Looking back on Johnny Carson's last episodes of 'The Tonight Show'

His last episode of 'The Tonight Show' aired 25 years ago today.

Image: Associated Press

If you can, think back to what the world was like 30 years ago. The year was 1987. Ronald Reagan was in office, Michael Jackson released Bad and Baby Jessica fell down a well in Texas.

It's safe to say the world isn't what it used to be. A lot can change in 30 years. But back then, one thing was consistent — Johnny Carson's presence on late night television.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson debuted on October 1, 1962, and dominated the ratings for three decades. The talk show host paved the way for dozens of acts and revolutionized the late night television landscape.

Twenty-five years ago today, on May 22, 1992, Carson signed off for the last time. The last episode was a heartfelt retrospective that featured Carson sitting on a stool reminiscing about his tenure on the show.

Associated Press

There were no guests, and the audience had to receive an invitation to be there. Fifty million people tuned in to watch the send off.

The night before, Carson taped his penultimate show — the last before a live studio audience. Robin Williams and Bette Midler were the guests that night, but everyone undoubtedly tuned in to see the host they knew and loved.

Once Carson stepped out, the audience erupted into a standing ovation that lasted two minutes, leaving Carson with tears in his eyes.

The sentimentality didn't loom over the whole episode, however. Once Robin Williams burst through the curtains as the first guest, it was 15 minutes of nonstop laughter. Williams jumped, sang, shouted and danced to everyone's delight. It might have been one of the best performances of his career.

People remember the episode most for Midler's touching performances. The first was "You Made Me Watch You," a cute and funny take on the classic song "You Made Me Love You."

Associated Press

Midler wasn't finished yet, though. Not even two minutes after her performance brought the house down, she jumped into an impromptu rendition of "Here's That Rainy Day." This time, though, Carson sang along. An audible "awww" could be heard from the audience.

For her final performance, Midler sweetly serenaded Carson with "One More for My Baby."

There wasn't a dry eye in the house. Once the song ended, Midler presented Carson with a gift, then ran backstage in tears. (By the way, Midler won an Emmy Awards for this spot on The Tonight Show.)

These are touching moments you won't find on television anymore. Finales like this one harken back to those of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H, when saying goodbye to TV personalities was just as heartbreaking as saying goodbye to close friends.

Carson may have signed off for the last time 25 years ago, but his presence is still sorely missed.

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