Raina Bowsler, of Monte Vista, Colo., had been standing in line for more than 24 hours. It was Thursday, May 21, 1992, the second-to-last night of Johnny Carson's nearly 30-year reign on The Tonight Show, and his last night in front of a regular studio audience. Bowsler was at NBC's sprawling Burbank entrance with a crowd that stretched around the block, hoping to grab one of the night's 465 coveted seats.
Someone produced an oversized roll of white paper and let it roll down the sidewalk, where person after person stepped out of line, briefly, to sign it. They could only hope that the man who had helped them fall asleep with a smile for so many years would read it.
“Johnny,” wrote Bowsler, “I've been waiting 17 years to say hello, and now I'm saying goodbye. It was worth the 31 hours in line to wish you well.”
The competition put a wide array of shows up against Carson over his three-decade reign on The Tonight Show: movies, urbane talk (Dick Cavett), not-so-urbane talk (Joey Bishop), songs and variegated jacket linings (Merv Griffin), Arsenio and Nightline. They came, they entertained—but they failed to conquer.
Where Tonight's original host, Steve Allen, was a frenetic one-man band, with talents to match or better any guest, and his successor, Jack Parr, was a brilliant, sophisticated center-of-attention, Carson was a master at commanding left-of-center stage. He expertly asserted a comfortable, likeable presence while leaving the spotlight trained on his guests. They—and his audience—loved him for it, and the show became the first stop for any star with a new movie, TV role or record to promote (or, in the case of particular Carson favorite Jimmy Stewart, a poem to read).
Carson came to dominate late night as no one had ruled a time period in TV history and no one has since. If Milton Berle had been TV's Mr. Tuesday Night, Carson became Mr. Every Weeknight. When he announced his retirement, even his closest colleagues couldn't believe he was really ready to throw in the towel. “We all knew it was coming,” said music director Doc Severinsen on that warm May day in 1992. “But it still comes as a shock.”
The laid-back Midwesterner loved show business and its stars, displaying an engaging deference to those who were arguably his entertainment equals, just in another genre. Comics were clearly Carson's favorite guests. He could relate to the pressure of having to command a stage and win over a crowd since, in his own standup days, he had performed on the Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen and Garry Moore shows. On his own show, Carson could literally make—or break—a comic's career. The true sign that a comedian had impressed Carson was when he extended the esteemed invitation to sit down after a standup routine; TV bookings and offers followed almost instantly.
Jerry Seinfeld once said his appearance on Tonight was the turning point of his comedy career. Ray Romano also said Carson made him; Joan Rivers feels the same way. Comics across the land were echoing that sentiment last week—and paying tribute. Said Conan O'Brien: “Anyone who does this for living is trying in vain to be Johnny Carson. To me, he'll always be the face, the voice and the spirit of late-night television.”
Add to this Jerry Stiller's observation that, when Carson moved the show from New York to the West Coast in 1972, several actors decided they had to follow, knowing that where Carson went was where the action was.
After his retirement, Carson nearly disappeared from public view, though not from private friendship and expansive personal charity. A long-time smoker, he died Jan. 16 from complications after a protracted battle with emphysema. But even in death, his timing was impeccable. He somehow managed not to steal the limelight from the Golden Globes, the inauguration and the Academy Award nominations.
Peter Lassally, an executive producer on Carson's show who now works with Letterman, told TV critics two weeks ago that Carson was doing “just fine” and watching the late-night shows over East Coast feeds from his California home (while occasionally feeding jokes to David Letterman).
Like many comics, Letterman saw his career take off when he became a regular on The Tonight Show. He eventually got the slot following Carson's and was widely expected to succeed him; NBC's choice of Jay Leno, another frequent guest host, sent Letterman packing to CBS.
On the night before Carson's final sign-off, the audience wasn't nearly ready to say goodbye. “I just wanted to be here to give him the standing ovation he deserves,” said Jim Chrisoulis, of San Jose, Calif.
Inside the familiar NBC studio with the peacock-colored curtains, the atmosphere was electric. When Ed McMahon cranked it up one more time to call out his signature, “Heeeeere's Johnny!” the audience leapt to its feet. The applause and the “bravos” simply would not stop. One minute. Two minutes. More. There were tears in Carson's eyes. Every time he tried to get the audience to stop, they howled even louder. For once, Carson seemed at a loss, knowing there was nothing he could do but bask in the adoration.
When the director cut to commercial break, Carson stayed in front of the audience. “You just did that so you wouldn't have to listen to the monologue,” he joked. “I tell you, I can't take too much more of this.”
But there was a lot more. Robin Williams presented the King of Late Night with a custom-made rocking chair. Bette Midler and Carson sang an off-the-cuff duet, “Here's That Rainy Day.” The song ends, “Funny, but that rainy day is here.” Certainly, the waterworks were. Midler said later that she didn't know how she had kept from weeping that night.
During another commercial break, Carson looked out at the audience and said, “You people are seeing one helluva show tonight.” The audience agreed, launching into yet another ovation.
But when Midler closed the show singing “One for the Road,” the audience's sniffles were almost as loud as her voice.
Kleenex appeared everywhere. When Carson took his final bow and the lights finally dimmed, the audience wouldn't stop clapping. They didn't want to stop, long after he had left the stage.