Set against the backdrop of The Tonight Show circa 1972, There's Johnny, a series on Hulu, mines real history for modern comedy. Naturally, that raises questions about how much truth lies in its storytelling. Are there anecdotes culled from real life moments? Is Joy a real person? Does it authentically reflect an era past?
According to Variety, the series veers more fiction than fact, but creators Paul Reiser (Aliens, Stranger Things) and David Steven Simon (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) wanted it to feel believable. They knew viewers would have a hard time buying into someone else playing Johnny Carson, who led The Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992, so rather than hiring an actor, they chose to weave in archival footage of the host's iconic 30 year run. “[If we used real actors] all people would think is — 'That doesn’t look like [co-host Ed McMahon] or Johnny,'" Reiser told the outlet. And he drew upon his own experiences, too: Reiser appeared on Carson's The Tonight Show around 25 times during his stand-up days, and helmed his own short-lived talk show in 2011.
But the only character based on a real person is Fred de Cordova, The Tonight Show's legendary executive producer, and he's played by Tony Danza, who knew Cordova personally. As he told Variety:
"The one thing that I remember about him was that he would come up after each Tonight Show segment and he’d be smoking and he’d say, ‘Just like that, kid.’ Then he would walk away.”
The rest of the cast is comprised of fictional re-imaginings: A nurturing wardrobe guy named Angelo (Roger Bart); Carson's no-nonsense righthand, Roz (T'Keyah Crystal Keymáh); and a stable of writers that range from madcap (David Hoffman's Jim) to cynical (Andrew Schulz's Mitch). Newcomer Ian Nelson stars as Andy, a 19-year-old kid and longtime Carson fan from Nebraska who crash lands in L.A. After scoring a job at the show on a whim, he's flung into the backstage chaos of late night television — and by relation, Hollywood — where he's forced to figure out how to keep his head above water for the first on his own.
“We wanted to create a world of characters who are appealing and struggling ... This kid [Andy] is totally unformed and gets dropped into this world and he’s swimming upstream — then he meets a woman with problems he’s never even heard of and they’re each intrigued with each other. It’s about two people finding themselves in a particularly turbulent time in a particularly chaotic environment, but the story is universal. Everyone is in over their head at one point or another."
And certainly, Joy feels familiar. Played by Jane Levy (Don't Breathe, I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore), she's described by Hulu as "smart, driven, and deep," a young woman forced to grow up too early and now fighting to prove herself in a male-dominated industry. In the trailer, she struggles with issues like equal pay, job uncertainty, and discerning her place in the world — all things that still resonate four decades after the show is set.
Expectedly, there's some romance between Joy and Andy, but her Hulu character description suggests it's just a phase, and she eventually becomes more of a mentor. If the footage thus far is any indication, Joy won't be tethered to Andy, but will instead have the chance to stand on her own. Fiction or not, that seems worth watching.