As far as audience surrogates go, you can’t get any better or time-tested than a wide-eyed optimist thrust into the middle of a culture shock. “There’s…Johnny!” protagonist Andy Klavin (Ian Nelson) ticks all those boxes, becoming a gateway to the backstage world at the Johnny Carson-hosted “Tonight Show” in Hulu’s new seven-part comedy series. But there’s a distinct style and approach to the show around Andy that elevates this from a comedy curiosity or a wistful passion project to something worth immersing in.
Rather than re-creating faint replications of antics from the time when Carson ruled late night, “There’s…Johnny!” (originally produced for Seeso, before that comedy service shut down) uses actual archival footage from the show, even incorporating memorable moments as significant plot points for the characters just off-camera. Johnny, Ed McMahon, and even a few notable guest stars pop up on the giant TV camera’s viewfinder, blurry out of the frame, or over the phone in one fun twist. These real-life clips lend the series some comedic cachet, but it also provides a grounded historical framework for a story that, by design, often feels like a fairy tale.
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As Andy, a Nebraskan transplant, navigates his way through the behind the scenes maze of “The Tonight Show,” his various stops along the way have the feel of a living-room retelling of a bedtime story. In the writers room, where wide-collared jokesters parse out the nature of what’s actually funny, they feel like legendary figures to Andy, even as they fear for their own job security. Joy Greenfield (Jane Levy), one of the show’s coordinators, quickly becomes both Andy’s shepherd and the object of his puppy-dog affection.
Overseeing it all, Tony Danza’s grounded take on longtime producer and director Freddie DeCordova doesn’t crowd out the rest of the show’s grind. More an occasional pop-in than a TV overlord, a downplayed Freddie means a fuller view of the show-within-a-show. With a measured version of an easily bombastic, lampoonable TV exec archetype, it allows other elements of “There’s…Johnny!” like finer specifics of monologue construction or the pitfalls of talent booking to take more of a prominent role in what Andy sees and absorbs.
A teenage idealist dropped into the epicenter of his cultural universe is a template that will likely draw comparisons to “Almost Famous.” But as far as apt comparisons, this is probably closer in tone to another David Gordon Green-directed streaming series, “Red Oaks.” (Aside from the period trappings, that show also has a connection to “There’s…Johnny!” creator/writer Paul Reiser.)
Despite the storybook quality that “The Tonight Show” production process takes on, “There’s…Johnny!” largely stays away from the surreal, except in Andy’s continuous shock at being given increasingly important tasks. There’s a certain reverence to the workplace itself that separates this from most other workplace dramedies. As a result, the show occasionally veers towards the saccharine. But for characters who see the daily process of making a late-night comedy show as this weird, wonderful alchemy, it almost makes perfect sense.
“There’s…Johnny!” relishes the opportunity to use very specific ‘70s-related hijinks as plot points — let’s just say that this version of “Tonight Show” security is a bit more lax than today’s probably is. But there’s care taken to acknowledge issues like gender pay disparity and racial profiling that don’t simply get lost in the joke-writing weeds. These aren’t overarching, in-depth investigations into the inequities of decades past, but it’s nice to see a show so enamored of this time period not put complete blinders on the less-than-rosy elements of the era.
Part of that comes from Levy doing tremendous work to elevate Joy to a vital part of the “Tonight Show” fabric in her own right. Joy’s defining characteristic is a certain kind of perseverance, rather than entitlement or a continuous lamenting of her lack of workplace respect. Through her occasional perspective, she becomes the Peggy Olsen of “There’s…Johnny!,” navigating a male-heavy world while trying to keep her ambitions and reputation intact.
There’s an overwhelming earnestness to “There’s…Johnny!” and it wears its influences proudly, but the moments where the show forges something distinct are in its wordless moments. The silent acknowledgment that “The Kid” made a worthy contribution or seeing the look of disappointment on someone’s face when something gets taken too far are the things that separate this from another costume-heavy time jump built on references from the day.
Andy himself is a bit of a blank slate, but purposely so. This isn’t meant to be a gritty expose of life within a late-night comedy show. This is someone stumbling through comedy history, backed by enough pastels and paisley that some frames glimmer all on their own. “There’s…Johnny!” is unabashedly a tribute, filtered through the glow of fondness for a time gone by. Not without its second-guessing, there’s still a lovely underpinning of specificity that finds some honesty among the nostalgia. TV is an increasingly strange business, but “There’s…Johnny!” argues that there’s still a bit of magic in the chaos.
“There’s…Johnny!” is now available to stream on Hulu.