Everyone remembers Johnny Carson’s penultimate Tonight Show, the one where Robin Williams went reliably bonkers and Bette Midler serenaded the host with a tear-provoking ”One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).” But for his final show, on May 22, 1992, Carson strode through the curtains and, for once in 30 years, did not stand for his opening monologue — he pulled up a stool and spoke from the heart.
He thanked announcer-sidekick Ed McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen for their stalwart support over the decades. There were no guests; instead, Carson introduced a taped segment showing how a typical episode of The Tonight Show is produced, and offered a montage of some of his favorite visitors, from Muhammad Ali to Madonna, plus Jimmy Stewart reciting one of his goofy little poems, and a few minutes of Carson demonstrating what looks like the then-new Heimlich maneuver on a young, cleavage-baring Loni Anderson (Johnny always excelled at tasteful lasciviousness).
It was, in short, a final broadcast in keeping with the unassuming coolness of America’s most beloved late-night host. Looking back on it now, TV historian David Marc, author of Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, sees Carson’s retirement as the end of an era. ”For 30 years, prime time was bracketed by two men: Walter Cronkite, who gave the news in his daily report, and Johnny Carson, who reviewed the news in his daily monologue. Now hardly anybody under 30 knows who Dan Rather is, and Jay Leno [Carson’s Tonight Show replacement] makes a living out of showing how little people know about the news…. Johnny, like Walter, is part of the lost world of three-channel culture.”
Perched on his stool, his posture, as always, ramrod-straight, Carson said his last words in a lower, warmer tone than usual: ”I bid you a very heartfelt good night.” His voice broke; his eyes watered. As the band played, he stood, applauded the audience, and strode off screen. Maybe he went over to give Ed a hug, but we’ll never know, because the camera never moved.
Once Carson stepped down, pretenders to the crown started scrambling. Leno got the official nod, but David Letterman, Arsenio Hall, and even Chevy Chase tried to fill the void with varying degrees of success, and Johnny’s America split into a country of late-night fiefdoms. Since he retired, Johnny has publicly reached out to an heir only once: When Letterman underwent quadruple-bypass surgery this past January, Carson — who survived a March 19, 1999, heart attack and a subsequent bypass operation himself — called Dave while the Late Show host was in the hospital. Johnny’s advice: Drink plenty of red wine.
Time Capsule: May 22, 1992
At the movies, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman collaborate again in the Irish immigrant epic Far and Away. In music, backwards-panted duo Kris Kross top the Billboard singles chart for the fifth week with ”Jump.” In bookstores, Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! makes a graduation-season stop on the New York Times best-seller list. And in the news, in the wake of the L.A. riots that erupted after a jury returned a not-guilty verdict in the trial of the four cops who beat Rodney King, MPI Home Video sells the case highlights for $24.98.