that somehow managed to celebrate rural life while also poking fun of it. Like the Grand Ole Opry, the show had a group of talented regulars but also featured some of country music’s top stars and rising newcomers as weekly guests. It was a popular-enough series to last another 20 years in syndication, and it still plays pretty much the same now as it did then. Meaning, of course, that cornball humor never changes. The sketch comedy and rapid-fire jokes were corny then, and they’re corny now. How corny? You be the judge:

Doctor: I hate to tell you this, but your wife’s mind is gone.
Male patient: Well, that don’t surprise me. She’s been givin’ me a piece of it for the past 20 years.

Roy: Hey, you know I was in the army for three years?
Buck: Did you get a commission?
Roy: No, just a straight salary.

Cousin Clem: Junior, are you goin’ to the drawing at the movie theater in town tonight?
Junior: No, I think I’ll stay home and draw.
Lulu: Junior, you’re no artist. The only thing you could draw’d be flies.
Junior: I can’t draw no flies. They won’t hold still long enough.
Cousin Clem: I think I’ll take up finger painting.
Grandpa: What’s this family a-comin’ to? When I think of one of my kin talkin’ about paintin’ his fingers, I get real upset, I get real mad.
Lulu: I tell you what you could draw for me, Junior. Why don’t you draw the curtain?
Announcer: Be sure to tune in next time [ to”The Culhanes”], when we’ll hear Junior say:
Junior: I just drew a conclusion.

Of course, the delivery and the characters account for much of the humor, and with humor taking center stage it’s easy to forget that for a time Hee Haw was the biggest television venue for country performers.

Hee Haw: Pfft You Was Gone! is a two-disc set featuring four complete shows and two under three-minute interviews with Aaron Tippin and Moe Bandy, who performed as guests on the show, which was all about having fun. “If you made a mistake it was almost good,” said Bandy, who recalled that despite cue cards people would often muff their lines or ad lib.

Episode 2 (Season 1, 6-22-69)
Musically, Buck Owens, the Hagers, Don Rich, and Susan Raye sing “But You Know I Love You,” Merle Haggard sings “Mama Tried” and “Branded Man,” Roy Clark sings “Yesterday When I Was Young, Grandpa Jones sings “Mountain Dew,” Buck Owens and the Buckaroos perform “Happy Times,” and the Hagers chip in “With Lonely.” Among the sketches are several with The Culhanes of Kornfield Kounty, several KORN News Briefs and “Pfft! You Was Gone” mini-songs, a rhyming menu rundown of “Hey Grandpa, What’s for Supper?” and Archie at the barbershop telling the syllable-inversion story of “Rindercella.”

Episode 34 (Season 2, 10-13-70)
Special guest Marty Robbins sings “I’m So Afraid of Losing You” and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” Buck and the gang sing “Sing a Happy Song,” Roy Clark performs “Black Sapphire,” Connie Eaton sings “Ring of Fire,” Grandpa Jones performs “You’ll Make Our Shack a Mansion,” Buck and Susan Raye sing “Tennessee Bird Walk,” and The Hagers perform a song that in the Trump era of rural voters seems almost hard to believe: “Everything Is Beautiful,” sung to a room full of children of all nationalities (“Everyone is beautiful in their own way; under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find a way”). The usual assortment of recurring comedy sketches include “Pfft! You Was Gone,” KORN News Briefs, The Culhanes, What’s for Supper? and Stringbean reading a letter from home.

Episode 70 (Season 3, 2-12-72)
Porter Wagoner sings “What Ain’t to Be Just Might Happen,” Dolly Parton sings “Coat of Many Colors,” and together they sing “Right Combination.” Buck and the gang sing “Old Dan Tucker,” Buck and the Buckaroos perform “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” and “”I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me),” Roy and The Sound Generation perform “Peace in the Valley,” The Hagars sing “The Cost of Love Is Getting Higher,” Guinilla Hutton sings “He’s All I Got,” and a bunch of the cast performs “John Henry.” Junior Samples turns up on his used car lot for one sketch segment, and the “Pfft You Was Gone” musical tale of woe is augmented this time by another musical sketch that would become just as popular: “Gloom, Despair and Agony on Me” (If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all . . . Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me”

Episode 111 (Season 5, 11-3-73)
Country music royalty Tammy Wynette and George Jones are the musical guests, along with Johnny Bush. Jones sings “Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Losing You),” Wynette sings “Kids Say the Darnedest Things,” together they perform “We’re Gonna Hold On,” Johnny Bush sings “Here Comes the World Again,” Buck and his Buckaroos perform “Too Much Water,” Roy and family perform “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” The Hagars “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” Roy sings “I’ll Paint You a Song,” and Buck and Susan Raye perform “I Think I’m Going to Like Loving You.” Wynette even subs for Gordie on a “Pfft! You Was Gone” segment. Among the sketches, Junior turns up on Samples Sales selling not just cars but watch dogs, and Minnie Pearl joins Grandpa Jones in the kitchen.

Hee Haw was originally intended for rural audiences and fans of country music, and that’s still the main audience for this classic show. If you don’t like country or corny jokes you might not hee-haw much. But it’s hard even for hardcore urbanites not to grin when Archie Campbell and Gordie Tapp assume an American Gothic pose and sing a ditty about a woman who left, with the deadpan, punchline chorus, “Where, oh where, are you tonight? Why did you leave me here all alone? I searched the world over and I thought I’d found true love. You met another and PFFT! you was gone.”

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON: JOHNNY AND FRIENDS FEATURING JERRY SEINFELD (DVD)

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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
Trailer
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.