Throwback Thursday: When Johnny Carson Said Goodbye to TV

Courtesy of Photofest
David Letterman, Garry Shandling, Jay Leno and Johnny Carson

Before the talk show host signed off late-night in 1992, his cultural impact was unmatched: "For the time Johnny was in that seat, he ordained the culture," says comedian David Steinberg.

This story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

It's become a tradition for television talk show hosts who’ve had a long run to be given the showbiz equivalent of a Viking funeral. Johnny Carson’s was the biggest, and The Hollywood Reporter was awed. On May 22, 1992, the day the 66-year-old Tonight Show host retired after 30 years, THR wrote that his "performance will probably never again be matched in late night." That depends on how you define "performance." Having been host of NBC’s Late Night and CBS’ Late Show for slightly less than 33 years combined, David Letterman, who retires May 20 at 68, will have surpassed Carson’s longevity record but probably not his cultural impact. "For the time Johnny was in that seat, he ordained the culture," says comedian David Steinberg, who is second only to Bob Hope for most Tonight Show appearances at 140. "What he liked America liked and what he didn’t like America began to be skeptical of."

Some of what he liked was a bit odd. The 1969 onstage live wedding of Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki was seen by 45 million viewers and was the most-watched Carson show — until his finale, which drew 55 million viewers. Carson also survived a string of competitors that included Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Joan Rivers and even Ron Reagan Jr. Those shows rarely averaged half his viewership, and by the mid-1970s, Tonight was the most profitable show on TV, earning NBC $50 million to $60 million annually (about $250 million today).

After his retirement, Carson, who died in 2003 at 79, spent most of his time at the 11,000-square-foot Malibu home he’d bought in 1983 for $10 million (then the most expensive house sold in L.A. County). He played morning tennis with a neighbor on the private court he’d built on a nearby traffic island. He made just a few returns to TV post-retirement, including on May 13, 1994, when he wordlessly presented the Top Ten List to Letterman on his CBS show, sat in Letterman’s seat (to rapturous applause from the audience), then shook his head and walked off. It would be Carson’s last appearance on television.