Twenty years ago this week, on May 22, 1992, Johnny Carson ended his 30-year reign as the host of The Tonight Show. In the newly released PBS documentary Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, we’re pleasantly reminded why, decades later, the prototype Carson set for late-night hosts—trustworthy, likable, neighborly, cool—remains the same. “Johnny was to comedy what Walter Cronkite was to news,” explains Paul Block, a longtime producer on Carson’s Tonight Show.

We trusted Johnny. We liked Johnny.

And we started dressing like Johnny…

 

On any given night during the show’s heyday, 45 million Americans might have been tuned in—one-fifth of the US population.

He single-handedly started the careers of Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne Barr, David Letterman and countless other now-legendary entertainers. He put Twister on the map in 1966 when he played it with Eva Gabor. That Christmas, it became the number one game in America. After Carson joked about an alleged shortage of toilet paper during a monologue in 1973, panicked consumers flooded supermarkets and bought up the remaining supply, resulting in a real shortage—and rations from manufacturers—that lasted for months. “He changed people’s sleeping habits, sex habits and their midnight eating habits,” said Bob Hope in 1992.

He also changed their style habits.

“The thinking man is bored silly with the gray-flannel syndrome,” Carson said upon introducing Here’s Johnny, his colorful brand of gentlemanly apparel. “He doesn’t want a uniform. Even the bigwigs of business and industry want to hire pacesetters with enough guts to express their own personality.”

Of course, by the mid-’70s, the pinks and plaids and lapels were here to stay, whether Johnny endorsed them or not—but he made them classy. And it certainly didn’t hurt that The Tonight Show was now being shot in color. As such, denim suits, belted rally coats and “ties as colorful as the ocean floor” would be on Johnny one night and in law offices and Fortune 500 boardrooms the next week. Simply put, Carson changed everything.

It seems only appropriate to let him take us out, as he did 20 years ago this week…

—C.B.S.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • C. Brian Smith