How Paul Reiser Got the Rights to Put Johnny Carson in a Streaming Scripted Dramedy

It’s been a long and winding road for Paul Reiser’s new Tonight Show based series There’s….Johnny! but the dramedy finally premiered on Hulu last month. Set to debut on Seeso last summer, the series got briefly shelved when Seeso disbanded as a network just about a month before the show’s premiere. But the Seeso snag was only the last of a series of hurdles that creator Paul Reiser had to overcome.

Reiser’s passion project took 17 years to get made from the time he first envisioned it, and one of the obstacles he had to clear was getting the approval and permission of the Carson Estate to make the series in the first place and that meant getting Johnny Carson’s nephew Jeff Sotzing on board. And Reiser was asking quite a bit from Sotzing and the Carson Estate. Not only did Paul’s ambitious project seek to use the name and representation of Carson’s Tonight Show, he wanted access to the golden archives themselves, and permission to intersperse them into a scripted television series.

The show is set deep in the inner workings of the Tonight Show, but instead of casting an actor to portray Johnny Carson and his iconic guests, There’s…Johnny! actually uses footage from the Carson show itself, blending it with their own reproductions of the sets and original characters. Set in 1972, There’s…Johnny follows a young Nebraska boy who mistakes a standard response to a fan letter as a job offer, and hops on a bus to follow his dream of working for the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Once in L.A., he indeed manages to get a job working on the iconic series and through his eyes, we get to see the hallowed halls and inner workings of the iconic late night talk show.  All of the casted characters are fictional except for one- Tony Danza plays Tonight Show EP Freddie de Cordova.

Johnny himself is only seen and heard through archival footage and a few real-time glimpses of his back or his arm or an off-screen comment. As crazy as it sounds, the insertion of footage into the action works beautifully and the chance to watch carefully selected clips is as magical as the show’s perfectly faithful reproduction of the Hollywood set. I spoke with Carson Estate executive Jeff Sotzing who also happens to be Carson’s nephew, about the decision to grant permission, and putting the ambitious series together.

The project simply could not happen without getting him on board, and at first, he simply wasn’t interested. It was about a decade ago when Reiser first approached him, and he said no. “At that time I was just not comfortable pursuing that type of venture with this library,” Sotizig told me. It was also too difficult of a venture to pull off. But changes in technology helped. “It’s just in the last few years since the materials all been digitized and searchable, and accessible that it kind of really made sense.” Reiser’s passion for the project, Reiser’s own history with the Tonight Show and the script also helped changed Sotzing’s mind. “He and David Simon wrote an incredible script so that’s really the thing that pushed it over for me,” he said. “He has such a passion and so do David and Craig, and Issac for the show. He was so familiar with it after being a guest on the show that it made sense to do it with him.”

Paul knew that Jeff controlled the archives but when he first approached him about using them, he had no idea that Jeff had a great deal in common with Reiser’s main character, Andy. “When Paul first came to me he said, “We have this idea about this young guy who gets a break on The Tonight Show and he works his way up through the ranks, and he becomes the producer of the show.” I said to him, “That’s like my life story. I don’t know exactly what you’re pitching me here, but that’s interesting”. And he didn’t know that. It was funny. He didn’t know that at all. He knew nothing about me.”

Sotizig grew up in Philadelphia and would visit the show in New York in the early 70’s and even worked on the Tonight Show starting in 1978 when the set that was used in There’s Johnny was still in place. “So yeah, it’s spooky real to me.” When the show moved to California, Jeff’s family moved out west too. He would go to see the show often, never imagining he would work there. “Then, I started in this entry level position and was in awe of being a part of that staff, and that crew. I was given an incredible opportunity and I’ll never forget that for sure.”

Because of his experiences, Jeff was able to not only contribute footage but also stories about being a young boy on the iconic set. “I was very much involved. This started from conversations that David and Paul, and I had about, “How did the show come together? What was a day like at the studio?” I shared my experiences as someone who started as a gopher and a runner, and then ended up in the production staff. They used some of those actual events that I shared with them to make the show seem very realistic I believe. Very believable. There’s things that happened during the show, like [Andy] was cataloging shows and the monologue being sent out to Johnny’s house by messenger. That actually happened and kind of went through my fingers. I think it’s a combination of real events and their ability to embellish it to make it more entertaining.”

The sets are absolutely gorgeous and perfectly faithful to the original, but Jeff said he had nothing to do with that. The set designers built the soundstage working from photographs and video and basically nailed it. “It was shocking to me,” he said about seeing it for the first time. “They really had it down.” Although Jeff made small continuity suggestions, like pointing out that Ed doesn’t sit down on the couch, he sits next to Johnny, or that a glass should be here instead of there, he says he can’t take credit for the design. “They paid attention to detail. If you look on the set, there’s a clock next to Freddy Decordova and that clock was set at show time. So, even though the show was taped at 5:30, the clock said 11:30. So, if we’d do a segment that’s 30 minutes in, like Albert Brooks interview, then it should say 12 and it says 12. They really paid attention to detail. It’s amazing.”

The responsibility of administering the estate of the most iconic talk show in television history is not something he takes lightly. In fact, he takes it more seriously then Carson himself did. “I can tell you that Johnny and I had conversations after we went off the air about preservation of the library, and he said, “Nobody’s going to care about this and as far as I’m concerned Jeff, they could go make guitar picks out of this stuff.” But Sotzing knew how important the archives would become, telling Carson they needed to invest some money to preserve the history. “He did and was able to transfer it to a more updated format in the early 90’s, and then that format was transferred to a digital format. Now, we have it on a site where the whole show’s accessible, word for word. Paul [Reiser] would say to me, “We need something about Johnny talking about Nebraska.” So, if you type Nebraska into the search engine, it shows you every time somebody said Nebraska. We’re able to pull Johnny saying, “Yeah, I’m from Nebraska” or, “He went from Nebraska.” It’s amazing.” And those moments are gigantic payoffs in the series when something is happening in the scripted element that is echoed in the show footage.

Of course, as a gatekeeper, the easiest decision for the estate would have been to simply say no, but Jeff believes Carson would be proud of the results. “My number one concern is do not mess up the legacy that Johnny has built for 30 years. If he were around he would say, “Don’t do this because why screw up something that’s so good? Why have people not remember the show fondly, so don’t do that” Since we’ve been able to really do a great job to reproduce it, and it is first class, I think he’d be blown away. I think he’d be amazed.”

Will there be a Season Two? If there is, the Carson estate is on board. “It’s been a long road to make this thing happen and I’m really pleased with it so far,” he told me. “I hope we get another season so we can really make it even better.”

You can watch There’s…Johnny! exclusively on Hulu, streaming in full now.

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