Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Johnny's Farewell

"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."

Johnny Carson
May 22, 1992

Was that really two whole decades ago?

Twenty years ago tonight, Johnny Carson appeared in his final Tonight Show.

As I mentioned yesterday, his final show was unlike any of the others he had done from 1962 to 1992. The audience included only family and friends — his and the rest of the crew's — and there were no guests, only clips of memorable moments on the Tonight Show.

In the course of that evening, viewers saw clips of great comedians and great musicians who had appeared on the Tonight Show over the years. They saw the famous and the powerful, politicians who became president and who sought to be president.

And they saw people they had never heard of before they were given a few minutes of national exposure, thanks to Carson.

Carson was kind of his generation's Ed Sullivan — but he did it five nights a week (except when he took his annual vacation to the Wimbledon tennis tournament), not one.

Twenty years ago tonight, the audience applauded when particularly beloved (and, often, departed) guests, like Lucille Ball and Judy Garland, were shown in those highlight clips.

The memories were thick that night, whether they were actually shown or were only in the viewers' memory banks.

I thought of many moments when I watched that last show. Most people probably did. Johnny Carson was unique in entertainment. Even 20 years later, after so many have tried so hard to duplicate what he seemed to do so effortlessly, I can say that.

He was always a reflection of the times, whether it was through jokes he made in his monologue or his recurring routines as Carnac the Magnificent or Aunt Blabby or Floyd R. Turbo, American.

For awhile, at least some of the Tonight Show's commercials were done by Carson or his sidekick Ed McMahon, and there were times when they had to bail each other out in some way.

A memorable example was the time when McMahon was trying to do an advertisement for Alpo, but the dog who was supposed to scarf up the dog food didn't cooperate — and it fell to Carson to take his place.

And everyone in America was moved when Carson made his parting remarks:

When he was finished, the cameras panned the applauding audience, and the band played one of Carson's favorite tunes, "I'll Be Seeing You." It seemed appropriate.

Like most people, I figured we would get to see him again. But, even though he spoke, in those final remarks, of perhaps returning to TV when he had a project of some kind that he wanted to share with the viewers, he only made one more TV appearance of which I am aware — a very brief (and wordless) one on David Letterman's show.

It was over.

And now, it's been 20 years since his last Tonight Show.

My heart tells me it can't possibly have been that long ... but my head tells me that, yes, it is true.