On This Day: Johnny Carson Makes Final Television Appearance On David Letterman in 1994

by Suzanne Halliburton

Johnny Carson made his final TV appearance 27 years ago tonight. And the guy known for all his late-night banter did none of that his last time in front of the cameras.

Back on May 13, 1994, Carson made a surprise cameo on the Late Show with David Letterman. It lasted about a minute. To the delight of the audience, he brought out Letterman’s top 10 list, which was a nightly tradition. So Johnny Carson had an important task.

The audience gave Carson a standing ovation as the Letterman band played the theme music from the Tonight Show. Letterman nodded for Carson to sit at his desk, as the host took a seat on the couch. So viewers were going to get some Carson-Letterman banter, right? That would be a no.

Johnny Carson sat at the Letterman desk. He soaked in the adoration of the audience. Carson smiled and, with hand gestures, asked the audience to sit. He then lovingly stroked the surface of the desk. He abruptly got off and walked out, waving one final time to the crowd.

Johnny Carson Hosted Tonight Show for 30 Years

So what was all the fuss about? Johnny Carson retired from hosting the Tonight Show in May 22, 1992. He’d served as its host for 30 years. Carson was the embodiment of TV history as he helped to usher in the era of late-night talk shows. He interviewed every celebrity in the country. And he also did characters. Remember Carnac the Magnificent?

Johnny Carson also served as a mentor to comedians. His show helped launch the careers of David Letterman, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield, Tim Allen and Jeff Foxworthy.

And, Johnny Carson also got caught up in the spectacle of who would replace him. There’s a reason he appeared on Letterman.

Carson announced his retirement in May, 1991. He said he’d finish off his career in May, 1992. He was irritated with NBC and Jay Leno after he saw news reports out of New York. According to the New York Times, Leno’s manager planted a story about how NBC was looking to replace Carson because his ratings were falling and his audience was too old. Advertisers desired a younger demo.

Leno Called Carson To Apologize

Leno, upon seeing the story, called up Johnny Carson.

“Listen, Johnny, about that New York Post story,” Leno said, according to the Times. “I’m sorry it came out. I know you think it came from us, but I don’t know where it came from.”

Johnny Carson responded: “It came from you.”

NBC selected Leno over Letterman. So Letterman took his late-night talk show to CBS.

The Hollywood Reporter tried to quantify what Carson meant to television and pop culture.

“For the time Johnny was in that seat, he ordained the culture,” comedian David Steinberg told the Hollywood Reporter. Steinberg had 140 appearances with Johnny Carson, second to Bob Hope.

“What he liked,” Steinberg said, “America liked. And what he didn’t like America began to be skeptical of.”

So, getting back to Carson’s appearance on Letterman. What was the top 10 list Carson carried out? “Things we’ll miss most about LA.”

Carson maintained a low profile after his Letterman appearance, never going on TV again. Carson died Jan. 23, 2005. For Letterman’s first broadcast after his death, he devoted all of his monologue to the jokes Johnny Carson used to send him.