On May 22, 1992, Johnny Carson ended his 30-year reign as the host of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Twenty years after his final broadcast, Carson remains unmatched as an American television icon.
Carson's abilities as a television host set the prototype for all late-night hosts who would come after him. He was effortlessly likable, quick on his feet and always present; his monologue and guest interviews were a staple of the American cultural diet. In the new PBS documentary "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night," his one-time permanent guest host Joan Rivers called Carson "the ultimate straight man," praising his ability to let his guests have the spotlight during interviews.
One of his successors, Conan O'Brien, said in the documentary that his forebear's greatest sleight of hand was to simultaneously appear innocent as well as "the coolest guy in the room."
"Johnny is to comedy what Walter Cronkite was to news," said Paul Block, a producer on Carson's "Tonight Show." Indeed, America trusted Carson to come into their living room night after night for three decades, introducing audiences to new actors, stand-up comedians and other entertainers.
But his ascension to the late night throne did not come about easily, nor by accident. Born in Iowa and raised in Nebraska, the self-admittedly shy John William Carson learned magic tricks and drumming to learn how to control an audience. After a stint in the Navy, he started hosting and writing for various radio and television programs. That led to his hosting the game show "Who Do You Trust?" in 1957, where he first met sidekick Ed McMahon.
Meanwhile, NBC was searching for a new host of their late-night program, "The Tonight Show," after the first host Steve Allen had vacated the show for prime time and his successor, the brilliant but erratic Jack Paar, had grown tired of the job. Carson officially took over on October 1, 1962, beating Bob Newhart, Jackie Gleason, Joey Bishop and Groucho Marx.
Like most of his early shows, that first episode, shot at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City, is lost, although the audio of the episode can be heard in the "King of Late Night" documentary.
WATCH: An early episode, from December 1963.
Carson was no exception to the poor reviews given to most late-night hosts upon their outset. The New York Herald Tribune wrote that the host had "no apparent gift for the performing arts.” Of course, by 1966 the Herald Tribune would be gone, and Carson's star would only be rising. In 1969, the on-air wedding of singer Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki was watched by 58 million viewers (or 85% of the total television audience), a late night record.
By the mid-1970s, Carson's command of television was indisputable. He had moved the show to Burbank, Cali., where he was one of the few television stars who outshone the top Hollywood celebrities of the day. His show, now shot in color, took on a more relaxed, stylish attitude. He even hosted the Academy Awards five times between 1978 and 1983.
In one memorable episode of the '70s era, Carson discovered that frequent guest Don Rickles had broken his cigar box during an episode when Bob Newhart was filling in for Carson, so Carson took his camera crew on an impromptu trip to the set of Rickles' show "C.P.O. Sharkey" to teasingly confront the comic for his accident.
As all good things must come to an end, Carson announced to a shocked audience of NBC affiliates in 1991 that his reign as the King of Late Night would end the next year. As it happened, the manager for permanent guest host Jay Leno had planted a false story in The New York Post that cited unnamed NBC "sources" who wanted Johnny to exit the show. Leno had no knowledge of this, and eventually fired his manager upon finding out about the stunt after taking over the "Tonight Show" in 1992.
But either way, Carson made the decision to soon after vacate the "Tonight Show" desk during the 30th year he hosted the show, despite bringing in good ratings. Doc Severinson, the show's longtime bandleader, explained Johnny's decision in his own words. "I've always prided myself on my sense of timing," he quoted Carson as telling him. "And it's time to go."
His last show with a studio audience was May 21, 1991, with guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler. Midler brought a tear to Johnny's eye, not to mention those across America, with a retrofitted version of "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" dedicated to Carson.
The next night, Johnny did the show without a studio audience, showing clips of his show throughout the years. He then gave an emotional farewell on his 4,531st and final "Tonight Show" broadcast.
And so it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the people who've shared this stage with me for 30 years, Mr. Ed McMahon, Mr. Doc Severinsen, and the people watching. 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. And I hope when I find something that I want to do, and I think you would like, and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.
Carson never did return to TV, outside of a silent guest appearance on "Late Show with David Letterman," the CBS show hosted by the mentee of Carson. When Carson passed away in 2005, Letterman performed a monologue entirely of jokes that Carson had sent him, only then revealing that Johnny had been quietly sending jokes to Dave throughout his retirement.
There's a reason that it's impossible to consider "The Tonight Show" without the legacy of Johnny Carson. Even the prolonged Leno-Letterman-Conan battles are effectively fights over the rightful tradition of Carson, and the fact that the fights were never really resolved indicates the staying power of Carson's presence in culture decades after he left the airwaves.
All late-night hosts are doing some facsimile of Johnny Carson, either implicitly or explicitly (see Bill Maher's monologue, or Jon Stewart's tie-loosening Art Fern impression). Because as Letterman stated after his Carson-penned routine, Americans just wanted to be "tucked in by Johnny" at the end of their day.