The Tonight Show is a cornerstone not just of television history but of American culture in the post-World War II era. It’s run on NBC continuously since September 1954, making it one of the longest-running shows of all time–only Meet the Press and Today have had longer runs–and generations have grown up with its hosts. Jimmy Fallon currently hosts the show, having taken over for Jay Leno in February 2014. But arguably the golden age of The Tonight Show were the Johnny Carson years, which lasted three decades, beginning in October 1962 and ending in May 1992. Johnny’s last show with guests aired 22 years ago tonight, on May 21, 1992. His final show ever was the next night, a retrospective and farewell. Many people in America felt an epoch ended that night, and in many ways it did.
It’s not fair to say that Carson was unknown when he took over the show in 1962, but he certainly wasn’t the star he was later to become. After growing up in Omaha, Nebraska (my former hometown), Carson got started in TV in the Midwest and moved to L.A. in the early 1950s. His big break was as an understudy for comedian Red Skelton, who somehow managed to knock himself unconscious an hour before his show. Carson filled in and got big laughs. In 1962 NBC was desperate to find a new host to replace Jack Paar on their struggling late-night talk show, The Tonight Show. Paar had a troubled relationship with NBC. Still, Carson was the network’s fifth choice. Jackie Gleason, Bob Newhart, Groucho Marx and Rat Pack member Joey Bishop all declined. Carson took the gig and went on the air on October 1, 1962. With his glib style and penchant for wheedling funny lines out of guests, Carson made the show a hit.
Classic Carson. Monologue, December 1988.
Over the course of four marriages, innumerable contract disputes, feuds with fellow comedians and a move from New York to Burbank, Carson hosted the show for an incredible 30 years, through seven Presidential administrations. The list of guests would take a phone book to compile. Not only Carson himself but many of the accoutrements of the show passed into popular culture, from the monologue-at-the-beginning format of nighttime talk shows to sidekick Ed McMahon’s famous introduction that was lampooned in Kubrick’s The Shining. Carson was one of the highest-paid men in the entertainment industry. By the mid-1970s The Tonight Show made NBC a staggering $60 million a year–the equivalent of over $200 million in 2012 dollars. Not bad for a show with one simple set and very low production costs.
In the early 1990s Carson announced his retirement. His understudy and frequent guest host, comic Jay Leno, was tapped by NBC to take over the show. On May 21, 1992, Carson hosted his final show with the usual format. The guests were Robin Williams and Bette Midler. I remember watching this show live that night. It was hilarious, the energy almost electric. Carson later said this particular episode was one of the best shows he ever did in his entire 30-year run. Bette Midler won an Emmy for this show. It was funny, but tearful at the end; the next night, May 22, would be Johnny’s last performance. It was bittersweet, but all good things must end. Carson was 66 when he retired. He died in 2005.
The final guest show, with Robin Williams. Bette Midler was also a guest that night. It aired May 21, 1992.
Although much better known to the younger generation of viewers that NBC wished to reach with The Tonight Show, Jay Leno simply didn’t have the same charm that Carson did. At the time many people were skeptical that Leno could fill Carson’s shoes. In my own personal opinion he did not. I think I laughed at Jay Leno maybe twice since 1992, but admittedly I never watched The Tonight Show much after Johnny left. It astonished me that Leno lasted 22 years. I have nothing against Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Fallon, but neither of them interested me much.
Somewhere, in a perfect Nexus-like utopia that exists only in my head, the food is all spicy, the metal is loud, the beer is from Portland or Germany, there’s plenty of zinfandel and pinot noir to drink, and Remains of the Day is always on TV. And when you switch on NBC at 11:35 every night, it’s Johnny Carson who comes out to entertain you before you settle into bed.