Selling Johnny: Johnny Carson’s Palace Guard

Ten years have passed since the death of Johnny Carson, the undisputed king of late night television. One of this country’s most popular entertainers, Carson’s massive nightly audience was estimated to have reached as many as 15 million, according to his obituary in The New York Times. Yet, if you’ve been waiting for the Carson bobblehead, the Carson shower curtain, or other such memorabilia that make some celebrities worth more dead than alive, you might have to wait awhile.

At least as long as Jeffrey Carson Sotzing has anything to say about it.

The man seated in a small, nondescript office in Fullerton is Carson’s nephew, protégé, and president of Carson Entertainment Group. He shows off a framed poster of his uncle, and a framed photograph of himself with the TV icon taken in 1982 when they visited the Nebraska town where Carson grew up. Sotzing started working for his uncle when he was 24, and ended up becoming one of the producers of “The Tonight Show” and, later, Carson’s business partner. He now handles the licensing of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” and fields pitches about myriad Carson-themed possibilities.

He points to a vintage Rolodex stuffed with yellowing cards. Buddy Hackett’s name and phone number are visible. “I thought you might want to see this,” says Sotzing. “Johnny knew everybody. It’s a real Who’s Who.” He also shows off one of the coffee mugs Carson cradled at his desk while chatting up guests. Like the Rolodex, it’s an original, not a newly minted knickknack.

Sotzing acknowledges that Carson lent his name to a number of things. A clothing line. A cologne. Some burger stands. “But he wasn’t really comfortable with that kind of stuff, and finally stopped it. What he loved most was to stand on that mark and deliver his monologue. He used to say, ‘Let the work speak for us.’ That’s what he loved to sell. And that’s what I’m selling.”

That conservative and respectful approach might end up leaving untold millions of dollars on the table, but Sotzing is determined to proceed with care. “I had a meeting with the guy who’s worked with the Elvis Presley estate. And it was very interesting. But you know, I just can’t see Johnny’s face on a lunchbox.”

Sotzing (second from left), and his family watch his mother Catharine's 1961 appearance on "The Tonight" with Jack Paar after the network announced Carson would take over as host.
Sotzing (second from left), and his family watch his mother Catharine’s 1961 appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar after the network announced Carson would take over as host.

In today’s world of multiple media platforms and mind-boggling technology, it takes a scoreboard to track the comings and goings of the many talk shows and their hosts. But despite having been off the air for 23 years, Johnny Carson remains “the gold standard,” reminds Sotzing, who has been helping the Fullerton Museum Center assemble an exhibition. “Here’s Johnny: The Making of the Tonight Show” will open May 30.

“His legacy goes far beyond what you think of as ‘television,’ ” says Kelly Chidester, curator of the exhibit, which will feature stage props, costumes, personal items, and plenty of historic video. “We’ve been looking through a lot of tapes and found discussions of the Kennedy assassination, political scandals, and more. You can see how significant the show is, in terms of popular culture.”

Carson’s Midwestern roots and sensibilities were in sync with the national heartbeat. His reign lasted three decades, from 1962 to 1992, and included some 25,000 guests. Celebrities dominated the couch, but Carson also took time to speak with politicians, authors, social historians, and regular folks who made the news for notable or odd traits, such as “collector” Myrtle Young, known as the Potato Chip Lady for her collection of chips resembling Bob Hope, Rodney Dangerfield, and other famous people. He created a model for talk shows that still thrives, though no one since Carson has matched his or his show’s popularity. In 1970, the program accounted for 17 percent of NBC’s profits.

To appear on Carson was not just an honor, it also could be a career-maker. Especially for comedians. “His show was the arbiter for what was funny in America,” says William Knoedelseder, author of “I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era.” Jay Leno, David Letterman, Joan Rivers, Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, Freddie Prinze, and many others attributed their successful careers to early exposure on Carson.

Now at work on a Carson biography for Simon & Schuster, author Bill Zehme—who interviewed Carson in 2002—notes that as the last face people saw before bedtime, “Carson was the nation’s security blanket.” When he famously exited as host in 1992, simply because he felt the time was right, Bob Hope said that his departure was akin to “a head falling off Mount Rushmore.”

Under Sotzing, more than 4,000 hours from “The Tonight Show” have been digitized and made available (on several websites) for commercial use and research purposes. He licenses clips to all kinds of productions, including biography programs and comedy compilations. But he’s careful and protective: “I have to look out for the image.”

Because of that, he won’t cooperate should there be a film or TV adaptation of the eyebrow-raising 2013 tome “Johnny Carson,” penned by Carson’s former attorney and spurned buddy Henry Bushkin. “It’s too one-sided,” Sotzing says of the book that wallowed in Carson’s marital woes and alcohol-fueled behavior. He adds that he’s taking a wait-and-see approach to an anticipated NBC miniseries based on the Zehme project, since the book is still in the works.

Sotzing did work with the producer of a 2012 PBS American Masters documentary, “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night,” though he and director Peter Jones differed on some issues. Jones spent more than a dozen years seeking Carson’s participation, without success. Jones subsequently pursued Sotzing and the archives. He also conducted more than 40 original interviews, one with an ex-wife. The resulting program was the highest-rated documentary in the history of the prestigious American Masters series. To Sotzing, who had no editorial control, “there were a few things I thought (the program) was heavy-handed on. His mother, his wives, and his drinking.” He adds: “I’m too close to the material. Too close to Johnny.”

Sotzing prefers to stress his uncle’s finer points: his generous giving (which Carson did quietly), and his lightning-quick wit. An information junkie, Carson was as engaged with the day’s topics as Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.” “He was so observant,” says Sotzing, explaining that Carson initially hated computers, but later embraced them. “He used to say, ‘Just give me a piece of paper and a pencil, that’s all I need.’ ”

Carson kept a low profile when he visited Sotzing’s Fullerton home on holidays and for summer barbecues. Says Sotzing: “There weren’t guests outside of family. Johnny wanted to be comfortable.”

Carson and siblings Catharine (Sotzing's mother) and Dick, spend a Christmas at Sotzing's Fullerton home.
Carson and siblings Catharine (Sotzing’s mother) and Dick, spend a Christmas at Sotzing’s Fullerton home.

Growing up during the 1950s in the Philadelphia suburb of Levittown, Sotzing was in awe of his uncle because he used to perform magic for him and his buddies. “He was the big draw when I was in grade school,” Sotzing says.

Carson then was hosting a popular TV game show called “Who Do You Trust?” Sotzing and his airline-pilot father would take the train into New York to see the show being taped. When Carson replaced Jack Paar on the New York-based “The Tonight Show” in 1962,  Sotzing often went to watch rehearsals and tapings, and would sit in the control booth. After high school, Sotzing served in the Army and tried, unsuccessfully, for a career as a rock drummer. He was studying videotape editing at Pasadena City College when he saw his uncle at a 1977 family Christmas gathering. Carson, who’d moved the show to Burbank in 1972, asked what he was up to. “I told him, and he said, ‘Really?’ He seemed kind of impressed.” A few months later Carson called his sister, Catharine—Sotzing’s mother—to say there was an opening at “The Tonight Show.” Was Jeff interested?

He started as the show’s receptionist. Working out of a bungalow at NBC, he answered phones, sorted mail, and fetched coffee. “It was great because at 5:15 I was off work. The show taped at 5:30, so I stayed to watch.”

No one knew he was related to Carson, until the host inadvertently let the family relationship out of the bag the first Thanksgiving Sotzing was with the show. “We were going to have a family get-together after the taping. I happened to be backstage when Johnny walked in. He had this little ritual where he would talk to the producer and talk to the director and then, right before he went on stage, he would look in the mirror and check his tie and check his fly. He saw me standing behind him and he turned around and he said, ‘Hey, I’ll see you in about two hours.’ And then he walked onstage to do the show. And everybody backstage looked at me and asked, ‘Why is Johnny going to see you in two hours?’ And that’s when word got out.”

Sotzing took some ribbing. But if nepotism is rampant in show business, there’s another reality: If you aren’t good at your job you usually lose it. Sotzing, on the other hand, rose through the ranks.

Carson and Sotzing holding silver ingots from a shipwreck discussed by a guest on the show.
Carson and Sotzing holding silver ingots from a shipwreck discussed by a guest on the show.

He became a production assistant, working on projects including “Carson’s Comedy Classics,” a syndicated half-hour series featuring sketch materials from “The Tonight Show.” In 1982, he realized the show’s “elements” needed to be inventoried and cataloged—the name of the performer, the sketch or musical act performed, and the like. He subsequently worked on the popular “Tonight Show” anniversary specials, which mined previous episodes for the best and most memorable moments.

“At the time, we didn’t have a computer. Nobody did,” says Sotzing, who oversaw the purchase of an IBM computer so they could inventory what had been shot. “They were able to create a template for each show—the airdate, when it re-ran, the host, who the writers were, what happened in the first section, the second section. The monologue would have bullet points—the Iran-Contra scandal, the weather in Philadelphia, the price of coffee, whatever. All this really helped in putting together the anniversary shows, because when somebody would say, ‘Remember that episode where Shelley Winters did this or that to so and so,’ we could find it.”

Carson returned to his childhood home of Norfolk, Nebraska, for what turned out to be a poignant homecoming special called “Johnny Goes Home.” Sotzing was with him. “I actually went out a week in advance to work with the production crew and the director. Then Johnny came out, and we went around town to places that had meant so much to him and my mother. I think that’s when we really bonded.”

Sotzing became one of the show’s producers in 1990. When Carson had a falling out with executive producer Freddie de Cordova and banned him from the floor, Sotzing took over de Cordova’s job of warming up the audience before the show’s taping. (De Cordova remained as the show’s executive producer.) Asked for a sample of his old warmup jokes, Sotzing offers, “The drummer in the band just had twins. [Audience applause.] Will the proud father please stand up?” Laughs Sotzing, “And at this, all the band members rise out of their seats.”

Sotzing and Carson at lunch in Santa Monica in the mid-1990s.
Sotzing and Carson at lunch in Santa Monica in the mid-1990s.

Just 66 when he stepped down from “The Tonight Show,” Carson pulled a Garbo and disappeared from public view. He and Sotzing set up an office, briefly in Burbank, and then in Santa Monica. “We got tons of pitches,” Sotzing says.

Carson’s 1980 contract renewal with NBC gave his production company ownership of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” The archives include one- and two-inch video masters, stored beneath Hutchinson, Kansas, in an operating salt mine with underground vaults. (Most of the show’s first 10 years were lost because NBC taped over them. The company is always seeking clips from those episodes.)

Carson didn’t see the value of recycling old clips, but Sotzing was intrigued by the home video market. “We’d sit at this big table, moving around three-by-five cards with the names of sketches or artists or whatever. We’d see what fit together.” In 1994, they agreed to a four-cassette home video package (and two laser discs) that included the 1969 marriage of Tiny Tim to Miss Vicki, Carson’s hijinks with animals, and classic moments such as singer-actor Ed Ames teaching Carson to throw a tomahawk. One month after release, Buena Vista Home Video announced it had shipped 2½ million copies, making the set the country’s best-selling video at the time. “Johnny was surprised at its success, but didn’t see the need to go any further,” Sotzing says.

By then, Carson was relying on Sotzing to speak for him in business and personal matters.

When Carson suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1999, Sotzing confirmed the news to the press. Several years later, when the tabloids reported Carson was on his deathbed, Carson had his nephew dispute the claims, but also acknowledge that the entertainer was battling emphysema.
Sotzing and other family members were with Carson when he died on Jan. 23, 2005. Sotzing issued the statement announcing his uncle’s death.
The details of Carson’s estate have never been released. The Smoking Gun website revealed in 2010 that Carson had designated $156 million for philanthropy through his nonprofit John W. Carson Foundation, to which Sotzing is an advisor.

The foundation is a partner in Carson Entertainment, which is fully owned by Sotzing. “Carson Entertainment was in place before Johnny passed away,” he says. “He and I had an agreement that I could access the material and repurpose it. Of the money I make, a large part goes to the foundation.” Carson’s other surviving family members are not involved in the company, though Sotzing stays in touch with them, including Carson’s two surviving sons, Chris and Cory.

Aware of the need to make Carson relevant to those who are too young to have seen him the first time around, Sotzing uses YouTube and podcasts to direct traffic to the DVD compilation packages and select individual episodes from what is called The Vault Series. “We’re releasing new episodes every year,” he says.

He’s leery of watering down the product. “If you’ve done the ‘Best of,’ what’s next? The best of the best?”

In the end, says Sotzing, he does his best to represent his iconic uncle, making decisions based only on the consideration, “What would Johnny want?”

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