In this polarized era of Samantha Bees playing to one end of the political divide by demonizing the other, it is hard to remember a time when late night television was an equal opportunity offender that refused to take sides. Of course, late night television of the 1970s was a fiefdom where Johnny Carson was king. If you weren’t nostalgic for the real Tonight Show already, you will be after watching Seeso’s new scripted series, There’s . . . Johnny, created and written by Paul Reiser and David Steven Simon, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Whether you were on the right or left, everybody loved Johnny in 1972. This is particularly true of Andy Klavin and his parents, who happen to live in Carson’s native Nebraska. Knowing they are concerned about his older brother serving in Vietnam, Klavin writes the show asking for an autographed picture. On impulse, the nineteen-year-old also inquires about job opportunities. Misunderstanding the form letter response, Klavin takes the bus all the way to California thinking he had been hired. He hadn’t, but hot mess producer Joy Greenfield likes him better than her slacker runner, so she basically decides to keep him. Obviously, the kid is in for a real education, about show business and life.
Judging from the first two episodes, There’s Johnny will build the scripted drama around a vintage episode. It seems Carson and Ed McMahon only appear in the archival footage or as disembodied voices coming from “of-stage.” However, Tony Danza plays executive producer Freddie de Cordova—and he is shockingly terrific. Frankly, this could be his career defining television role rather than Taxi or that other show that he played the domestic servant on. Danza just oozes confident attitude and casual sarcasm. He reminds us Rip Torn’s character in The Larry Sanders Show was inspired by de Cordova, not vice versa.
Jane Levy is also a wonderfully neurotic force to be reckoned with as Klavin’s boss, Greenfield. Obviously, there will be some sexual tension there, which she makes completely believable, but she also delivers some deliciously tart barbs. David Paymer plays off her nicely as the analyst she really needs to see more often in the second episode. Frankly, Ian Nelson’s Klavin is somewhat dull compared to the colorful characters orbiting around him, but you could argue his job is to facilitate their chaos.
In the first two episodes, feature directors David Gordon Green and Andrew Bujalski cleverly integrate the vintage show footage with the new backstage drama, while Reiser and Simon have good ears for era-appropriate comedy. However, the second episode’s downer ending highlights the challenges film festivals will face as they increase their television programming.