It’s 1972 and 19-year-old Nebraska native Andy Klavin has come to Hollywood to chase dreams. And he’s landed closer to them than most, securing a gofer job on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. Working behind the scenes, he meets the colorful cast of characters who keep the show’s wheels turning, from veteran producer Freddie DeCordova (Tony Danza) to harried coordinator Joy (Jane Levy), and the writing team (four white guys, naturally, it’s 1972) who immediately transform Andy’s last name into a Jerry Lewis punchline. (“Klaaaaaaavin!”)
Created by Paul Reiser (yes, that one) and David Steven Simon, There’s…Johnny! was originally created for NBC Universal’s streaming service Seeso. When that service shuttered this past summer—mere weeks before the show was due to premiere—There’s…Johnny! was left searching for a new home. Thankfully, Hulu eventually rode to the rescue, so now audiences can see all seven episodes of this sweet, if uneven, tribute to Carson’s legacy.
And There’s…Johnny! is sweet, sometimes to a fault. Klavin himself, as played by Ian Nelson, is a wide-eyed true believer in Hollywood magic, and in Carson’s brand in particular. He’s not quite Kenneth from 30 Rock levels of naive innocence, but neither is he ever developed particularly well beyond his simple, unabashed wonder at his surroundings and situations. There are moments where the show tries for more, dipping into some of the more serious situations that plagued the mid-’70s, but they never quite feel earned simply because so much of the show is presented like the opening moments of a tour of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (before the boat ride).
The strongest player in the bunch is unquestionably Jane Levy’s Joy Greenfield. It initially looks like she’s being set up to be crush fodder for innocent young Andy, but at every step, the show undercuts that expectation. Through Joy, the show touches on some of its heavier material, including wage inequity and some serious issues involving her relationship with her father. These storylines of Joy’s tend to work better than those involving Andy, if for no other reason than that she’s a better-developed character than he is. If seven episodes are all we ever get of There’s…Johnny!, Joy is the one character I’ll truly be sad not to see more of.
And speaking of Johnny, his presence is one of the best parts of the show. Not in person, obviously, but There’s…Johnny! incorporates tons of real footage from The Tonight Show, weaving storylines in, around, and behind actual events (including an extortion plot that actually happened). The show will often have real footage playing in the foreground on a monitor, while a blurry stand-in for Johnny or long-time co-host Ed McMahon plays out the scene in the background. The effect is rarely flawless, but it works because the actors sell it. (Especially during a sequence that incorporates real footage from an after-party following Carson’s 10-year anniversary show, where he announces his engagement to Joanna Holland and then winks at somebody off camera—in this reality, it’s to Andy and the assembled group of writers.)
There’s…Johnny! will unquestionably earn comparisons to Almost Famous, another coming-of-age tale set against a much-glamorized corner of pop-culture history. But Johnny never delves into the dark side like Cameron Crowe’s film did, and that’s OK. There’s…Johnny! presents an unquestionably rose-colored vision of what it must have been like to work at The Tonight Show during its heyday, but it’s fine—this is a fawning fable, not latter-day deconstruction.
It’s unclear if There’s…Johnny! will continue in any form, but as it stands now, it’s an odd, endearing gem, and with only seven half-hour episodes, a pleasant way to kill an afternoon.