NBC is finally getting its Johnny Carson miniseries, but not quite the miniseries that was originally hoped for, nor one that will air on the network (the big one named “NBC”) hoped for either. Seeso, NBC’s year-old streaming channel, earlier Tuesday announced that Paul Reiser will develop an eight-episode comedy on Carson — titled “There’s . . . Johnny!” — to launch sometime next year.
In a statement, Reiser, who will not star, said, “Growing up, the coolest thing imaginable was to someday get on ‘The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,’ and make Johnny laugh. The fact that I got to do that was a dream come true, and going back now to explore that world, and pay homage to Johnny and that golden time, is an absolute joy.”
Set in 1972, the series will not be about Carson, per se, but a fictional account of “Andy, a wide-eyed 19-year-old Nebraskan who stumbles his way into a job” on the show, and “Joy, a young talent coordinator on the show, as they both try to find their way and prove themselves in this period of cultural and political upheaval.”
No cast was announced.
Besides Reiser’s involvement, what’s especially noteworthy is the blessing of Carson’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing, the overseer of the Carson estate and the gatekeeper for any project — literary or TV — on Carson, who died Jan. 23, 2005. Seeso said the series will be “produced in conjunction” with the estate, ensuring use of original footage from 1972 that, per Seeso, will “intertwine” with live action. Virtually no footage exists from the 1960s because NBC erased hundreds of tapes containing recordings of “Tonight” editions from that decade when the show originated from New York City. That is one reason why Carson — and subsequently Sotzing — were to become so protective of tapes from the ’70s and ’80s. (Carson retired May 22, 1992.)
Nevertheless, in 2013, NBC commissioned a prime-time miniseries on Carson, based on a forthcoming book by Bill Zehme. But Zehme, a highly respected writer and the last (also believed to be only) writer to whom Carson gave an interview after his retirement, had not completed the book when the miniseries was announced. Later that year, Sotzing told The Hollywood Reporter, “I don’t know what Bill has written, and I need to see the finished product. Bill has been working on it for a long time, and I’ve tried to help him with his facts and make sure that it’s accurate, but I don’t know the whole tone of the book. I told the network that I really need to see what is going to be written before I can chime in whether or not I’m going to be involved.”
Zehme has been battling cancer, delaying publication. NBC later dropped the project.
Clearly, neither Reiser nor Seeso — which offers original and “repurposed” (that is, repeats) programming for $3.99 a month — is looking at anything as remotely comprehensive as the now-defunct mini. Per Evan Shapiro, chief of NBCUniversal’s digital enterprises, “1972 was as chaotic as today — cultural unrest, an unpopular war, an election that would change politics forever. Despite that, each night, from a studio in Burbank, a bunch of folks put on a show that made all of America smile, together. This inventive story looks back, and inward, at just how important humor is to the American psyche. Plus, the chance to bring both Paul Reiser and Johnny Carson back to the NBCUniversal family is an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime thing.”