Laughs, tears and Bette Midler: How Johnny Carson left 'The Tonight Show' 30 years ago

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·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·6 min read
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Johnny Carson bids farewell to late night on his final episode of The Tonight Show, which aired 30 years ago. (Photo: Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank)
Johnny Carson bids farewell to late night on his final episode of The Tonight Show, which aired 30 years ago. (Photo: Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank)

This is the way a late-night king leaves his throne: not with a fight, but just a heartfelt good night. Thirty years ago, on May 22, 1992, Johnny Carson sat in front of that colorful Tonight Show curtain and bid farewell to a show — and an entire late-night industry — that he made internationally famous. Compared to the drama that preceded his departure, Carson's final episode was a deliberately low-key exit that allowed the host plenty of time to look back at a three-decade Tonight Show run that started in 1962 and look ahead to a well-earned retirement.

"This show tonight is our farewell show — it's going to be a little bit quieter, it's not going to be a performance show," Carson said at the top of the telecast about what viewers could expect from the finale. "Now we don't want this show to be mawkish. It's a farewell show, and there's a certain sadness among the staff here. But look on the bright side: you won't have to read or see one more story about my leaving this show!"

Watch Johnny Carson's final Tonight Show below

That's funny because it's true. Carson announced his retirement in May 1991, a full year before taping his final show. And the ensuing 12 months were consumed by a succession drama that played out in the press and had packed as many twists and turns as an episode of Game of Thrones. Jay Leno had been the regular substitute Tonight Show host since 1987, but Carson was well known to favor the comedian who occupied the following time slot, David Letterman. NBC fueled the rivalry between the two former friends by repeatedly making and then un-making its final decision — a tortured saga that TV journalist Bill Carter recounted in his 1994 book The Late Shift, which was later adapted into an HBO movie.

The Leno-Letterman debacle finally ended with Leno in control of The Tonight Show and Letterman bound for CBS, where he hosted The Late Show With David Letterman from 1993 through 2015. In public anyway, Carson tried to stay above the fray and instead focused on a year-long victory lap that culminated in a final slate of shows that pulled out all the stops. The week began with ’60s icons Mel Brooks and Jack Lemmon sitting next to Ed McMahon on the couch, while Tony Bennett swung by to croon his signature tune, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Roseanne Arnold and Richard Harris dropped by the following evening, with the Roseanne star delivering a quick stand-up set where her final punchline was accidentally cut off.

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON -- Aired 05/21/1992 -- Pictured: (l-r) Actress Bette Midler during an interview with host Johnny Carson on May 21, 1992 -- Photo by: Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Bette Midler brought down the house on Carson's penultimate Tonight Show episode (Photo: Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

But it was the penultimate show that really signaled an era was ending. Carson's last two guests were Robin Williams and Bette Midler, and both put on — in the words of another pioneering talk-show host — a really big shew. The Toys star rattled off his usual collection of impressions, including then-President George H.W. Bush, John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, bringing Carson to tears ... of laughter. Next came Midler, who reduced the host to actual tears while singing the Frank Sinatra standard "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)."

"I can't believe it — the last guest," the actress said before breaking into song. "The last fool Mr. Carson will have to suffer gladly. You are the wind beneath my wings. Well, he is!" Even with millions of people watching, Midler performed as if Carson was the only person in the room, amending the lyrics to address him directly. As the camera cut to Carson, he viewers could see that he was genuinely moved. So was Midler — after hugging Carson, she quickly ran offstage to avoid breaking down on camera. Meanwhile, Carson visibly struggled to keep his own composure as he signed off for the night.

Taking the stage for the final show, Carson admitted that he was still rocked by the events of the previous evening. "We are around the studio so emotionally high from last night's show, we have not come down yet," he said of his final guests. "They were absolutely sensational." The host also clearly knew that he couldn't top the Midler moment, and decided not to try. Instead, he pulled up a stool and remained there for most of the episode, introducing clips from his Tonight Show tenure and sharing his own memories. The only time he moved to his usual place behind the host's desk was when he put the spotlight on his two closest collaborators — McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen, both of whom were also departing the show.

"I just found out the other day that there were seven other people up for [my] job," McMahon said. "And I got it. I thank you, my family thanks you forever." Severinsen also extended his thanks, and pitched Carson on a way to continue their friendship. "It's going to be awfully hard about that time when we hit that theme and you walk out there through that curtain, I wondered if maybe once a week you could come to my house and walk out through the draperies in my living room!"

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON --
Carson during the close of his final Tonight Show. (Photo: Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank)

As the evening wound down, Carson moved back to the stool for his closing statements. "So it has come to this," he began. "I 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 can only tell you it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you will like and come back that you will be as gracious to invite me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night."

Carson never did find that career second act, preferring to live the remainder of his life off-camera. He did contribute the occasional guest spot to other shows, calling up Letterman at his new Late Show digs and stopping by The Simpsons to offer advice to Springfield's own Krusty the Klown after his afternoon show is canceled. (He notably never revisited The Tonight Show set after it passed into Leno's hands, more or less confirming where his late night loyalties lay.) Carson died in January 2005, 13 years after his widely watched farewell.

NBC wasted little time transitioning between hosts. Carson said goodbye on a Friday, and Leno made his debut the following Monday, May 25, with Billy Crystal breaking the ice — and poking fun at Midler's emotional farewell while the new guy in the chair squirmed — as the first celebrity guest on the rebranded Tonight Show. Greeted with sustained cheers, Leno opened his monologue with his lone reference to the man he replaced: "Let's see how you all feel in 30 years."

Classic episodes of The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson are currently streaming on Pluto TV.