Over the past few weeks I’ve watched some old episodes of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” on AntennaTV. They air weeknights at 10pm. Carson’s 30-year reign ended six years before I was born, so this is the first time I’m getting to experience what it was like for my parents’ and grandparents’ generation to watch Carson… late at night.
Remember when talk show guests just took part in interesting conversations, no bits, skits, games or antics attached? Remember when all the guests stayed on the couch for the entire show? Remember when you’d find comedians, jugglers and hypnotists on late night TV and not just celebrity after celebrity or politician after politician?
Watching Carson’s “Tonight Show” floods back a lot of memories for me because I was one of those “other” cases. When I was on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” in Feb. 2011 and ’12, it was during a time when “The Tonight Show” was still at the top of the TV mountain and when they would have “unique” guests on.
The producers took a chance on a 12-year-old (newly Emmy winning) kid making Oscar predictions and reviewing movies – and they decided to place him as the second guest on the Friday night before the Academy Awards. You won’t really find someone like me on at 11:35 or 12:35 anymore.
Carson’s “Tonight Show” (and Leno’s too) was a variety hour (or hour and a half depending on the year). I can tell how every contemporary host since has borrowed Carson’s ideas and material. (“Thank You Notes” is a variation of “Carnac the Magnificent”.) And Carson had this unapologetic attitude and willingness to just be honest through and through.
Carson’s final “Tonight Show” aired on May 22, 1992 to more than 50 million people – a number that hasn’t been touched since when it comes to TV personality finales. Leno’s last “Tonight Show” in 2009 brought-in 11.9 million viewers. His official 2014 goodbye: 14.6 million.
David Letterman said “So Long” to “Late Night” in 1993 to 7.5 million people and then “The Late Show” in 2015 to 13.8 million. Conan O’Brien’s last “Tonight Show” after his brief stint in 2010 had 10.3 million viewers. Jimmy Fallon’s final “Late Night” in 2014 brought-in 6.6 million.
Oprah Winfrey’s last show was watched by 16.4 million people. 8.4 million people tuned-in to Regis Philbin’s last “LIVE!” The final “View” with Barbara Walters was seen by 5.2 million people. Larry King’s last CNN show: 2.2 million. The finale of “The Colbert Report”: 2.5 million. The end of Craig Ferguson’s “Late Late Show”: approximately 3 million. And Jon Stewart’s last day on “The Daily Show”: 3.5 million.
Most recently, Alex Trebek’s last episode of “Jeopardy!” (under very different circumstances) was watched by 14 million people.
Next year will mark 30 years since Carson stepped down from a gig he had for exactly that length of time. In terms of ratings, no one has come close to his status and never will. On a personal note, Philbin, Leno and others in the biz have meant the world to me. In a similar way, comedians idolized and worshipped Carson. But the television viewing experience as a whole just isn’t the same without the legends.