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Television

Review: ‘There’s... Johnny!’ goes back in time for a peek behind ‘The Tonight Show’ curtain

Owed to Joy
Ian Nelson, left, and Tony Danza in a scene from “There’s...Johnny!”
(Hulu)

There’s often a prime opportunity for nostalgia to take hold in entertainment, and it’s typically when current events feel too grim and overwhelming.

With Hollywood and culture at large still grappling with multiple sexual misconduct allegations, a continuing deluge that often feels to be just beginning, why not look back to a less turbulent time? Specifically, when show business was glamorous and each evening was ruled by the one unifying king of late night, Johnny Carson.

That’s the proposition offered by “There’s… Johnny!,” a half-hour backstage comedy centered around the golden age of “The Tonight Show” created by comic-actor Paul Reiser and his “Mad About You” collaborator David Steven Simon.

The series was initially scheduled to run on the comedy-centric streaming service Seeso in August before the network folded, and it was subsequently picked up by Hulu, where all seven episodes land Thursday.

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And with the help of the show’s NBC/Universal parentage and Carson’s estate, “There’s… Johnny!” has its intoxicating pleasures based on its core figure, who exists mostly off-screen but appears in vintage clips that neatly mesh with the action.

At one point, a writer fusses over a monologue gag from the show’s imagined 1972, and Carson later says it in footage from 45 years ago. It’s a fun trick, so much so that the actual show swirling around its focal point struggles to compete.

At the center is 19-year-old, Nebraska-born Andy Klavin (Ian Nelson of “The Hunger Games”), who travels cross-country to work on “The Tonight Show” after taking at face value a form-letter response to his autograph request. Complications ensue.

Early episodes carry some indie cred with director David Gordon Green (“Eastbound & Down,” as well as Reiser’s Amazon series “Red Oaks”) and Andrew Bujalski (“Computer Chess”). Andy’s earnest Hollywood journey gets some bold-face underscoring with his thoughtful looks out a sun-drenched bus window and, improbably, later frolicking behind Johnny’s desk when the set is left open after he arrives late at night.

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Ian Nelson and Jane Levy in a scene from "There's... Johnny!"
(Lisa Rose / Hulu )

Andy is later spared being booted off the lot by a sympathetic office manager ( T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh) and a similarly young producer named Joy (Jane Levy). She claims him for the day and gives him his first taste of showbiz magic, which includes punching up a joke after passing the writer’s room and going slack-jawed as Johnny steps through the curtain to kick off “The Tonight Show.”

A bespectacled Tony Danza turns up as executive producer Fred de Cordova — the show’s only character drawn from real life — who runs on “cologne and a steady flow of gin,” but he’s mostly a fatherly presence who invites Andy to join him for church. Carson approves Andy’s eventual hire partly because of their shared roots. “The Larry Sanders Show,” this isn’t.

The backstage antics could make for a satisfying enough escape except for the show’s clunky attempts to engage the real world. Andy has a brother fighting in Vietnam who inspires him to make his parents proud (“They just don’t get a lot of good news, and I like when I can bring them good news”). And Joy has a philandering father and impulse-control problems with sex, which is explored in a therapy session in the fourth episode. (Hulu provided only episodes 1 and 4 for review.)

The 1970s setting proves timely as Carson’s all-male writing staff make crude jokes at Joy’s expense. Later, one is seen pantomiming masturbation while watching a guest on the monitors, a moment that carries a note of horror far greater than it would have in August. Will this behavior find a reckoning? Maybe, but in context of events decades later it casts a shadow that feels jarring amid the show’s lighter touch elsewhere.

Given its roots in comedy, “There’s… Johnny” remains strongest in its reverent time travels with Carson as well as his fellow comedy giants such as George Carlin and Steve Martin, who also appear in “Tonight Show” clips. The appeal there is undeniable. But as the real world creeps in, “There’s… Johnny!” strains under a weight that even the present is struggling to resolve.

‘There’s… Johnny!’

Where: Hulu

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When: Anytime, starting Thursday

Rating: Not rated

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chris.barton@latimes.com

Follow me over here @chrisbarton.

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