“Heeeeeerre’s Johnny!” For decades, TV viewers waited for this rousing introduction by sidekick Ed McMahon, who announced the talk show host in grand style each night. But alas, it was 20 years ago on May 22, 1992, that The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson took its final bow in front of over fifty million viewers. Airing from 1962 through May of 1992, the show was among the most beloved programs in American TV history. Viewers felt at home with Carson’s reliable presence, and audiences loved his signature bits, which included casually swinging an imaginary golf club at the end of his monologue and playing with pencils on his desk.
Revered for his affable personality, quick wit, and crisp interviews, Carson guided viewers into the late night hours with a familiarity they grew to rely on year after year. Featuring interviews with the stars of the latest Hollywood movies or the hottest bands, Carson kept Americans up-to-date on popular culture. He also reflected some of the most distinct personalities of his era through impersonations, including his classic take on President Ronald Reagan.
Carson created several recurring comedic characters that popped up regularly on his show. Among his most popular characters was Carnac the Magnificent, an Eastern psychic who was said to know the answers to all kinds of baffling questions. In these skits, Carson would wear a colorful cape and featured turban and attempt to answer questions on cards before even opening their sealed envelopes. Carson, as Carmac, would demand silence before answering questions such as “Answer: Flypaper.” ”Question: What do you use to gift wrap a zipper?”
Carson as Carnac the Magnificent in 1989.
Carson’s humorous routines made millions of viewers laugh on a nightly basis. Though he was known for his warmth on screen, when the cameras were turned off, Carson was a very private person who rarely socialized with guests. Friends and colleagues said that it seemed as if Carson was most comfortable in the context of his show. Though he hinted at retirement for years, it was surprising to many people when he decided to end his show for good.
The finale did not include traditional interviews but instead, featured special statements and performances from guests, including Robin Williams and Bette Midler, who sang an emotional rendition of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road.)”
The final show was sprinkled with clips from his most popular shows. Carson delivered his final monologue while sitting on a stool in the middle of the stage he had graced for so many years. Carson reflected, “And so it has come to this…I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you.” Then Carson gave an emotional, final send-off with tears in his eyes, “I bid you a very heartfelt good night.”
Many viewers hoped Carson would reappear with another show or a special, but aside from a few appearances on other programs, he never returned to TV. Carson passed away on January 23, 2005, from complications related to emphysema. Though he had been in retirement for over a decade, many viewers still felt like he was an enduring late night presence.
Watch Bette Middler sing to Carson on his final show: