Series delves into backstage chaos of Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’
Paul Reiser knows whereof he speaks when it comes to Johnny Carson and “The Tonight Show” — the backdrop of “There’s … Johnny,” the new seven-episode Hulu series he created, produced and co-wrote.
Reiser, 60, appeared about 25 times on Carson’s “Tonight Show” back in his standup days, schmoozing with Johnny on the couch of the show’s iconic set.
“You’re trying to pretend it’s conversational, and it is to an extent, but you’re playing tennis with Johnny,” Reiser says. “He’s interjecting, setting you up, teeing up jokes … he knew exactly how comedians worked and he was a gracious host — he knew when to lay back, when to help, when to move on.”
But Carson and “The Tonight Show” appear only sporadically in “There’s … Johnny” (via archival clips); the only “real” character is Fred de Cordova, “The Tonight Show’s” bantering, chain-smoking executive producer played by Tony Danza.
The series’ main storyline encompasses naive, 19-year-old Andy Klavin (Ian Nelson), a huge Carson fan from Nebraska (just like Johnny) who — through somewhat farcical circumstances — ends up in LA as a gofer on “The Tonight Show.”
It’s 1972, the show has just moved from New York City to Burbank and Andy is thrown into a chaotic world of backstage drama and comedy while striking up a relationship with Joy (Jane Levy), the show’s assistant talent coordinator.
“We wanted to create a world of characters who are appealing and struggling. There’s always the struggle,” says Reiser. “This kid [Andy] is totally unformed and gets dropped into this world and he’s swimming upstream — then he meets a woman with problems he’s never even heard of and they’re each intrigued with each other. It’s about two people finding themselves in a particularly turbulent time in a particularly chaotic environment, but the story is universal. Everyone is in over their head at one point or another.
“‘The Tonight Show’ is the backdrop and as an added bonus we get to enjoy that,” says Reiser. “From the beginning I felt we really needed to have actual clips. I first had the idea [for the series] when Johnny was still alive, but it took a while to convince the Carson Company [which owns the clips]. I was [on ‘The Tonight Show’] a lot and Johnny was always very gracious and they knew I had a great reverence for Johnny and the show. When you see the clips dropped into this fictitious show, when you see Johnny there, you think, ‘Well, this must be real.’ And that really gives it an authenticity.”
The series almost didn’t see daylight; it was originally produced for Seeso, NBC’s digital network that folded while “There’s … Johnny” was preparing to launch.
“It’s been a turbulent ride, and we literally did the whole season [of ‘There’s … Johnny’] in between my season of shooting ‘Stranger Things,’ ” says Reiser, who plays Sam Owens on Season 2 of the Netflix sci-fi series. “Then Seeso folds, and this is a whole new problem. I’ve heard of a network canceling a show, but not a show canceling a network.
“To their credit, NBC/Comcast were great. They said, ‘We love this show’ and they’re sort of keepers, in a way, of Johnny’s legacy, especially NBC. They can’t drop that ball. They said, ‘We’re going to find a home for you’ and I’m thrilled at the way it’s ended.
“I hope everybody finds it.”
“There’s … Johnny” Thursday on Hulu