Paul Reiser knows whereof he speaks when it comes to Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show the backdrop of Theres Johnny, the new seven-episode Hulu series he created, produced and co-wrote.
Reiser, 60, appeared about 25 times on Carsons Tonight Show back in his standup days, schmoozing with Johnny on the couch of the shows iconic set.
Youre trying to pretend its conversational, and it is to an extent, but youre playing tennis with Johnny, Reiser says. Hes 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 Theres Johnny (via archival clips); the only real character is Fred de Cordova, The Tonight Shows 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.
Its 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 shows assistant talent coordinator.
We wanted to create a world of characters who are appealing and struggling. Theres always the struggle, says Reiser. This kid [Andy] is totally unformed and gets dropped into this world and hes swimming upstream then he meets a woman with problems hes never even heard of and theyre each intrigued with each other. Its 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 didnt see daylight; it was originally produced for Seeso, NBCs digital network that folded while Theres Johnny was preparing to launch.
Its been a turbulent ride, and we literally did the whole season [of Theres 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. Ive heard of a network cancelling a show, but not a show cancelling a network.
To their credit, NBC/Comcast were great. They said, We love this show and theyre sort of keepers, in a way, of Johnnys legacy, especially NBC. They cant drop that ball. They said, Were going to find a home for you and Im thrilled at the way its ended.
I hope everybody finds it.
Theres Johnny Thursday on Hulu