Paul Reiser’s new comedy recalls the world of Johnny Carson
NEW YORK — Her-r-r-r-rre’s Paul Reiser!
You can find him on the Amazon comedy “Red Oaks,” whose third and final season was recently released with Reiser as the power-packing president of a New Jersey country club in the 1980s.
You can also find him on the just-posted second season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” as a government scientist who may not be quite what he seems.
And though you won’t see him on Hulu’s “There’s . Johnny!,” Reiser is very much part of this comedic peek behind the scenes of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” circa 1972. All seven episodes, with Reiser as co-creator and -writer, are now available for viewing.
“The fact that I suddenly have three different shows on three different streaming platforms suggests that I’m clever and I planned this. I planned nothing,” says Reiser before joking that his goal now is to be on EVERY platform and every device, “even when you shut it off.”
The 60-year-old Reiser, whose acting career began with a bang in the films “Diner,” ”Beverly Hills Cop” and “Aliens,” and who starred in NBC’s 1990s sitcom hit “Mad About You,” is also a veteran standup comic who appeared many times on Carson’s “Tonight Show” during its heyday.
His experience on Johnny’s couch, coupled with his earlier memories of staying up late on school nights to catch Johnny’s monologue and the comedians whose careers he launched with a sanctifying thumbs-up, spurred Reiser to develop “There’s . Johnny!” with partner David Steven Simon.
That took more than a decade, much of it spent securing the support of the Carson estate, which has furnished clips from vintage 1972 shows that are inserted into the comedic narrative. It is through these snippets that Carson resides in “There’s . Johnny!” No actor plays him.
This contrasts with Showtime’s contemporaneous dramedy “I’m Dying Up Here,” set at a 1970s Sunset Strip comedy club whose up-and-coming comics dream of a career-making shot on “The Tonight Show.” Carson is portrayed by Dylan Baker.
While paying no less reverence to Carson’s lofty stature, “There’s … Johnny!” is instead a TV workplace comedy. Its action centers on 19-year-old Carson-idolizing Andy Klavin, who stumbles into a job as gofer on the “Tonight Show” staff. Fresh from Nebraska, wide-eyed Andy (Ian Nelson) works closely with a fellow staffer, jaded Hollywood child Joy (Jane Levy), who treats Andy’s naivete with exasperation and wonderment.
All of the characters are fictional, other than Freddy de Cordova, Carson’s longtime executive producer and ring-a-ding-ding consigliere, who is played with gusto by Tony Danza.
Reiser recalls that it was de Cordova who served as Carson’s liaison with the staff and, until they stepped onstage, with Johnny’s guests, too.
“I did the show a lot and, other than sitting there next to Johnny on camera, I never hung out with him, never SAW him,” Reiser says. “He was this looming presence in the building — it was all Johnny’s world — but even when he was going from his office to makeup or the stage, all I saw was an elbow rounding a corner or the back of his head. That was the feel that I wanted to put in the show: You know he’s there, it’s all about him, but it’s only on the air where you see him.”
It was on the air that Carson took form for the nation as an intimately felt companion whose impact and reach is almost impossible to fathom today.
“He was the GUY,” says Reiser. “Johnny was a part of our lives in a way I don’t think any television show or performer can be today. You couldn’t record the show, so you had to stay up until 11:30 to watch, or you missed out.
“There are people 40 and up who remember Johnny and still miss him. But you don’t need any prior experience or knowledge of Johnny Carson to enjoy our show. It’s not ABOUT him. He’s the background. And I like to think that it will make people not familiar with him happy that they now know about him.”