BetteBack: Theeerrre Goes Johnny!

Theeerrre Goes Johnny!
Article from:The Washington Post Article date:May 23, 1992 Author: TOM SHALES

For his last “Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson compressed nearly 30 years of television into one hour of television. The hour flew by, but then, so did the 30 years.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to come into your home all these years and entertain you,” Carson said at the end of the program. “And I hope when I find something I want to do and think you will like and come back, that you’ll be as gracious in inviting me into your homes as you have been.

“I bid you a very heartfelt good night.” These words, spoken with tears in his eyes, were the last ones uttered by Carson as his unprecedented reign came to an end.

An invited audience of 500 friends, family and members of his staff gave Carson a prolonged standing ovation when he came out from behind the familiar multicolored curtain to open the program. He delivered his monologue sitting on a stool for the first time and said that if he could magically rewind the last three decades, “I’d like to do the whole thing all over again. It has been just a helluva lot of fun.”

Carson made reference to the incredible amount of press his farewell has generated. “The Soviet Union‘s end didn’t get this kind of publicity,” he joked. All three network evening newscasts did stories on Carson’s exit.

“Television’s longest goodbye ends tonight,” said Peter Jennings on “ABC World News Tonight.” Calling Carson “a hard act to follow,” Jennings said, “It’s awfully hard to part with someone so comfortable.”

Carson was named the program’s “Person of the Week.”

Connie Chung, anchoring “The CBS Evening News,” said, “We’ll miss him, won’t we?” And on “NBC Nightly News,” anchor Tom Brokaw hailed Carson as “someone we could count on,” and said, “John gave us a lot more than laughs.”

The last Carson “Tonight Show” was by no means a typical program. There were no celebrity guests. Carson introduced segments of clips from past shows covering most of his long tenure and demonstrating the incredible range of performers who sat on his couch and talked with him. He also offered a videotaped tour of the show behind the scenes, which included a view of Carson waiting to walk through the parted curtain and deliver one of his monologues. The studio audience for the show included, Carson said, his current wife, Alex, and two sons, Cory and Chris.

“It would’ve been a perfect evening if their brother Rick could have been here with us,” Carson said, “but I guess life does what it’s supposed to do and you accept it and go on.” His son Rick died in an auto accident last year at age 39. The closing credit of last night’s show ran over a photograph of the California sunset that Rick had taken.

Longtime cohorts Ed McMahon, Carson’s announcer, and band leader Doc Severinsen joined Carson for one segment. “I thank you, my family thanks you, forever,” McMahon said. Carson praised Severinsen’s band as “the last big swing band in the world.” Showing perhaps a hint of pique, Carson added, “The words `young’ and `hip’ are not synonymous.” He may have been alluding to the fact that Jay Leno, who takes over the program on Monday night, is 24 years younger than he.

As promised, cable’s Comedy Central canceled its regular airing of “Night After Night,” its own late-night talk show, and merely ran a slide that said host Allan Havey was “like everyone else here at Comedy Central” – watching Carson’s last show. All day, the cable channel ran tributes to Carson that included his appearance on a mid-’60s edition of “The Jack Benny Program.” Benny was one of Carson’s early comedy idols.

The master comic took a few parting shots at favorite targets. “GE named me employee of the month,” he joked of NBC’s owner, “and God knows that was a dream come true.” He also tweaked Dan Quayle, who had made another spectacle of himself earlier in the week by criticizing the heroine of “Murphy Brown” for having a child out of wedlock. “I’m going to join the cast of `Murphy Brown’ and become a surrogate father to that kid,” Carson said. “It’s the least I can do for wholesome family values.”

He also said of the frequently ridiculed vice president, “I know I’ve made a lot of jokes at the expense of Dan Quayle, but I want to thank him tonight for making my last week so fruitful.”

Carson didn’t do many jokes last night, instead showing a sentimental side that he had kept hidden through most of his long run. It had emerged Thursday night as well, when Bette Midler, in a magnificent appearance, brought the house down singing “You Made Me Love You” and “One for My Baby” with special lyrics apropos of Johnny. In the most extraordinary moment of that program Johnny sang along with Bette on a chorus of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” one of Carson’s favorite songs.

The hour of reminiscence and clips was like a perfect time capsule of the Carson era and the past 30 years in American popular culture. Anyone looking at it 100 years from now will probably have no trouble understanding what made Carson so widely popular and permitted him such longevity. He was affable, accessible, charming and amusing, not just a very funny comedian but the kind of guy you would gladly welcome into your home. For nearly three decades we did that. Home won’t be the same without him.

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