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Tonight Show with Johnny Carson



Johnny Carson hosted his final Tonight Show episode on May 22, 1992, The late-night franchise aired on NBC from October 1, 1962, to May 22, 1992. For its first decade, Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show was based at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, with some episodes recorded at NBC's West Coast studios in Burbank, California; on May 1, 1972, the show moved to Burbank as its main venue and remained there exclusively after May 1973 until Carson's retirement.


Johnny Carson's Tonight Show established the modern format of the late-night talk show: a monologue sprinkled with a rapid-fire series of 16 to 22 one-liners (Carson had a rule of no more than three on the same subject) was followed by sketch comedy, then moving on to guest interviews and performances by musicians and stand-up comedians. During the early years of Carson's tenure, his guests included politicians such as former U.S. Vice President (and future U.S. President) Richard M. Nixon, former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, but by 1970, Carson primarily interviewed as guests people who had a book, movie, television show, or stage performance to promote. Other regulars were selected for their entertainment or information value, in contrast to those who offered more cerebral conversation; Carson refused to discuss politics on The Tonight Show out of concern it might alienate his audience.



His preference for access to Hollywood stars caused the show's move to the West Coast on May 1, 1972; The Tonight Show would not return to New York until 2014 when Jimmy Fallon took the hosting reins. When asked about intellectual conversation on The Tonight Show, Carson and his staff invariably cited "Carl Sagan, Paul Ehrlich, Margaret Mead, Gore Vidal, Shana Alexander, Madalyn Murray O'Hair" as guests; one television critic stated, however, "he always presented them as if they were spinach for your diet when he did [feature such names]." Family therapist Carlfred Broderick appeared on the show ten times, and psychologist Joyce Brothers was one of Carson's most frequent guests. Carson, in general, did not feature prop comedy acts (Carson was not averse to using prop comedy himself); such acts, with Gallagher being a prominent example, more commonly appeared when guest hosts helmed the program.


Carson almost never socialized with guests before or after the show; frequent interviewee Orson Welles recalled that Tonight Show employees were astonished when Carson visited Welles's dressing room to say hello before a show. Unlike his avuncular counterparts Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, and Dick Cavett, Carson was a comparatively "cool" host who only laughed when genuinely amused and abruptly cut short monotonous or embarrassingly inept interviewees. Mort Sahl recalled, "The producer crouches just off camera and holds up a card that says, 'Go to commercial.' So Carson goes to a commercial and the whole team rushes up to his desk to discuss what had gone wrong, like a pit stop at Le Mans." Actor Robert Blake once compared being interviewed by Carson to "facing the death squad" or "Broadway on opening night." The publicity value of appearing on The Tonight Show was so great, however, that most guests were willing to subject themselves to the risk. Here is clip of an candid Barbara Walters interview of Carson at his Malibu home.



The series' announcer and Carson's sidekick was Ed McMahon, who from the first show would introduce Carson with a drawn-out "Here's Johnny!" (something McMahon was inspired to do by the overemphasized way he had introduced reporter Robert Pierpoint on the NBC Radio Network program Monitor). The catchphrase was heard nightly for 30 years, and ranked top of the TV Land poll of U.S. TV catchphrases and quotes in 2006; it has been referenced in all media going from The Shining to Johnny Bravo to a "Weird Al" Yankovic album cut; it was even used for the character Johnny Cage in the video game series Mortal Kombat.


McMahon, who held the same role in Carson's ABC game show Who Do You Trust? for five years previously, would remain standing to the side as Carson did his monologue, laughing (sometimes obsequiously) at his jokes, then join him at the guest chair when Carson moved to his desk. The two would usually interact in a comic spot for a short while before the first guest was introduced.


McMahon stated in a 1978 profile of Carson in The New Yorker that "the 'Tonight Show' is my staple diet, my meat and potatoes - I'm realistic enough to know that everything else stems from that." After a 1965 incident in which he ruined Carson's joke on the air McMahon was careful to, as he said, "never to go where [Carson]'s going." He wrote in his 1998 autobiography:


The Tonight Show had a live big band for nearly all of its existence. The NBC Orchestra during Carson's reign was originally led by Skitch Henderson (who had previously led the band during Tonight Starring Steve Allen), followed briefly by Milton DeLugg. Starting in 1967 and continuing until Jay Leno took over, the band was led by Doc Severinsen, with Tommy Newsom filling in for him when he was absent or filling in for McMahon as the announcer (this usually happened when a guest host substituted for Carson, which generally gave McMahon the night off as well). The series' instrumental theme music, "Johnny's Theme," was a re-arrangement of the Paul Anka composition "Toot Sweet," which Anka and Annette Funicello had separately recorded, with lyrics, as "It's Really Love." During shows when Newsom filled in for Severinsen, the band played a slightly truncated version of the theme that transitioned from the bridge to the closing phrase without reprising the first few notes of the main melody. The NBC Orchestra was the last in-house studio orchestra to perform on American television.


Behind the scenes, motion picture director/producer Fred de Cordova joined The Tonight Show in 1970 as producer, graduating to executive producer in 1984. Unlike many people of his position, de Cordova often appeared on the show, bantering with Carson from his chair off-camera (though occasionally a camera would be pointed in his direction).



As his retirement approached, Carson tried to avoid sentimentality but would periodically show clips of some of his favorite moments and again invited some of his favorite guests. He told his crew, "Everything comes to an end; nothing lasts forever. Thirty years is enough. It's time to get out while you're still working on top of your game, while you're still working well."


Carson hosted his penultimate show, featuring guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler, on May 21, 1992. The last of Carson's monologues was delivered on this episode and was written by Jim Mulholland, Steven Kunes and Rift Fournier. Once underway, the atmosphere was electric and Carson was greeted with a sustained, two-minute intense standing ovation. Williams was especially uninhibited with his trademark manic energy and stream-of-consciousness lunacy. Midler was more emotional. When the conversation turned to Johnny's favorite songs, "I'll Be Seeing You" and "Here's That Rainy Day," Midler mentioned that she knew a chorus of the latter. She began singing the song, and after the first line, Carson joined in and turned it into an impromptu duet. Midler finished her appearance from center stage, where she slowly sang the pop standard "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)." Carson became unexpectedly tearful, and a shot of the two of them was captured by a camera angle from across the set that had never before been used on the show. The audience became tearful as well and called the three performers out for a second bow after the taping was completed. This show was immediately recognized as a television classic that Midler considered one of the most emotional moments of her life and eventually won an Emmy for her role in it.



Carson had no guests on his final episode of The Tonight Show on May 22, 1992, which was instead a retrospective show taped before an invitation-only studio audience of family, friends, and crew. More than fifty million people tuned in for this finale, which ended with Carson sitting on a stool alone at center stage, similar to Jack Paar's last show.


A few weeks after the final show aired, it was announced that NBC and Carson had struck a deal to develop a new series. Ultimately, however, Carson chose not to return to television. He gave only two major interviews after his retirement: one to The Washington Post in 1993, and the other to Esquire magazine in 2002. Carson hinted in his 1993 interview that he did not think he could top what he had already accomplished.


In 2005, after Carson's death, it was revealed that he had made a habit of sending jokes to Dave Letterman via fax machine which Letterman would then sometimes incorporate into his monologues. The January 31, 2005, episode of the Late Show with David Letterman, which featured a tribute to Carson, began with a monologue by Letterman composed entirely of jokes written by Carson himself after his retirement.


In 2011, the last Carson Tonight show was ranked No. 10 on the TV Guide Network special, TV's Most Unforgettable Finales.


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