Every so often, something from the early days of television pops up on YouTube and I’m gobsmacked, wondering: Where did someone find this? This video clip qualifies as one of those. What we have here, from Dec. 31, 1965, is the first 30 minutes of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
This is rare for two reasons: First, although Carson hosted “The Tonight Show” from 1962 to 1972, very few video recordings exist.
Second, this clip also includes the seldom-seen first 15 minutes of “Tonight,” which happened before 11:30 p.m. and was hosted by Carson’s long-time sidekick, Ed McMahon, and one-time “Tonight Show” bandleader Skitch Henderson.
Say what? Let me explain.
First, this clip is so rare because NBC destroyed almost all of the recordings of “The Tonight Show” from before 1972. When Carson took over as host of “Tonight,” videotape was still a new technology, and blank videotapes were expensive. They also took up a lot of room, at least in the early days of 2-inch-wide video tape—a one-hour reel was 14 inches in diameter. NBC Television didn’t think anyone would want to watch Carson’s old shows anyway, so they made the decision to erase the old videotapes and re-use them until 1972, when Carson found out and told the network to stop the practice.
(Carson wasn’t the only victim of this practice of “wiping”—thousands and thousands of hours of early American and British television, including landmark shows such as “Doctor Who,” no longer exist.)
The fact that someone found part of a 1965 episode of “The Tonight Show”—and that it was recorded in color, rather than black-and-white, is astonishing to me. Remember, too, that home-video recorders didn’t come onto the market until the mid 1970s, and even then they were expensive. If someone recorded “The Tonight Show” on color videotape in 1965, they either worked at a TV station, owned an advertising agency, or were wealthy.
Second, as you may know, before 1982, when “Late Night with David Letterman” debuted, “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” was 90 minutes long, from 11:30 p.m. (Eastern) to 1 a.m.
But at its inception, NBC’s “Tonight” with Steve Allen was 105 minutes long, from 11:15 p.m. to 1 a.m. The reason was that in the 1950s, TV news programs were much shorter — in fact, many were only 15 minutes long. So in those cases, the late local news would end at 15 minutes after the hour.
If doing 105 minutes of live television every night seems exhausting, you’re not alone. There’s a grainy kinescope clip (basically, a movie camera pointed at a TV screen) of the very first “Tonight” in which Allen quips, “this program is going to go on forever … boy, you think you’re tired now, wait until you see 1 o’clock roll around … we specially selected this theater because we think it sleeps about 800 people.”
And again, videotape was still expensive and not in regular use. So Allen and the rest of the “Tonight” cast had to do the show live, five nights a week, for nearly two hours every night, with no chance to pre-record and no guest hosts. No wonder Allen gave up hosting what became “The Tonight Show” after only three years to focus on other projects.
Jack Paar maintained the live 105-minute format from 1957 to 1962, and apparently also found it exhausting. By the end of his run, the Friday show was a videotaped “Best of Paar.”
Carson — no dumbbell — must have realized early on that if he had to keep up the grueling pace that Allen and Paar had set, he’d burn out, too, and apparently vowed to shorten the show as soon as possible.
There was another problem with the first 15 minutes of the “Tonight Show,” which was that while most TV newscasts were 15 minutes … not all of them were.
Take the situation in Western Pennsylvania, for instance, where Pittsburgh’s NBC affiliate (then and now) was on Channel 11.
Channel 11 (then called WIIC, now WPXI) had a 15-minute newscast, called “Dateline,” from 11 to 11:15 p.m., and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” began at 11:15.
But just over the hill in Johnstown, where the NBC affiliate then and now was WJAC-TV 6 (“serving millions from atop the Alleghenies”), the newscast was 30 minutes long. So viewers in Johnstown and Altoona never saw the first 15 minutes of “Tonight.”
And it wasn’t just Johnstown and Altoona—across the country, millions of viewers weren’t seeing the first part of the show.
Carson had to essentially come out, start the show for 15 minutes, take a commercial break, and then re-start the show for people who were joining it in progress.
Eventually he said “screw it” and beginning in 1965, Carson let announcer Ed McMahon and bandleader Skitch Henderson handle the first 15 minutes of the show, which became a throw-away segment.
In January 1967, NBC finally relented and ended the 11:15 to 11:30 p.m. portion of “The Tonight Show,” by which time — as Carson joked — the first 15 minutes were only being seen by the Armed Forces Network “and four Navajos in Gallup, N.M.”
On this episode, we see what the throw-away segment looked like — Ed McMahon telling a few corny jokes (nothing that would upstage Johnny) and Skitch and the Tonight Show Band playing a polka version of “Oh Baby Mine (I Get So Lonely).” Not exactly riveting television, even in 1965.
And then, at 11:30, the band plays “The Tonight Show” theme again and the opening credits roll again:
Unfortunately, this tape edits out most of Carson’s monologue and skips to Times Square just before 12 midnight, but it’s still amazing to see.
I’m not sure who YouTube user “DwightTFrye” is or was, but I’m grateful they unearthed this seldom-seen piece of TV history from 57 years ago.
There’s an awful lot about user-generated content on the Internet in 2023 that’s toxic and destructive. The chance to see some lost footage of Johnny Carson represents what can be good about the Internet, too.