It’s been nearly 30 years since Johnny Carson stepped off the stage of “The Tonight Show” for the last time and bid farewell to a singularly innovative television career. Now, two museums are preparing to keep his legacy alive and make his work available to future generations.
On Friday — which would have been Carson’s 95th birthday — the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y., and the Elkhorn Valley Museum in Norfolk, Neb., will announce plans to preserve a trove of Carson’s personal materials and to create and expand on exhibitions celebrating his life.
From 1962 to 1992, Carson hosted “The Tonight Show” on NBC, where he established himself as a pioneer of late-night television, helping to create countless influential comedy segments and provide rising stars with national exposure. He died in 2005 at the age of 79.
During that time, Carson amassed a collection of papers, as well as awards, videos, clothing, costumes and other artifacts.
Jeff Sotzing, who is president of the Carson Entertainment Group, said that the host gave some of these items to the Elkhorn Valley Museum, near the Nebraska city where Carson grew up.
“When Johnny left NBC, he received a letter asking if he had anything he wanted to donate,” said Sotzing, who is Carson’s nephew and a former “Tonight Show” producer.
“He said to me, as he was sitting in front of all of his Emmys, his Presidential Medal of Freedom and signed autographs and pictures from other celebrities, ‘Just give ‘em all of this — give ‘em everything,’” Sotzing recalled.
After Carson’s death, his widow gave Sotzing other materials, he said, including documents and notes on Carson’s comedy routines. One set of pages contained his comments on a 1973 “Tonight Show” monologue.
“He was provided with a number of jokes, and he then circled the ones that he liked best, underlined the words that he wanted on cue cards and created the order,” Sotzing said. “You can see his whole process of how it was put together. It’s an art form.”
He added: “There’s lots of papers that we haven’t sorted through yet.”
The National Comedy Center, which has provided a home for the possessions and archives of other comedians, said that it will lead the conservation and digital preservation of this collection. It will also share artifacts and digital assets with the Elkhorn Valley Museum.
Additionally, the National Comedy Center will create a new multimedia exhibition honoring Carson’s tenure at “The Tonight Show,” called “30 Years of Late Night Television, 30 Years Later.” This exhibition, planned to open in 2022, will spotlight many items from the Carson collection (including some of his personally annotated “Tonight Show” monologues) and characters like Carnac the Magnificent, Art Fern and Floyd R. Turbo, as well as the breakthrough performances of other comedians who got their starts on his program.
“We need to ensure that the story of Johnny Carson is told in a way that’s commensurate with his impact on our culture,” said Journey Gunderson, the executive director of the National Comedy Center. “He was a great example of the role that comedy plays in our lives, as something that is cathartic, soothing and keeps us sane on a day-to-day basis.”
The Elkhorn Valley Museum is planning to expand its Johnny Carson Gallery, adding new items and interactive displays that trace the story of the host’s life and career. The updated gallery is expected to open by early next year.