Behind the Scenes of 'There's ... Johnny!'
Paul Reiser talks about his series based on 'The Tonight Show,' circa 1972
Remember turning on the TV just in time to hear those iconic words from Ed McMahon, “Heeeeerrrreeeee’s Johnny?” From 1962 to 1992, people across the country let Johnny Carson into their living rooms, their bedrooms and their lives.
With the new television series There’s … Johnny!, Paul Reiser and creative partner David Steven Simon are bringing him back there — sort of.
There’s … Johnny!, now streaming on Hulu, tells the fictional story of Andy, a young boy from the Midwest, who ends up getting a job as a gofer behind the scenes of The Tonight Show around the year 1972. Played by Ian Nelson, Andy has no idea what he’s getting himself into when he just shows up at The Tonight Show studios expecting to have a job. Jane Levy plays his mentor Joy Greenfield and Tony Danza plays producer Fred de Cordova, the only character completely based on a real person.
While the show is fictional, it features actual clips from The Tonight Show. The stage was meticulously reconstructed to match what actually existed at the time. “I’m really proud of how well it came together in that the fictitious stuff doesn’t look fictitious because there’s so much real stuff in there to authenticate it,” said Reiser.
All the details were specifically chosen to bring this era back to life — even the year, 1972.
“That was when Johnny moved the show from New York to Burbank,” said Reiser, the show's co-creator and producer. “When it was in California, it suddenly took on a new flavor, and it became a cultural touchstone.” Stars from Hollywood would drop by the show all the time including Don Rickles, Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball and many more. This period was also a pivotal time in American history with the war in Vietnam still going on and the Watergate scandal underway.
“I humbly say that I don’t think there’s another show like this in flavor and accuracy. It’s like we have Johnny, so that’s real. But we wrote around it, and it blends. It came out really as well as I could have hoped,” said Reiser. "Johnny was the king, and he was a part of your life. Especially in those years, it was comforting.”
Bumps in the Road for This Johnny Carson Show
Reiser admits that it took a long time to get There’s … Johnny! made. Like really long. In fact, when he and Simon came up with the idea, Johnny Carson (who died in January 2005) was still alive.
“This show had such a long, circuitous route, just years in developing,” said Reiser. It’s not that the duo had been working on it for years, but rather waiting for the cooperation and partnership of Carson Entertainment Group. When Carson passed away, that company was focused on creating DVDs of the show. But once its management agreed to allow Reiser and Simon unfettered access to 30 years of clips, the new series got sold, written and shot.
Then the channel set to premiere it went belly-up. Seeso, NBC’s now-defunct ad-free streaming comedy channel, announced its closing before audiences could see There’s … Johnny!
“I’ve heard of networks canceling a show, but we canceled the network. So that was really remarkable. That’s why no one wants to work with me,” joked Reiser, who actually has been working quite a bit recently — in Red Oaks on Amazon and in the hit Netflix series, Stranger Things.
Reiser said working with Jeff Sotzing, Carson’s nephew who runs Carson Entertainment, was fantastic. “Jeff was constantly advising us and keeping us on track,” said Reiser. Sometimes it was even serendipitous. When Reiser and Simon pitched their story for There’s … Johnny! to him, Sotzing replied, “You know that’s my life story, don’t you?”
Sotzing told Reiser that his “Uncle John” gave him a job at the show when he was 22 and told him to make himself useful.
“There were all these beautiful, fortuitous, synchronous moments. There were things we made up, and then we’d find out they were actually true,” said Reiser.
True Stories of Life Behind 'The Tonight Show'
Reiser and Simon discovered a number of real stories that they wrote into There’s … Johnny! For example, October 1972 was the 10th anniversary of Carson’s show being on the air. In real life, Johnny wanted to do a special anniversary show. That’s when they found out that the first 10 years of The Tonight Show had been erased because someone at NBC wanted to reuse the tapes.
Let that sink in for a moment …
“So the 10th anniversary show was this really odd, bizarre, not really successful show,” said Reiser. “But it was so awkward that it was funny to us.”
What they did have on tape was the party NBC threw for Carson after that anniversary show.
“They had a camera crew, and they filmed it. It was not for the public; it was just for Johnny,” said Reiser. Sotzing told them about [the tape] and that he could probably get it for them. “Joanna Carson [Carson’s second wife] gave us that tape with her blessing,” Reiser noted.
The Holy Grail for Comics
Reiser appeared on The Tonight Show, considered the Holy Grail for comedians, many times, and recalled what it was like for him to see a clip of his first performance. “I think I was so deliberately trying to not rush it because I knew I would be excited, so I forced myself to slow down. Now when I watch it, it’s so slow. And my voice is like an octave higher because I was nervous,” said Reiser.
Luckily for him, he got better and more successful. So while Carson gave him a thumbs-up for that first performance, Reiser did get to sit on the couch many times after.
“Johnny was good at what he did — he just made everybody look good and made them comfortable. He was never trying to top you, and for a comic, he was really trying to help you,” recalled Reiser. “After a while, I got very comfortable with him, and there were times that I would go for a bit that clearly wasn’t working, and he would just be smirking like, ‘Go ahead, man. You started this.' But that was even better, because Johnny was laughing with me about the joke that’s not working. That was better than those big laughs.”
That’s part of the reason that Sotzing and the Carson estate let them do the show.
“They knew the affection I had for Johnny, and the admiration Johnny seemed to have for me. He had me on so often and was very warm to me,” said Reiser. “Johnny is an integral part of our DNA, and I hope this show gives that to people in a new and satisfying way.”