The Tonight Show is truly an American institution — for more than 60 years it has aired on NBC; it is the longest running scheduled television program in America. The Tonight Show premiered in 1954 with its first host, Steve Allen (1954-57) who, in turn, was followed by Jack Paar (1957-62). But it was the show’s third host, Johnny Carson, who put his unique stamp on The Tonight Show and made it the institution that it is today. It was Carson who truly defined the genre for new generations of television viewers; moreover, he single-handedly launched the lucrative late-night industry, as well as the careers of dozens of comedians, including his successor, Jay Leno. Together Carson and Leno helmed The Tonight Show for an impressive run of 52 years (Carson hosted from 1962-92; Leno from 1992-2009; Conan O’Brien briefly hosted from June 2009 to January 2010). Both men took enormous pride in their opening monologues by approaching the news of the day from the perspective of the everyman (despite their soaring salaries). Each night, as Americans tucked themselves in to bed, they tuned into The Tonight Show to watch these comedic giants skillfully — and mercilessly — skewer the people and events in the news. Whether the daily news left you puzzled, worried, or depressed — Americans could always count on the quick-witted hosts for their daily dose of laughs before they were lulled to a restful sleep. In honor of Carson and Leno, Bookshelf presents their very emotional, touching, and gracious farewells.
Johnny Carson’s farewell from his last show that aired on May 22, 1992:
[Opening the show]: The show tonight is our farewell show; it’s going to be a little bit quieter. It’s not going to be a performance show. One of the questions people have been asking me, especially this last month, is, “What’s it like doing The Tonight Show, and what does it mean to me?”
Well, let me try to explain it. If I could magically, somehow, that tape you just saw, make it run backwards. I would like to do the whole thing over again. It’s been a hell of a lot of fun. As an entertainer, it has been the great experience of my life, and I cannot imagine finding something in television after I leave tonight that would give me as much joy and pleasure, and such a sense of exhilaration, as this show has given me. It’s just hard to explain.
Now it’s a farewell show. There’s a certain sadness among the staff, a little melancholy. But look on the bright side: you won’t have to read or hear one more story about my leaving this show. The press coverage has been absolutely tremendous, and we are very grateful. But my God, the Soviet Union’s end did not get this kind of publicity. The press has been very decent and honest with me, and I thank them for that…
During the run on the show there have been seven United States Presidents, and thankfully for comedy there have been eight Vice Presidents of the United States. Now I know I have made some jokes at the expense of Dan Quayle, but I really want to thank him tonight for making my final week so fruitful…
Here is an interesting statistic that may stun you. We started the show Oct. 2, 1962. The total population of the Earth was 3 billion 100 million people. This summer 5 billion 500 million people, which is a net increase of 2 billion 400 million people, which should give us some pause. A more amazing statistic is that half of those 2 billion 400 million will soon have their own late-night TV show…
But we do have a [VIP] audience… What I did was ask the members of the staff and the crew to invite their family, relatives and friends; and they did — with some other invited guests. My family is here tonight — my wife, Alex, my sons Chris and Cory. My brother Dick and my sister Katherine; a sprinkling of nephews and nieces. And I realized that being an offspring of someone who is constantly in the public eye is not easy. So guys, I want you to know that I love you; I hope that your old man has not caused you too much discomfort. It would have been a perfect evening if their brother Rick would have been here with us, but I guess life does what it is supposed to do. And you accept it and you go on…
[Closing the show]: And so it has come to this: 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. I want to thank the gentlemen who’ve shared this stage with me for thirty years, Mr. Ed McMahon, Mr. Doc Severinsen, and you people watching, I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. And I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you would like, and come back, that you’ll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.
Jay Leno’s farewell from his last show that aired on February 6, 2014:
Boy, this is the hard part. I want to thank you, the audience. You folks have been just incredibly loyal… This is tricky. We wouldn’t be on the air without you people. Secondly, this has been the greatest 22 years of my life. I tell you… I am the luckiest guy in the world. I got to meet presidents, astronauts, movie stars. It’s just been incredible.
I got to work with lighting people who made me look better than I really am. I got to work with audio people who made me sound better than I really do. And I got to work with producers and writers and just all kinds of talented people who make me look a lot smarter than I really am.
I’ll tell you something — the first year of this show, I lost my mom. Second year, I lost my dad. Then my brother died. And after that I was pretty much out of family. And the folks here became my family. Consequently, when they went through rough times, I tried to be there for them.
The last time we left this show, you remember, we had the 64 children who were among all our staffers that married and that was a great moment. And when people say to me, “Hey, why don’t you go to ABC?” [or] “Why don’t you go to Fox?” I didn’t know anybody over there. These are the only people I’ve ever known.
I’m also proud to say this is a union show. And I have never worked with a more professional group of people in my life. They get paid good money and they do a good job. And when the guys and women on this show would show me the new car they bought or the house up the street, here in Burbank that one of the guys got, I felt I played the bigger role in their success, as they played in mine. And that was just a great feeling.
And I’m really excited for Jimmy Fallon… You know, it’s fun to kind of be the old guy and sit back here and see where the next generation takes this great institution and it really is — it’s been a great institution for 60 years. I am so glad I got to be a part of it. But it really is time to go and hand it off to the next guy. It really is.”
And in closing, I want to quote Johnny Carson, who was the greatest guy to ever do this job. And he said, “I bid you all a heartfelt good night.”
For further reading: The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night by Bill Carter (1995)
The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy by Bill Carter (2011)