May 22, 1992 was the last broadcast of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on NBC. It ended a thirty year run that began in New York as the young comedian and game show host took over the reigns of the Tonight Show from Jack Parr. Critics called him likable but bland and predicted quick failure in the wake of the mercurial Parr.
But his shows, the first ten years from New York then from NBC’s Burbank, California studios, became an American late night tradition. His opening monologues traced the history of his times. Even when the jokes sometimes failed his self-depreciating demeanor kept the studio audience roaring with laughter. Carson famously showcased and encouraged the careers of many comedians and his initation to join him on the couch after a monologue was the cue of approval that launched the careers of a generation of comics.
The show was also famous for occasional sketch comedy bits by the Mighty Carson Arts Players, set piece routines like Carnac the Magnificent, and forays into the audience for silly games like Stump the Band.
Carson brought back bearded Skitch Henderson from Steve Allen’s tenure as host to lead the on-stage NBC Orchestra. After a brief tenure by Milton Delugg in 1966 jazz trumpeter Doc Sevrensen took over as band leader and a foil of many Carson jokes. The familiar Tonight show theme was adapted from Paul Anka’s Toot Sweet.
Throughout the entire run Carson’s announcer/side kick was Ed McMahon, who had been with him for five years on his daytime quiz show Who Do You Trust. The burley McMahon was a comic foil and straight man. Much of his job was simply reacting to Carson and cuing the audience that, “this is funny.” His signature introduction “Heeeeeer’s Johnny!” may be the most famous tag line in Television history.
Through its long run audiences watched the boyish Carson’s dark hair got salt-and-pepper to silver and his clothes from the narrow tie with two button skinny suits of the early ‘60’s through the gaudy plaid and patterned polyester sport coats and super wide ties of the ‘70’s to the blue and gray blazers and khaki slack of the later years. But Carson himself seemed timeless.
He often battled the network over scheduling and control of the program. From an original 104 minutes five nights a week, he eventfully did four sixty-two minute programs with a Best of Carson on Monday nights. When he took time off, he tapped a pool a regular guest hosts including Joey Bishop, Bob Newhart, John Davidson, David Brenner, Burt Reynolds, and David Letterman.
Three people were tagged permanent guest hosts—Joan Rivers, Gary Shandling, and Jay Leno. Each was rumored to be considered a potential replacement for Carson when he would retire. When Joan Rivers, who was chaffing at the wait, accepted an offer from the new Fox Network for a late night show opposite him without even personally informing him, Carson angrily fired her from her remaining scheduled dates and permanently banned her from the show. Her own show quickly failed and Rivers career was severely damaged.
Others who offended him for one reason or another were more quietly excluded, but Carson, although personally aloof and not a close friend of many of his guests, was widely liked and admired by most of the celebrities who sat on his couch. Carson was a generous interviewer and if a guest had any comic chops he enjoyed feeding him or her or even playing straight man himself.
As Carson wound down his last year, an epic battle to replace him broke out behind the scenes between his two leading protégés—Leno and Letterman. Leno was a sharp monologist and had been tapped as Carson’s last permanent guest host. Letterman was more quirky but Carson admired that a produced Letterman’s Late Show which followed the Tonight Show. Letterman believed NBC had promised him Carson’s slot. Leno felt that Carson had given him the nod. The maneuvering became the subject of a bestselling book and an HBO movie. Carson evidently favored Letterman, but the NBC brass thought Leno was more mainstream.
The final weeks before Carson’s final shows were a parade of favorite guests sharing memories and of clips from the program—at least surviving clips. NBC had outraged Carson by taping over almost all of his shows before 1970 so that the only surviving clips of that era came on kinescopes kept by some guests.
Many people falsely remember the next to the last program as the last one. Guests were Robin Williams at his manic finest, and Bette Midler. Midler got Carson to sing and impromptu duet with her at the desk and then took to the stage to sing One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) to him as Carson wiped away tears. Midler won an Emmy for the appearance.
There were no guests the next night, Carson’s final show 50 million viewers tuned in to see the farewell. Carson reminisced with Sevrensen, McMahon, and long-time producer Fred de Cordova. The program ended, as Jack Paar’s final appearance did, with Carson sitting alone on a stool giving an emotional good-by to his audience.
Although Carson told his audience he planned to return to television some time later and NBC announced a development deal, he never did. He quietly retired to play tennis and declined almost all interviews—he gave only two the rest of his life. He told friends he did not feel that he could match or top what he had accomplished on the Tonight Show.
Carson died of complications of emphysema, the result of a lifetime as a heavy smoker, on January 23, 2005 at the age of 73. His remains were cremated and at his request there was no funeral service or memorial. Accolades and salutes came from all sides. David Letterman, who Carson had secretly been sending monologue jokes, summed it up—all subsequent late night hosts were just trying to do Johnny.