AFN discovers Johnny Carson footage thought to be lost forever
WIESBADEN, Germany — “Heeeeere’s Johnny!”, the catchphrase once used by Ed McMahon to introduce iconic late-night television host Johnny Carson, took on an entirely different meaning this week.
On Monday, American Forces Network and Defense Imagery Management Operations Center officials presented Jeff Sotzing, Carson’s nephew and CEO of the Carson Entertainment Group, with a film reel containing clips of opening monologues and interviews of the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson dating back to 1963.
“This is the first time anybody has seen these clips since they were broadcast,” said AFN Broadcast Center spokesman Larry Sichter. He noted that networks, in those times, used to record over programming once it was broadcast because tape was so expensive.
Things changed on the “Tonight Show” in the early ’70s, when Carson asked to pull up old clips for a retrospective show and was told they had been recorded over. From that point on, Carson demanded that the shows be archived.
“No one was doing reruns, there was no home video, there was no cable TV, there was no other outlet,” Sotzing said. “There were only 3 television source outlets; ABC, CBS, NBC, that was it — they didn’t have any place to re-run them.”
In fact, less than 1 percent of Carson’s “Tonight Show” material from 1962 to 1972 has been accounted for, Sotzing said during a phone interview with Stars and Stripes.
The late Carson served as the quick-witted host of the “Tonight Show” from 1962 to 1992, where he tucked viewing audiences into bed with a belly full of laughs during his 90-minute show. Monday also marked the 50th anniversary of Carson taking over “Tonight Show” hosting duties from Jack Parr.
Mary Carnes, the now-retired program support manager at AFN’s Broadcast Center, found the Carson film during a project earlier this year to go through archived material that had been boxed up and moved around as the broadcast center relocated from Hollywood to Sun Valley and finally to their current location in Riverside, Calif. It was Carnes’ last project before her retirement.
“When I saw it was Johnny Carson on the reel, I thought, Oh my gosh, I just found a gem,” Carnes said. “This film just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time.”
Carnes noted that usually AFN returns footage or destroys it when they’re done using it, but she’s glad that wasn’t the case with the ‘lost’ Carson footage.
“Luckily, for some reason, someone wasn’t doing their job, and this film got saved,” said Carnes, who added that the discovery makes her want to come out of retirement and look through more archives.
Sichter said AFN used to make recordings of TV shows by kinescope; a dedicated camera/monitor system used for high-quality reproductions at the time. They then distributed the copy around the world. He said his best guess is that the assembly of monologues on the found Carson film was used as filler for AFN stations.
Sotzing reminisced about going to New York to watch his uncle tape the show, sitting in the audience during rehearsal, seeing performers such as Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. After serving in the Army as a company clerk in Mainz, Germany, Sotzing returned to California and later worked as a runner on his uncle’s show, eventually working his way up to producing the show during its last years.
“It’s exciting to think that there could possibly be more stuff out there,” Sotzing said. “I would love to find those missing episodes, it would be terrific.”
Sotzing even went so far as to offer anyone who can find the lost Carson archives a trip to New York. “We would definitely reward them,” he said.
Sichter said AFN and DIMOC officials are “just as proud as we can be.”
“The industry is so generous to us, in giving us their programming, so this was a huge opportunity to show some gratitude to them,” Sichter said.