What viewers are meant to notice as they watch “Carson on TCM,” which airs on the cable channel Mondays this month, is who’s sitting across from Johnny Carson as he mans his “Tonight Show” desk. The five episodes offer a total of 25 interviews with the likes of Fred Astaire and Bette Davis, Henry Fonda and Elizabeth Taylor. This is Hollywood royalty on display — and even mere commoners, like Shelley Winters and Dom DeLuise, at least provide Johnny with comic foils.
The other thing viewers are meant to notice is Johnny. The unflappability, the whiplash timing, the preternatural quickness: He lives up to his reputation. It’s easy to understand why Conan O’Brien seems slightly awed introducing each episode.
So that’s what viewers are supposed to notice. What they can’t ignore — in the way car crashes can’t be ignored — is something else. It’s the clothes. Davis’s leopard-skin toque. Tony Curtis’s Ultrasuede leisure jacket. Taylor’s leather jacket. Robin Williams’s leather pants.
Then there are Johnny’s jackets. Oh, are there Johnny’s jackets. Consider that ’70s plaid he’s got on as he interviews Burt Reynolds in 1972. Also note how Johnny’s pocket square seems to be erupting from the jacket. Maybe it’s trying to escape? No wonder Burt is looking away. It’s an act of simple sartorial decency — not that he’s any bargain, either, with that floppy collar, open shirt, and vest.
There are many remarkable things about Johnny Carson, from talent to late-night longevity to multiplicity of matrimonial mishaps. Nothing is more remarkable, perhaps, than the fact that he had a line of menswear.
Actually, another fact may be even more remarkable: The line of menswear was a success.