The following is a guest post by Daniel Blazek, Recorded Sound Technician, National Audio-Visual Conservation Center
The Tonight Show has become such a cultural institution in America that it is hard to imagine that early episodes were lost, as so many early television programs on tape were erased when subsequent broadcasts were taped over them. Stand-up comedy serves as, among other things, a strong cultural barometer, and it is unfortunate the practice of “wiping” did not answer to history very well at all. “Wiping” taped episodes of network broadcasts may have saved some money in the short-run (broadcast videotape was expensive), but it permanently robbed us of most of the Tonight Shows from Jack Paar (1957-1962) and early Johnny Carson (1962-1971). The Library of Congress is a rich resource for Tonight Show episodes from 1972 forward. Before then, mere handfuls of episodes survive in their entirety, mainly thanks to kinescopes, home movies, and the occasional hoarded stash.
Is there a definitive resource for the availability of 1960’s Tonight Show episodes? I throw the question out because I’m not sure anyone knows for sure. Wikipedia, TV.Com, and IMDb invite anyone who knows to fill in the blanks of guest lists of individual episodes, but these do not indicate if a specific episode is presently in existence, much less accessible.
As early as 1964, AFRTS began packaging an audio-only version of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson for military personnel to listen to overseas. These Tonight Show episodes that were edited and re-packaged for radio broadcast found their way to the Library of Congress in the form of sound discs, not video. As most of the 1960’s Tonight Shows are considered “lost,” it is ironic and exciting that sound recordings at the Library of Congress may contain some of the only surviving Tonight Show elements, (albeit in an edited for AFRTS, audio-only version).
It is also exciting for researchers to know that while these discs have been identified, they have not been fully documented and the treasures are here to be discovered in our own vaults. AFRTS Tonight Show transcription discs were cataloged as early as 2002, but not completely. Guests on particular shows have been documented for our holdings from 1967 to 1970. For other years, there is good and bad news.
The bad news first: Carson did not start on the Tonight Show until October 1962 and the Library has no discs for the years 1960-1963 and the same is true for 1966.
The good news: The Library has roughly 170 AFRTS episodes from 1964. An additional 80 episodes exist from the first four months of 1965 bringing a total of 250 episodes that are not entirely lost. The Moving Image Section of the Library has a few Tonight Show episodes from the early 1960’s.
The other day, I spent a few hours of my own time digging through the vaults at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center and listened to Johnny Olson make introductions for the first 20 episodes of Tonight from 1964. My interest is primarily in comedy, and the show, of course, is a treasure trove of comedians: Woody Allen, Irwin Corey, Shel Silverstein, Mel Brooks (as the 2000 Year Old Man), Alan King, Allan Sherman, Eddie Lawrence, Larry Storch and Don Knotts. These are guests from just the first 20 episodes! The Library is continuing to catalog these items so check for updates in the Library’s online catalog using keywords: Tonight, Carson, sound and 1964.
Although, AFRTS discs were edited at the time, often heavily, hearing “lost” monologues from 50 years ago is a treat. Network commercials are removed. The hour and a half shows were reduced to 30 minutes or so, unfortunately relegated to just one side of an LP disc. But catching ANY dialogue from a 1964 Tonight Show is almost akin to stumbling upon a lost city. As someone who remembered Johnny Carson from the 1980’s, you can hear just what a consistent voice Johnny had for three decades. His concise and nervous style, his clear point of view, and his skits–Carnac included– are all present and remarkably unchanged from what I recall twenty years later on NBC. The band is loud and jazzy with Skitch Henderson, the bandleader before Doc Severinson. You can hear Ed McMahon guffawing. And the comedians and other guests are generally allowed a more leisurely pace to unfurl their stories, and share their jokes as, after all, it was originally an hour and a half show.
Personally, if I had to choose either the audio or the video portion of a television talk show to save, I would choose the audio and imagine the body language and facial expressions much like golden age radio listeners imagined Jack Benny or Fred Allen. A different experience no doubt, but at least for 1964, all is not lost.
To listen to any of these recordings, contact the Recorded Sound Research Center to make a listening appointment. The Research Center is located in the Madison Building, Room LM-113, in Washington, D.C.