This is the way a king of the night leaves his throne: not with a fight, but with a sincere good night. Thirty years ago, on May 22, 1992, Johnny Carson sat in front of that colorful Tonight Show curtain and said goodbye to a show – and an entire nighttime industry – that he made internationally famous. Compared to the drama that preceded his departure, as well as the tears that flowed freely through the episodes that aired during his final week, Carson’s final episode was an intentionally quiet exit that gave the host plenty of time to look back on a three-decade Tonight Show run that began in 1962 and look ahead to a well-deserved retirement.
“Tonight’s show is our farewell show — it’s going to be a little quieter, it’s not going to be a performance show,” Carson said at the top of the broadcast about what viewers could expect from the finale. “Now we don’t want this show to go crazy. It’s a farewell show and there’s a certain sadness among the staff here. But look on the bright side: you don’t have to read another story about my departure or see this show !”
Watch Johnny Carson’s final Tonight Show below
That joke is funny because it’s true. Carson announced his retirement in May 1991, a full year before recording his last show. And the next 12 months were swallowed up by a successive press drama that had as many twists and turns as an episode of Game of Thrones† Jay Leno had been the permanent replacement Tonight Show host since 1987, but Carson was known for favoring the comedian occupying the next timeslot, David Letterman. NBC fueled the rivalry between the two former friends by repeatedly making final decisions and then undoing them — a haunted saga TV journalist Bill Carter recounted in his 1994 book. the late shiftwhich was later adapted into an HBO movie.
The Leno-Letterman debacle finally ended with Leno at the helm of The Tonight Show and Letterman headed to CBS, where he presented The Late Show with David Letterman from 1993 to 2015. But in public anyway, Carson tried to stay above the fray and instead focused on his year-long round of victory that culminated in a final week of shows pulling out all the stops. The week kicked off with ’60s icons Mel Brooks and Jack Lemmon sitting on the couch next to Ed McMahon, while Tony Bennett came over to sing his signature tune “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Roseanne Arnold and Richard Harris stopped by the next evening, with the… roseanne star delivers a quick stand-up set where her final punch line was accidentally cut short.
But it was the penultimate show that really signaled the end of an era. Carson’s last two guests were Robin Williams and Bette Midler, and both – in the words of another groundbreaking talk show host – performed a very big shows† The toys star rattled his usual collection of impressions, which included then-President George HW Bush, John Wayne, and Ronald Reagan, bringing Carson to tears… with laughter. Next came Midler, who brought the host to real tears as he sang the Frank Sinatra standard “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”.
“I can’t believe it – the last guest,” the actress said before singing. “The last fool, Mr. Carson, will have to suffer happily. You are the wind beneath my wings. Well, he is!’ Even with millions of people watching, Midler performed as if Carson were the only person in the room, adapting the lyrics to address him directly. When the camera cut to Carson, viewers could tell he was genuinely moved. So was Midler — after hugging Carson, she quickly ran off the stage to avoid collapsing in front of the camera. Meanwhile, Carson visibly struggled to keep his own composure as he checked out of the night.
On stage for the final show, Carson admitted he was still shocked by the previous night’s events. “We’re so emotional in the studio from last night’s show, we haven’t come down yet,” he said of his latest guests. “They were absolutely sensational.” The host also clearly knew he couldn’t top the Midler moment and decided not to try. Instead, he pulled up a stool and stayed there for most of the episode, showing clips of his . introduced Tonight Show tenure and sharing his own memories. The only time he moved to his usual spot behind the host’s desk was when he spotlighted his two closest associates: McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen, both of whom also left the show.
“I recently found out that there were seven other people for… [my] job,” said McMahon. “And I’ve got it. I thank you, my family thanks you forever.” Severinsen also thanked and sent Carson on a way to continue their friendship. “It’s going to be really hard at the time when we hit that theme and you walk through that curtain, I was wondering if maybe you could come to my house once a week and walk out through the curtains in my living room !”
As the evening drew to a close, Carson returned to the stool for his closing statements. “So it’s come to this,” he began. “I am one of the lucky people in the world: I have found something that I have always wanted to do and I have loved every minute of it … I can only tell you that it was an honor and a privilege to be in your home come all these years and entertain you i hope if i find something i want to do and i think you will like it and come back you will be as gracious to invite me to your home as you have been I bid you a very sincere good night.”
Carson never found that second act in his career and preferred to live the rest of his life off-camera. He contributed the occasional guest spot on other shows and called Letterman on his new late show excavations and visits The Simpsons to give advice to Springfield’s own Krusty the Klown after his afternoon show is canceled. (Carson notably never revisited The Tonight Show set after it passed into Leno’s hands.) Carson died in January 2005, 13 years after his widely watched retirement.
NBC wasted little time transitioning between hosts. Carson said goodbye on Friday, and Leno made his debut the following Monday, May 25, with Billy Crystal breaking the ice—and poking fun at Midler and McMahon, while Leno wriggled—as the first celebrity guest on the rebranded Tonight Show† Greeted with sustained cheers, Leno opened his monologue with his only reference to the man he replaced: “Let’s see how you guys feel 30 years from now.”
Classic episodes of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson currently streaming on Pluto TV†