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Friday, March 14th, 2014

Back to Nebraska with Johnny Carson

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

I've no doubt discussed in more than one of these articles how big a star Johnny Carson was. Back in the days of three major networks, the guy who came on every single night to make you laugh before you went to sleep — and did it well — was king. And while Johnny had some problems with NBC over the years, they pretty much gave him what he wanted, rather than risk having him jump ship to another network that would be all too eager to have him. This is the only reason that I can think of for the 1982 special Johnny Comes Home to exist.

The premise of the special is really straight-forward. A camera crew follows Johnny Carson as he visits his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska. He drives around, takes a look at how the neighborhood has changed. We see the house where he grew up as well as some home videos from his childhood. Eventually he orchestrates a reunion of a group of students from his senior class, where they catch up and talk about the good ol' days. We make a number of stops on the nostalgia tour with Carson, but as I watched, the question I kept coming back to again and again was "Who is this for?"

I can imagine that if I were Johnny Carson's biggest fan back in 1982, this would be a nice little special: I'd get to learn more about his childhood, see some of the sights, meet the people in his life. For a fan, I imagine having the late night host serve as tour guide through his past would be the ideal way to learn about his background. There's also the fact that Carson was notoriously private. To hear him talk so much about his personal life and reconnect with many of the figures from his life would be very enlightening when there's so little of that to be found while he's doing his nightly duties after the news.

But if I was simply a casual viewer of Carson I wouldn't make it very far through this thing. The New York Times' review of the special, published on February 15, 1982, the day the program aired, describes it as "sort of like being invited over to watch someone else's home movies." There might be a little bit of joy to be wrung out of watching Carson drive the 1939 Chrysler that his dad once owned down the Main Street of his childhood neighborhood, but do I really need to see Carson's surprise when he learns that the Montgomery Ward is still standing? Or do I need the full history of the building where his dad worked? More importantly, do I need 90 minutes of it? Immediately, my mind tries to make sense of how this special came about. Did Carson sign some sort of provision in his contract that required him to provide the network with at least one primetime special a year, and to get out of it, he mailed in this thing? Did he want to visit some friends back home and took a camera crew along for the hell of it? Was this an idea someone pitched him as a remote segment for The Tonight Show, but when it came out too sincere, they decided to sell it in a different form?

Okay, so, admittedly, I'm blowing this up to seem much worse than it actually is. There are some redeeming qualities to the program. The New York Times compared it to watching someone else's home movies, but one aspect of the special that I enjoyed was the wealth of home movies from Carson's childhood. There seem to have been a lot of them taken (and in color!), especially when one considers the fact that he was growing up in the late '30s/early '40s. We see high school senior Johnny driving the same 1939 Chrysler he tools around town in in 1982, footage of him around his house, doing chores, and having conversations with the rest of the family, and we see him practicing his first love: magic.

Another segment that I found charming happens when Carson stops by his high school, where he has collected six guys who graduated with him 1943. They swap stories and reminisce, including one enjoyable tale from their senior year in which they worked together to collect metal for the war effort by borrowing a truck from Old Man Ballentine (someone actually referred to a human being as "Old Man." I thought that only happened in episodes of Scooby-Doo), loading it up with every piece of metal that wasn't nailed down throughout town, and then donating the whole load, including the truck. The seven men, nearing 60, are then joined by Miss Gordon, one of their elementary school teachers, who runs them through a penmanship lesson from back in the day. They all dip their pens into their desks with built-in inkwells and write large, looping ovals to practice their strokes, as she gives them commands and chides them for talking out of turn, pretending she's not on camera, teaching the biggest star on TV.

Carson's tour of the Granada movie theater, which had shut down at that time but was still standing, is also enlightening because in some ways it feels the most genuine. No doubt Johnny had many formative experiences at his house or at school, but the theater is where he first made his connection with the business that would become his career. He talks about the films that made an impression on him, the Kit Carson Western serials, as well as anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness, which I think he brings up here more for the kitsch factor than for any personal connection. It's also in that very theater, where he worked as an usher, that the United States entered World War II. We are then shown home movies of Carson, and many of those old guys we saw in the classroom, on the day they were getting ready to ship out and fight overseas.

The special ends with Johnny partaking in one of his pastimes as a child: hanging from a girder of a railroad bridge as a train passes overhead. From this segment comes one of the only truly spontaneous-seeming moments in the whole thing. Johnny is waiting for the train to pass and can't tell how much longer it's going to be. He announces, "I'm going in," lets go of the girder and drops into the water below. Two nervous crew guys rush out to meet him as Johnny laughs with utter glee. While Johnny Comes Home may not have been the greatest special for a fan of comedy, at least it provided its host with some authentic laughs.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His new webseries "Ramsey Has a Time Machine" has a very self-explanatory title.

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