Mad about him

Paul Reiser’s latest is an homage to a show that changed the world

Jewish Renaissance man’s ‘There’s… Johnny’ is a sharp meta-drama about one of the greatest late night television programs of all time

Paul Reiser. (CC-SA-Gage Skidmore)
Paul Reiser. (CC-SA-Gage Skidmore)

Paul Reiser is truly a Jew-of-all-trades. You might remember him from “Diner,” or “My Two Dads,” or as the onscreen husband of Helen Hunt (a quarter Jewish, on her father’s side!) in “Mad About You.”

Perhaps you’ve read his books about various iterations of adulthood, and also how to get to Carnegie Hall. Maybe you’ve listened to his album, “Unusual Suspects” — he is a classically trained pianist who also happens to be one of Comedy Central’s “Top 100 Comedians of All Time.” If you’re thinking “enough already,” be comforted by the fact that he has yet to get an EGOT (though that’s probably next on his itinerary).

More recently, Reiser has played the long-suffering older husband of Jenny Slate (Jewish!) on “Married;” joined the cast of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” as Dr. Owens, a government scientist who may or may not be up to no good; taken on Amazon’s “Red Oaks” as Doug Getty, the short shorts-wearing president of a New Jersey country club.

Behind the camera, with David Steven Simon and David Gordon Green, Reiser has co-created and co-produced Hulu’s “There’s . . . Johnny,” a show within a show about “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

Jane Levy. (Wikimedia commons/Anomaly1101)

In “There’s . . . Johnny,” a naïve Nebraskan named Andy Klavin, played by Ian Nelson, receives a form letter that he mistakes for a job offer. His doe-eyed cluelessness gets him inside the studio, where the show’s crew takes pity on him and, since apparently Carson had a soft spot for fellow Nebraskans, lets him stay.

Jane Levy plays the fictional Joy Greenfield, a talent coordinator with enough chutzpah to ask for pay equal to her male colleagues.

(Funnily enough, on the show Levy’s character struggles to prove that she deserves her job despite her well-connected father helping her to get her foot in the door; in real-life it is her father’s Jewishness that earns her special mention here.)

Tony Danza plays the actual producer of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” the Jewish Freddie De Cordova.

Danza is not new to playing Jews — he made a cameo as Abbi’s dad on the third season of Broad City — because, as everyone knows, when it comes to casting, Jews and Italians are interchangeable. (Though, in a shocking twist, Danza’s fictional De Cordova rubs elbows with other Hollywood bigwigs at the Church of the Holy Lamb in Beverly Hills.)

The only overt Jewish reference comes in the seventh episode, “The Anniversary Show.”

Had viewers been wondering whether the nervous, curly-haired writer named Alan was one of the Chosen, a joke about how waiting to find out if his contract is being renewed — “I swear, it’s worse than the Nazis . . . I mean, not that they were good. But if they didn’t like you, they let you know upfront” — is a clue.

Carson appears only in authentic archival footage from 1972, which is interwoven with the fictional behind-the-scenes action. In this episode, which shows footage of the 10th Anniversary Special with guests Jack Benny, Joey Bishop, George Burns, Jerry Lewis, and Don Rickles, an offscreen Alan provides his assessment: “That’s a lot of funny Jews.”

“There’s . . . Johnny” is not just a nostalgic comedy but an homage to the man who launched a thousand careers.

“He was the guy,” Reiser said in a November 22 ABC News interview. Reiser himself made his first of many appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1982, and he credits Johnny for much of his success.

In “More to Come: A Tonight Show Documentary,” also available on Hulu, comedy greats George Wallace, Louie Anderson, and Tim Allen do the same. Not only did Carson give many comedians their big break, he gave his chair to minority and women performers, like Harry Belafonte and Joan Rivers.

“Johnny Carson was the very best of the best,” said Carl Reiner, Jewish VIP and one of the oldest people on Twitter. “Everybody tuned in to Johnny Carson.”

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