One of mine was to sit next to Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. I even promised my mom I’d do that.
I think I regret that one as much as having her see me go to prison back in 1985.
Well, close anyway.
It’s the holiday season now and one of the shows that brought me and millions of others a smile in the past was THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON.
Johnny’s never been replaced and never will be. Carson was THE CLASS ACT of all time on television. Yes, there have been scores of others who’ve tried to match him – David Letterman and Jay Leno getting the closest.
Others met some success – from Arsenio Hall to Conan – and the list of stars with daytime and evening talk shows is nearly endless. Yet only one could draw 20 plus million viewers a night for years, and that man was Johnny Carson.
After 4,530 shows Johnny called it quits on May 22, 1992, more than 20 years ago.
If you’re a Baby Boomer – maybe even a Gen Xer – his shows may still rattle in your brain at times. I used to race home from goofing around after school to watch the frequent appearances of Don Rickles or Richard Pryor. Just getting on the Tonight Show with Johnny could made you a national name star if you were a comic or singer.
Kansas City had its share of Tonight Show stars, including Marilyn Maye and Ed Asner.
She’d won the Golden Globe for best actress in the movie Conan with Arnold. Sandhal did more than 30 minutes with Johnny and made the highlight clips show at Christmas because she and Carson did a fake sword fight and Johnny got cut by accident.
Sandahl showed me her career clips on a date we had early on in LA – including her winning the Golden Globe – but it was her Carson Show appearance that most impressed me.
I saw Johnny’s last Tonight show in Palm Springs at a bar waiting to go to an awards show.
He thanked us all for letting him be a part of our lives and allowing him into our homes every night. Johnny said one day he might come back when he found something he want to do on television. But it was clear he would NEVER be back – not for any long running show.
Johnny was done. I knew it, America knew it, and a tear rolled down my eyes as he walked off for the last time. Johnny Carson was television for all those decades.
Later Johnny did a guest spot on Letterman. He was introduced, came out, sat in his old seat (they shot Letterman in Johnny’s old studio) got a five minute standing ovation, never said a word and walked off smiling while giving a farewell parade wave. He died a couple years later.
It was Bob Hope‘s 90th birthday, a salute to the other great television star of the last half century.
Both men spent nearly their entire careers at NBC.
“NBC, the house of hits…I walked by the president’s office on the way here, today it’s a Chinese restaurant,” Carson said.
It was brief, but would be Johnny’s last words of comedy on TV forever.
I did the Today Show and Entertainment Tonight, but never the Tonight Show with Carson. I never earned that one. When my mom was in her last few days she brought it up at the hospital to me, not doing the show.
“I forgive you for going to prison,” she said. “but I sure wanted to see you with Johnny.”
One day, like practically everyone else that ever mattered, Johnny Carson will be forgotten.
But nothing in entertainment history will ever be as sad as his last show. He was the best.