On Saturday night last week, Jamestown’s Reg Lenna Center for the Arts hosted “Carson Tonight: Johnny’s Comedy and Variety Acts Live!” a live event staged before a full house. The show was also timed to coincide with the opening of the National Comedy Center’s newest attraction, “Johnny Carson: The Immersive Experience.”
While “Carson Tonight” presented a raft of great comics and performers who had made their marks live on Johnny’s stage, the Comedy Center’s “Immersive Experience” owed its opening to Johnny Carson’s own family, in particular to his nephew, Jeff Sotzing.
Home and Family First
Jeff Sotzing, Johnny Carson’s nephew, is now president of Carson Entertainment Group which controls the rights to the entire contents of the Johnny Carson Library.
“Thank you for preserving this material,” Sotzing told the Gazette in a message to the people of Jamestown last week while preparing for the Comedy Center opening. “And thank you for being so protective of all comedy.” The nation’s home of comedy deserves the thanks of every comic.
“We are providing the National Comedy Center with elements for their video presentations to preserve Johnny Carson’s legacy,” he added. “The people at the National Comedy Center are very passionate about what they are doing and they have a very good feel for what Johnny did.”
“Jenny would’ve been delighted to perform here in Jamestown,” Jeff said, “especially in a place like the Reg Lenna Theater.” It might even have felt just like home.
Another Comedy Center First
The new exhibit features a unique, state-of-the-art, multi-screen theater experience. The timing is also important as it marks both Johnny Carson’s 60th anniversary hosting NBC’s The Tonight Show and the 30th anniversary year of the show’s final broadcast.
“What Johnny did,” Jeff Sotzing explained, “is that he made it all look very, very easy! But in reality, it was very, very hard. Johnny was doing live television. At that time performers considered that very scary stuff.” The technology was still developing 60 years ago and editing bloopers, for example, wasn’t that easy. “But” Jeff added, “Johnny was always in control and he always knew where to go and what to do on camera, no matter what.”
In the world of “It’s who you know that matters,” according to Sotzing, Johnny didn’t play favorites with him. He started his nephew at the bottom after a casual family Christmas get-together—an offer of a college summer job answering phones and sorting mail.
But Jeff made his place in Carson’s world the old-fashioned way—he stayed on and worked hard. While studying video in college, his summer job eventually grew into a position of commercial production assistant, then to working with the writers, later to a stage manager, and then producer. “I was even in a couple of on-stage sketches,” Jeff recalled with a laugh. “It was very minor stuff, but it was fun!”
Concerning the values that mattered to Johnny Carson, Jeff said, “the values in small towns were very important to Johnny. He was always beholding to them and he felt that he needed to give back. He liked to go back home [to the rural community of Norfolk, Nebraska] and listen.” A community like Jamestown, it seems, is a good match for Carson’s values.
Johnny once told Jeff, “If you make more money than you think you deserve to be paid, you should give it back.”
“The Johnny Carson Foundation—a nonprofit foundation that he started—gives away lots of money… Especially in small towns,” Jeff explained. “And he left almost all of his wealth to that Foundation.”
Jamestown Gazette readers are invited to see this newest National Comedy Center attraction—“Johnny Carson: The Immersive Experience.” Special thanks and appreciation for it all go to Jeff Sotzing, the Carson Entertainment Group, and The National Comedy Center for bringing Johnny Carson home to Jamestown, New York.