Nineteen years ago today, Johnny Carson said goodbye.
Retiring after thirty years at the age of 66, Carson walked away from a show that became part of the fabric of American pop culture. Much like Ed Sullivan’s variety show, unknown performers could become instant superstars just by nailing a single appearance. Carson didn’t start the Tonight Show (Steve Allen and Jack Paar preceded him), nor would he finish it, but his impact upon it and the late-night talk show design will forever be paramount.
Other talk shows of the day were warm and fuzzy (Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas) or a bit cerebral (Dick Cavett); Carson blended both with a parade of incredible guests and a willingness to be as serious or silly as the situation required. He let people be themselves. During his reign, the show’s title became secondary to the man; artists simply referred to “being on Carson“.
On his final night, Carson went out with grace and class:
“And so it has come to this: I, uh… 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 gentlemen who’ve shared this stage with me for thirty years. Mr. Ed McMahon, Mr. Doc Severinsen, and you 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.”
Video: Excerpts from the final show
Although he never came back into the public eye, his legacy lives on through everyone who speaks into a microphone from behind a desk, and the advent of cable television has allowed many students to co-exist in the form. While initially his replacement Jay Leno and his protegé David Letterman split the bulk of the audience, a flood of worthy children now occupy the night-time hours and will be worthy successors to their aging mentors.
Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher have taken the political end of the spectrum to new heights; Stewart is often singled out as the most trusted source of news on television, despite his consistent disclaimer that his is a comedy show. (Speaks volumes about the networks, doesn’t it?).
After holding slots previously occupied by both Leno and Letterman, Conan O’Brien’s new TBS effort proved that people will follow the man, not the show. The embarrassing NBC debacle was followed by the guerilla Team Coco movement, and Conan remains a strong brand and a unique personality.
After shaky starts, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson and especially Jimmy Fallon have proven to have solid and consistent programs that attract first-rate guests and feature brilliant writing. Along with smaller network show hosts (Chelsea Handler, George Lopez, Mo’Nique, Graham Norton), the comedy/music/chat formula is in good hands.
But to a person, each will point a finger back at the master, Johnny Carson.