The actor discusses his latest project streaming on Hulu starting November 16th called There’s…Johnny!.
Actor Paul Reiser
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Actor-producer, Paul Reiser, has scored a new media trifecta. He finds himself in the rare position of having shows on all three major streaming networks.
He stars in Season Two of “Stranger Things” on Netflix, the final season of “Red Oaks” on Amazon, and he has produced a passion project that will be available on the Hulu streaming service starting November 16. It’s called “There’s…Johnny!” Before our conversation, though, here now a scene from “There’s…Johnny!”
Tavis: I read somewhere you worked on this for a long time.
Paul Reiser: Yeah. Not consecutively, but this is an idea my buddy, David Simon, and I had 12 years ago. And once we realized that we wanted to — it would be really helpful to be actually used, Johnny’s clips. So we needed the involvement of…
Tavis: The estate…
Reiser: The Johnny company, yeah. So that’s what took a long while. They’re understandably very protective and they weren’t eager to do things right away. But it took a while and then, you know, among the joys of doing it was just the fact that they trusted us enough, you know, to sort of be the guardians of Johnny’s legacy to an extent.
But I had been on a lot and Johnny was always so gracious to me and helpful, so I have nothing but admiration and affection. So I think they felt he was safe in our hands.
Tavis: I would love to have been in that pitch meeting, as it were. When you ran this idea past them because they are so protective of his legacy, as they should be, like what was your pitch?
Reiser: Well, it’s interesting. The fellow who was one of our partners who runs Carson companies, Jeff Sotzing, who is Johnny’s nephew. So we told him the story. We said, well, here we have a story. It’s a fictional character. He’s a 19-year-old kid who gets a job doing just menial odd jobs, but Johnny likes him, so he can never get in trouble because Johnny likes him.
He says, well, you know, that’s my life story. I said, no, I just mixed it. But apparently that’s what happened. Uncle John gave him a job and said just go make yourself useful somehow. And no matter what trouble he got into, couldn’t touch him. He’s Johnny’s boy. So, luckily, we kind of dovetailed nicely.
But it’s really all fiction. We made up these characters except for you can’t play Johnny. Nobody can do Johnny, so the fact that we have the clips really seamlessly blends it and makes you feel like you’re there. We have such a great cast. Tony Danza, you saw playing legendary Freddy Cordova.
Tavis: Played Cordova, yeah, yeah.
Reiser: He’s great. Tony’s really great. So it took a long time and, once it finally — they gave us the go, we kind of went and we got all the cast. All our first choices were Jane Levy and Ian Nelson, all these terrific actors, and we did it really fast. We just did it a few months ago, so it’s really nice to see this thing finally fly into your homes [laugh].
Tavis: There are two questions here that are sort of historical in nature that I want to ask. The first one is…
Reiser: Oh, a quiz? Is it a quiz?
Tavis: No, not a quiz, not a quiz.
Reiser: A history quiz?
Tavis: This ain’t “Jeopardy”, this ain’t “Jeopardy”. No, no, no. Two questions, though [laugh]. First question is, if I had asked you this question 30 years ago, you may have had a different answer then.
Tavis: As you look at Carson in the mirror now, what do you so regard about him all these years later?
Reiser: Well, it’s an interesting question because even watching this, you know, when you’re a kid and somebody sort of locked in your head as what they were, so Johnny is always the father figure. I’m 20 years older than he was there, so it’s hard for me to remember.
Oh, you know, he wasn’t always there. I mean, he was 40-something. I certainly have an even greater appreciation now of his skill and, you know, the reason for his longevity. He was there 30 years.
Granted, it was a much less crowded field and you didn’t have that many places to go, which only made him more important. That was the place to get your seal of approval. If Johnny Carson likes you, you’re doing okay.
But in watching these clips and going through them to decide what clips to put in our show and how to use them, got to watch a lot of them, I just was sort of slack-jawed like, man, he’s good. He was funny and he straddled that line of hip and sort of conventional. He was middle America. He was a Nebraska guy.
Tavis: Nebraska, yeah, sure.
Reiser: Everybody felt very comfortable with him, but he was hip and edgy and a little bit of bad boy, you know. He made you comfortable. It’s a way that, other than your show, because you’re very polite, but in general, the talk shows, it’s a much faster pace. It’s not always about making the guest feel at home.
Tavis: Sure, sure.
Reiser: And Johnny did that so masterfully. He just made everybody feel at home.
Tavis: In preparing for our conversation and knowing that Letterman is doing something for Netflix now, I think, I was pondering the other day how Johnny would fit in this moment. It’s always a strange question because every late night talk show host has his or her day and they have their moment.
But I’m only raising it because he was so funny and so gifted and so good with the political satire, the political humor. But this moment is so…
Reiser: I can’t imagine…
Tavis: It’s rich, but it’s also rife with — you know what I’m saying?
Reiser: Yeah. It would be interesting to hear his voice at this time. But the interesting thing is you never quite really knew where he stood.
Tavis: That’s my point, yeah.
Reiser: Right? Because he straddled the line and he would never do anything really too controversial and he poked fun of, you know, the gentle spots where you could poke fun and just have a nice laugh. You know, we sort of have an indication when he went off the air in ’92.
We found out later he was sending jokes to Dave, right? Because he couldn’t stop the machine. And on the night that he passed, if you remember, Dave went on and did a whole monologue and then only afterwards said those were all written by Johnny.
Tavis: See, what’s funny about this too is that — I love all these guys. I love Fallon, but as we all know, he stumbled for a minute trying to figure out how to do that late night thing in the era of Trump. Colbert went another direction…
Reiser: Well, the ground is shifting, yeah. I’m sure if you look at the very, very, very first years of Johnny Carson, he hadn’t quite found his groove. He grew into it. In our show, we set it in 1972 just when they had just moved from New York to L.A., to Burbank.
That was sort of a culturally historical moment because, first of all, it sort of gave rise to what became a comedy boom of the clubs. People would be in a club and then featured on his show.
But also, it just became this institution. I don’t remember it being quite that way earlier in New York. Suddenly, that was the hit place to be in Burbank. He put Burbank on the map. Yeah, everybody finds their groove, but, yeah, for sure, I would imagine — I always suspected that his politics were not what we would assume, you know.
Tavis: I think that’s right. I just know it’s really tough trying to figure out in this moment how to do the late night comedy thing in an era when people are feeling…
Reiser: You’re gonna lose somebody.
Tavis: That’s my point.
Reiser: You’re gonna lose somebody, but I think people are making their choices. You know, Stephen Colbert, who’s brilliant, he sort of went through his moment of saying, you know what? I’m trying to be in the middle, but I can’t. So here’s who I am. And, by the way, it paid off.
Tavis: Speaking of paying off, you’re sort on this retro wave right now [laugh]. It’s like all you retro guys are back in fashion. What do you make of that?
Reiser: I don’t know.
Tavis: “Will and Grace” is back. I keep hearing about “Mad About You” maybe coming back or…
Reiser: You know, I don’t know. In all these shows, ironically, all the three shows are retro…
Tavis: That’s what you’re doing, yeah.
Reiser: But that’s not on purpose. Someone says, oh, that’s so cool. You have three shows at the same time. I didn’t plan any of that. You know, it took 10 years and it just happened to come out now [laugh].
There is something — it’s not on purpose and I don’t really think of retro, but there is something about putting it in a time period that makes it a little more relaxed and you can look at it because, okay, that period is locked off.
As you say, like this moment is so excitable and precarious that I think — I never really thought about it — but I think there’s something a little warming and comforting about like, okay, the 80s seem — they weren’t perfect, but they sure seemed better. They seem more comforting. Also, we were younger, so we look back fondly.
Tavis: We weren’t getting alerts on our phones every two minutes about drama in Washington.
Reiser: This is true, that’s true.
Tavis: So these other two shows, let me talk about them quickly. So tell me about “Red Oaks”.
Reiser: “Red Oaks” is on Amazon. They just added the third and final season. It was a very different type of thing. It’s a very warm in the best sense, comforting kind of show. It’s about a kid similar to — I’m just an actor in that. I just show up and do my lines.
But it’s about a country club and was written by a guy who was writing his youth. He worked as a tennis pro at a country club in the 80s and this was the world that he remembered. He had all these stories. It’s just a very sweet show that I hope people will continue to find.
You know, that’s one of the nice things about the streaming and the world that we live in now. Even though everything is hit-driven and you want attention, you want eyeballs, there still is the fact that now nothing disappears, you know. Johnny? If you missed it, you missed it. Maybe it’ll come around next year.
But now people will find a show. I know you can’t watch everything when it comes out. There’s just no time. So I find that somewhat of a relief to like make the best show you can, put it out there, and people will find it and they’ll come to it. If not this month, they’ll get there next month.
Tavis: And “Stranger Things”, the other one?
Reiser: “Stranger Things”, I’m trying to help them out [laugh]. You know, they weren’t getting an audience, I feel.
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Reiser: That’s sort of a one in a life time thing that a show that is so of the moment, we had the premier and it was like a global event. I went are you kidding me? That makes people all over the world in their own language are having a “Stranger Things” party and go, “What have I stumbled into?”
You know, that was the easiest decision I ever had to make. “Would you like to come and play this role?” Yeah, just point me and tell me what to say and I’ll be there.
Tavis: In a quick minute here, you talked about it just a second ago a bit, but what do you make of the way the business has changed from your “Mad About You” days and prior to? What do you make of these?
Reiser: Well, you know, on the surface, there just seems like there are. It doesn’t seem. There are indeed more places to put content. And it gives you more freedom in these little litch places that, you know, used to be you have to think of the big fat hit. What’s gonna be the homerun? What’s gonna last for seven years? Well, now…
Reiser: Yeah. Well, a lot of times, you come up with an idea that’s like, all right, that’s the little like 10 episodes and done. You couldn’t do that in the old. Well, now you can. And the way the streamings work, it seems to me, it’s like they don’t need any show to be a particular hit.
Just come into our tent and we have these wonderful choices. So you watch that, you watch that, it doesn’t matter. Just come to us. So to me, I think it’s a plus, you know, for the creative community.
Tavis: Well, you’re making it work for you.
Reiser: That’s all I’m worried about, really [laugh].
Tavis: Not one, not two, but on all three of the big streaming services.
Reiser: I’m trying to work it out with my agent. Even when you shut off your devices, I’m still there. That’s hard. That’s hard to do, but it’s worth trying for because, otherwise, they forget you. They forget you, Tavis.
Tavis: If anybody can, you can.
Reiser: There you go.
Tavis: Paul Reiser, I love you. Good to have you back, man.
Reiser: Nice to see you.
Tavis: That’s our show tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.