Monday, May 21, 2012

Carson's Last Night Before a Studio Audience

Twenty years ago tomorrow, Johnny Carson made his final appearance as the host of the Tonight Show.

But the show that aired 20 years ago tonight was really the last one.

That's because, on the final night, Carson had no guests and no studio audience — at least not like the ones who had attended his shows for 30 years. It was strictly family and friends — both his and his crew's — who were there by invitation. It was a very nostalgic occasion with clips of folks who appeared on the show in the three decades that Carson was its host, punctuated by nostalgic conversations with Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen and a memorable farewell.

Twenty years ago tonight, though, it was still business as usual.

Everyone knew that Carson was only hours away from his farewell program. TV viewers had been hearing about it — and most had been dreading it — for months.

But, on this night in 1992, it was still possible to watch the Tonight Show and almost persuade yourself that it all wasn't about to end.

Sort of.

From the opening monologue, it was clear the show would be the usual madcap, no–holds–barred kind of entertainment that fans were accustomed to getting from Carson. As Carson wrapped up his monologue, he advised viewers that he had two "quiet, laid–back" guests in the house — Robin Williams and Bette Midler.

Williams, of course, was his usual manic self, and the recent riots in Los Angeles following the verdict in the Rodney King beating case were grist for his mill.

He had one–liners about everyone and everything. As always, then–Vice President Dan Quayle was worth a few laughs, most of which he had brought on himself by that time. Like anyone else in the public eye, he was unfairly targeted by some jokes, but Williams' humor managed to combine the reputation Quayle had for being a dunce with recent news events — his very public misspelling of the word potato, for example.

Business as usual.

Well, not for Midler, who was clearly emotional at the thought of Carson leaving. She sang an impromptu duet with Carson that must have brought tears to the eyes of anyone who saw it, and she wrapped things up with "One More For the Road."

A truly touching finale.