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On May 22, 1992, NBC aired the farewell episode for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. The host was just 36 when he took the reins of Tonight from host Jack Paar in 1962, but Carson went on to hold that post for 30 years. While there’s been a few individuals sitting behind The Tonight Show desk since — namely, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and current host Jimmy Fallon — nobody’s been able to take the place of Carson. In The Hollywood Reporter’s review at the time, Laurence Vittes took a fond look at one of the most iconic episodes in television history. The full review is below.
On Friday night, Johnny Carson emerged from the famous curtains for his last The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson monologue. Sixty minutes later, after a gentle, retrospective evening, he was gone forever from a spotlight that had shone on him weeknightly for nearly 30 years.
Ignoring his regular set, except for a visit with Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen filled with awkward goodbyes, Carson sat on a simple stool and thanked his audience, the guests he worked with over the years and his production crew, and introduced sequences of film clips and, professional to the last, commercials.
The monologue, preceded by a historical montage beginning with a transcription of the opening of his first show in 1962, was cool and humble. His humor, as always, was Midwestern tongue-in-cheek and funny.
He told his audience that the years of fame meant a lot to him and said he’d do it “all over again.” He joked about General Electric and, thanking Dan Quayle and the previous seven vice presidents who had provided him with such good material over the years, said he was “going to join Murphy Brown and become a surrogate father to that kid.”
Then bits and snatches of the famous started flashing by, including Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy, Groucho Marx, Bette Davis, Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor and Bob Hope. The roll call of music makers included Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross, Liberace, Yo Yo Ma (playing solo Bach, no less!), Luciano Pavarotti, Itzhak Perlman, Elton John and ZZ Top.
“Faces that passed this way in 30 years” included John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Jane Fonda (with whom he laughed about a pussy), Rick Nelson, David Susskind, Bing Crosby, Orson Welles and Natalie Wood.
There was a filmed look at the Tonight Show backstage, Carson efficiently preparing, preening and getting into character while his staff rushed frantically to make sure the millions of viewers would be satisfied.
When it was over, tears came to his eyes and the scrolling credits froze briefly on a sunset photo over which his late son Rick’s name was superimposed. For a moment, the Carson years seemed all too brief. —Laurence Vittes
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