Johnny Carson: Classic 'Tonight Show' Host Turns Modern-Day Internet Star

Attention, Internet: Heeeeeeere's Johnny!

Johnny Carson went off the air long before the age of YouTube and viral video, but now, 18 years after stepping down from "The Tonight Show," he's making a comeback online.

Carson Entertainment Group (CEG), which owns the archive of the late-night host's 30 years on "The Tonight Show," announced today that it has digitized all 3,300 hours of existing footage from Carson's reign and created a searchable online database for media professionals.

While the library is only accessible to those who license clips for professional purposes, CEG plans later this year to put out 50 full-format shows on DVD and post a rotating group of 40 to 50 historic clips for general consumption on JohnnyCarson.com.

"I can't believe there's so much interest after all these years, it's wonderful," said Jeff Sotzing, president of CEG, Carson's nephew and a former "Tonight" producer. "The show had such a large audience for such a long time. It was such a big part of people's lives. I don't think you have that anymore because the television viewing audience is so fragmented."

Until 1999, Carson's archive had been stored in a salt mine in Kansas. It was impossible to view as a whole because the show had been recorded in three different media formats. Last year, Sotzig reached out to Deluxe Archive Solutions to transfer the footage to a digital format. Now, producers and researchers can call up Carson clips by plugging a keyword into the online database.

"We realized that if we could make this footage accessible in a non-linear fashion, more people would be able to experience this material," Sotzig said.

More than 22,000 guests sat down with Carson during his time on "The Tonight Show," many of whom remain household names like Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers, and the late night show hosts that succeeded him, including Jay Leno and David Letterman.

Some of Carson's celebrity exchanges are the stuff Internet memes are made of. In 1974, Burt Reynolds walked on Carson's set to promote "The Longest Yard" clad in a leather suit, and wielding a can of whipped cream. The fight that ensued left Carson with whipped cream coming out of his shirt and Reynolds with a highly suggestive stain on his pants.

The digitization process also saved some classic Carson footage that was stuck on grainy, black and white kinescope, like Ed McMahon's 1973 Alpo commercial where Carson crawls into position when the dog refuses his bowl.

Sotzing said that Carson, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 79, never imagined media would be as instantly accessible as it is today. But he said his uncle would have been thrilled by having his material make it online.

"At first, he didn't see his stuff as having much more life than what it had on the air, but I was the one that said we need to preserve everything," Stozing said. "We always had discussions about how cool it would be for technology to allow you to watch TV on your computer. So I think he'd love this."

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