Review: There’s… Johnny! 1×1 (US: Hulu)

Revisit Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show

There's… Johnny!

In the US: Available on Hulu

Anemoia isn’t a real word. It’s a made-up word, albeit one made up to serve a purpose: to describe that universal feeling of nostalgia for a time and place you didn’t live in. Someone laminate it and send it to Jacob Rees-Mogg.

I wasn’t alive in 1972. I certainly wasn’t alive in the US, watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. A show that ran for 30 years, making its Nebraskan host Johnny Carson one of the most famous men in the country, it was also NBC’s most profitable TV show of the time.

Yet watching There’s… Johnny!, I felt anemoia for LA in 1972. Originally planned for NBC’s just-shuttered Seeso service but now available on Hulu, the show stars Ian Nelson as Andy, a Nebraskan boy whose family worships Johnny Carson and his show. One day, Andy writes a letter to Johnny to ask for both an autograph for his parents… and a job. Soon, he receives the autograph and a letter telling him his wish has come true, and before you know it, he’s on a bus to LA to live his dreams.

Dreams hit reality when he arrives, of course, and it turns out there is no job for him after all. But his sweet, naïve nature means that soon he’s being taken under the wing of Johnny’s assistant T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh (Cosby, In Living Color), as well as show co-ordinator Jane Levy (Suburgatory), and ultimately his dreams come true. But what will sex, drugs, rock & roll and 1972 all do this small town boy?

The West Wing

The show has apparently been 17 years in the making, with producer-creators David Steven Simon and Paul Reiser (yes, that one) working with the Carson estate to produce something that’s a comedy, a drama and a homage, Reiser having appeared multiple times on the show during its run so earning the estate’s trust. An almost unrecognisable Tony Danza is the only actor to be playing a real person (famous exec producer Fred de Cordova), leaving everyone else to play people who could well have existed but didn’t.

Nevertheless, those liberties and the fairy-tale qualities of the show to one side, the show feels like an authentic, behind-the-scenes look at how the Tonight Show could have been made. Taking a hint from Aaron Sorkin’s original plans for The West Wing, neither Johnny Carson nor his long-time sidekick Ed McMahon ever appear on There’s… Johnny!. Instead, they either appear blurry in the distance or through footage from the actual Tonight Show, a technique also used for the show’s guests, who in this first episode include a young George Carlin. It’s a technique that works well and also avoids the audience having to accept other actors playing two of the most famous people in TV history.

Romance

Most of the first episode is about Levy and Nelson’s burgeoning relationship, with Levy having to deal with a violent ex-boyfriend and her parents failing marriage, Nelson providing a sensitive shoulder to cry. Both do admirably well, Levy both as fierce and as funny as she was in Suburgatory and getting some decent lines from Reiser and Simon’s amusing script. There’s also the daily struggles of the writers’ room to come up with genuine gold for Carson’s famous monologues that will reward them with a wink or even a look, with moments that ring true such as a struggle to work out which is a funnier sounding petrol station: Texaco or Mobil. And, of course, we get to see Carson deliver the end result and the audience’s reaction (no, no spoilers).

The show deftly manages to walk between all these different issues, while lightly touching on the history of the period, including McGovern v Nixon and The Joy of Sex. It manages to do this without wallowing in temporal tourism, yet the beautiful recreation of the The Tonight Show studio of the time will still bring a tear to your eye, whether you were alive then or not.

There’s Johnny

The show isn’t a slam-dunk, must-watch that will have you rolling around in the aisles. But it’s a smart, loving, only slightly nostalgic slice of TV comedy about TV comedy, as well as a loving tribute to one of the US’s most hallowed TV shows, that’s certainly worth at least half an hour of your time. I’ll be back for more.