I remember well Johnny Carson’s final show on The Tonight Show. I fondly recall the show having a mellow yet spontaneous vibe to it. I happen to have been watching it with a pal of mine and he said that Johnny should have been doing more casual and “unplugged” type of shows all along. In fact, I believe he actually did let loose more often than some may think. Of course, all in all, Johnny kept to the brand he created and it came natural to him. He was definitely the cool cat for a cool medium.
I notice a lot of mention being made today of this farewell show, May 22, 1992, but the first-ever show, October 1, 1962, is just as worthy of celebrating. It was mentioned on the final show and for good reason. It was still the dawn of television. We went in laughing only to wake up a few days later to the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 16-29, 1962). There was no particular reverence placed on this new show as demonstrated by the fact there is no preserved video of the first few years. For the first few years, the network was still relying on recording on kinescope which was of poor quality and not particularly archival. That’s why you only have photo stills in the above example to document the first broadcast.
On that first broadcast, Johnny quipped that he had already been knighted as the new king of late-night television (a nod to the out-going Jack Parr) but he was okay with settling for the title of prince. After a monumental 30-year run on the show, it was undisputed that Johnny was king. It is reported that he conducted around 22,000 interviews and was seen by more people on more occasions than anyone else in U.S. television history. It is no mistake to say that Johnny Carson ruled TV, set the gold standard for late-night, and, oddly enough, remains something of an enigma. Such is the life of a king. Set the gold standard, he did. You see the influence everywhere on late-night.
The Larry Sanders Show
It was Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998), his satirical version of The Tonight Show, that best articulates the delicate balance, the lonely existence, of being known by all while also being understood by few. Garry Shandling would have known as he was set to take over The Tonight Show when the time came but he turned it down. He preferred to do his take on the show for HBO. I can’t help but think of both men when I see the work of each and maybe that’s a testament to the uncanny quality of what both men had to bring to television.