Johnny Carson, the king of late-night television, hosted his final episode of “The Tonight Show” on this day in history, May 22, 1992, after a 30-year run.
Carson conducted about 22,000 interviews during his tenure and was seen by more people on more occasions than anyone else in U.S. television history, according to the Vancouver Sun.
The long-running “The Tonight Show” was the first, and for decades the most-watched, network talk program on television, said the Television Academy Foundation.
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In October 1962, Carson took over as host from Jack Paar and the broadcast became “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
Carson hosted the show for 30 years, from 1962 to 1992.
During that time, the show moved from New York City to Burbank, California.
“Carson was known for his glib sense of humor and his middle-American appeal, and quickly recognized his increasing popularity as well as the strain of doing comedy and talk five nights a week,” said the Television Academy Foundation.
“As an entertainer, it has been the great experience of my life.”
“He threatened to leave the show, but was lured back with a generous offer that included a huge salary increase and more time off.”
Carson was emotional during his last show — and his monologue was fittingly centered on his retirement, the Vancouver Sun noted.
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Carson’s insights on his retirement included this comment: “Well, let me try to explain it. If I could magically, somehow — that tape you just saw — make it run backwards, I would like to do the whole thing over again. It’s been a hell of a lot of fun.”
He went on, “As an entertainer, it has been the great experience of my life, and I cannot imagine finding something in television after I leave tonight that would give me as much joy and pleasure, and such a sense of exhilaration, as this show has given me. It’s just hard to explain.”
He continued his monologue, “Now, it’s a farewell show. There’s a certain sadness among the staff, a little melancholy. But look on the bright side: You won’t have to read or hear one more story about me leaving this show. The press coverage has been absolutely tremendous, and we are very grateful.”
“The press coverage has been absolutely tremendous, and we are very grateful.”
He added, “But my God, the Soviet Union’s end did not get this kind of publicity. The press has been very decent and honest with me, and I thank them for that … That’s about it.”
Carson was born John William Carson on Oct. 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa.
Following his high school graduation and service in the U.S. Navy during World War II — he helped to decode encrypted enemy radio traffic on the USS Pennsylvania — Carson enrolled at the University of Nebraska.
There, he participated in student theatrical activities and worked for a radio station in Lincoln, Britannica noted.
Then, following graduation in 1949, Carson took a radio job in Omaha — and in 1951 he began working as an announcer at a television station in Los Angeles.
He then hosted a Sunday afternoon comedy show, which led to his being hired as a writer for Red Skelton’s show, says Britannica.
“After Carson substituted successfully for Skelton at the last minute on one occasion, he was given his own short-lived variety show, ‘The Johnny Carson Show,'” according to the same source.
“He then moved to New York City and in 1957 became host of the game show, ‘Who Do You Trust?’ In 1962 Carson replaced Jack Paar as host of ‘The Tonight Show.’”
Carson was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992.
During his 30-year tenure, Carson created such memorable characters as Aunt Blabby and Carnac the Magnificent, as well as many classic skits, becoming one of the most beloved performers in the country.
Carson’s final appearance as the host of “The Tonight Show” attracted an estimated 50 million viewers, the largest audience in the program’s history, noted Britannica.
In total, Carson received six Emmy Awards, the Television Academy’s 1980 Governor’s Award and a 1985 Peabody Award, said the Television Academy Foundation.
He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush, with the citation noting that Carson “personifies the heart and humor of America.”
In 1993, he received a Kennedy Center Honor.
Also, “when Carson retired, Jay Leno was appointed the next principal host of ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,’” said the Television Academy.
“Leno, a well-known stand-up comedian, brought to the show his own writers and comic style, showcasing it in his opening monologues and banter with guests.”
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On Jan. 23, 2005, Carson passed away at the age of 79.
“While the Carson family released few details of his death it was reportedly the result of complications stemming from emphysema,” said NPR.
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Tributes poured in after Carson’s death, with this standout line coming from Leno: “No single individual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny. He was the gold standard.”
And “Tonight Show” publicist Charles Barrett said, “He always drove himself to work, never took a limo. He was a guy who expected a level of professionalism from everyone on the show.”