The keeper of the fame

Special to The Times

Jeff Sotzing remembers a Christmas party more than 30 years ago when he and his Uncle Johnny had a fateful chat.

“I had actually run into Johnny at a Christmas get-together and told him I was going to school studying videotape editing in Pasadena,” Sotzing recalled. “A few months later, he called and said this guy had just left the show and it would be a great place to work for the summer, learn all about the show and meet all the people.

It wasn’t just any summer job. The uncle was Johnny Carson, and the show was “The Tonight Show.”


The talk with Carson resulted in Sotzing getting a summer job in 1978. “I answered the phones, sorted the mail, got coffee, anything that needed to be done,” Sotzing said. “It ended up I never left.”

Today Sotzing runs the Orange County-based company, Carson Entertainment, that licenses “Tonight Show” clips for broadcast and releases DVD compilations for the consumer market. It’s a hot property; more than three years after Carson’s death and more than 15 years since he signed off for the last time after 4,000 shows and 25,000 guest spots, his version of “The Tonight Show” has proved as irrepressible as Art Fern.

“I get requests from all over, all the time. It’s amazing how many people still are looking for ‘Tonight Show’ material,” said Sotzing, who lives in Fullerton. “Bette Midler, from the [penultimate] show, is in demand. Steve Martin clips are in demand. Ed Ames.

“But it’s all over the place. It’s crazy.”

Well, maybe not so crazy. Carson, after all, was more than a talk show host. He was the man who “tucked America in” each night for 30 years. His influence on other talk hosts is tangible and ongoing. His name was even in the news during the recent Hollywood writers strike, when his return to “Tonight” sans scribes during the 1988 strike was seen as an example to Jay Leno and David Letterman.

“He certainly is popular beyond his time,” notes Ross Brown, an associate professor at Chapman University who teaches a television history class that makes use of vintage “Tonight Show” clips. “Students who weren’t even born when he was doing the show still really respond to him.”

That show today resides on digital tape transferred from the original 1- and 2-inch video masters and stored in a salt mine in Hutchinson, Kan. The mine’s stable temperature and humidity make it ideal for preservation purposes (no “how hot was it” jokes here).

Up through the ranks

Through the years, Sotzing gained an insider’s perspective on the show as he worked his way up the ladder.

“It was an incredible experience,” Sotzing said. “First of all, he was my uncle. And he and I share a similar sense of humor, so we got along very well. I started at the bottom and worked my way up to production assistant and stage manager and associate producer. I did every job in ‘The Tonight Show’ and ended up as producer at the very end.”

On Carson’s last show, broadcast May 22, 1992, Sotzing can be seen twice in a behind-the-scenes segment: Once when Johnny arrives at the studio in his white Corvette and again during the audience warm-up.

“It was great because the show was done in a live format,” he noted. As for the atmosphere, Sotzing notes that it was a “really well-oiled machine. There were booking meetings in the morning, production meetings in the early afternoon and then rehearsals for the various guests, sketches and so forth. Then we do the show, and it started right at 5:30. We didn’t have the ability to do much in the way of editing at that time, so they were used to doing it live. They liked the fact that it made it very exciting in the studio.”

These days, he oversees requests for “Tonight Show” clips, which extend beyond the usual showbiz personalities and really tap into the history and pop culture of the time. The clips aren’t available to the public by request -- DVD releases handle that market -- but producers and broadcasters have found the clips invaluable, Sotzing said.

“It’s a wonderful chronology, humorous mostly, of current events,” Sotzing says of the library, which encompasses about 3,000 episodes. “I would not and I’m sure Johnny would not ever have thought that that would be the case. In fact, I’m working on a request for a PBS station in San Francisco that’s doing a story on Paul Ehrlich -- the population explosion. And he was on the show. To go back and hear what Carl Sagan or Paul Ehrlich had to say about the population in 1974 and now it’s 2008, that’s fascinating.”

A clue as to the cultural reach of the show can be found on the official “Tonight Show” website connected to Sotzing’s company, www.johnnycarson .com. The site features a searchable database that lists every guest’s appearance on the show, the date of the appearance and the other guests who were on that show. (Ehrlich was on 19 times between 1970 and 1981.)

But home video is only a part of the operation.

“I sell a lot of clips to people like the new biography shows,” he explained. “Someone doing a story about Drew Carey or Robin Williams or any person, they’ll want to track their career, and, of course, ‘The Tonight Show’ is a basic part of these guys’ careers.”

Movies are another area where the clips have proved useful, last year’s “Talk to Me,” starring Don Cheadle, being one example. Cheadle plays an ex-con turned disc jockey who gets a shot at the big time.

“The story line is that the character gets a shot on ‘The Tonight Show’ in 1971, I think it is. So they bought some footage from us and re-created ‘The Tonight Show’ set in New York. When you see the movie, it’s amazing because they’ve cut this character into ‘The Tonight Show.’ ”

Few “Tonight” clips from the New York days exist, as the first 10 years of the show’s tapes were erased years ago. But an early ‘70s clip featuring one of Bette Midler’s first “Tonight” appearances proved to be perfect for the movie. Overwhelmingly, the clips available today are from the shows produced in Burbank, where the show moved to in 1972.

Though “Tonight” remains Sotzing’s primary business, it’s not his only interest. For many years he flew for the Orange County Flying Samaritans, a group of pilots and medical personnel that provides medical services to remote villages in Baja California. He’s also involved with the annual Muckenthaler Rod and Custom Show in Fullerton, this year on May 17 and 18 as part of the Imagination Celebration of Arts Orange County.

Sotzing says he stays in touch “all the time” with people from the show, including announcer Ed McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen. But don’t look for them to be providing commentary on the DVDs.

“Johnny always felt that . . . you really didn’t want to ask them because, how could they say no? And he also always said that the material should speak for itself. So we don’t have any narration. We don’t have anything other than the material itself on the DVDs. And it seems to have really worked well.”

As for deciding what to release, Sotzing says he’s selective.

“The first question is the quality. Is the quality high enough to be a worthwhile release? We have so much material, we don’t want to just flood the market. Johnny was very selective about merchandising segments of ‘The Tonight Show’ and only let it be merchandised on a limited basis. So we’ve done that and now have a dozen or so DVDs out, but there’s actually much, much more material we could release.”