IMPORTANT DATE IN TV HISTORY: May 21, 1992
PROGRAM ORIGINALLY AIRED ON THIS DATE: The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: You’d be hard-pressed to come up with too many TV events that had more far-reaching impact than Johnny Carson’s decision to leave The Tonight Show after thirty years as host. Not only did it set off the chain reaction of questionable decision-making and intrigue that were the original Late Night Wars (Leno versus Letterman edition), but it was also a massively important marker of the passage of time. The end of Carson’s reign was in many ways the end of a particular era of television, and even culture.
On his final show with guests (Carson’s actual finale the next night was a clip show), Carson welcomed two of the biggest stars of the era: Robin Williams and Bette Midler. (Both of them, coincidentally enough, were two months removed from being Oscar nominees for 1991.) Carson’s segment with Williams is typically manic, but its topicality is a window into history. The 1992 election, with all its intrigue and scandal, was THE hot topic, and vice-president Dan Quayle’s insistence on making a culture war out of Murphy Brown’s single motherhood had turned Clinton vs. Bush into a battle for the cultural direction of the country, if not the political.
Williams is a live wire in his portion of the episode, and you can see Carson’s genuine delight in not having any idea where he’s going to go next. Carson doesn’t shock easily, but the network censors remind us that they used to bleep out words like “ass” and “balls.” 1992, you adorable thing.
The Bette Midler segment that follows is more widely remembered, particularly for her emotional performance of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” hands down one of the most beautiful moments ever broadcast on television. That camera angle that caught Carson, head perched on his hand, watching Midler serenade him was breathtaking.
Less remembered is the comedic ditty Midler came up with earlier in the show, set to the standard “You Made Me Love You.” And as if two show-stoppers in one hour weren’t enough, Midler and Carson engaged in a semi-impromptu duet on “Here’s That Rainy Day.” Talk about performers who knew how to capitalize on the sentiment of a moment.
Again, the appeal is watching Carson’s genuine rapport with and affection for his guest. That was Carson’s appeal. He was sharp as a tack and could be just as acerbic, but he genuinely loved entertainers, especially favorites like Williams and Midler.