May 22, 2012 at 11:06 AM ET
Where were you 20 years ago today? More than likely, you were somewhere near a television, watching the signoff of one of the legendary names in broadcast television. Johnny Carson signed off "The Tonight Show" for good on May 22, 1992.
For those of us who grew up in a certain era, the name "Johnny Carson" meant more than just the man. It was almost a setting on the clock. Is Carson on? Then you knew approximately what time it was, and that not much was left of your day. Whether you tuned in or not, his show was a bookend, a sign that the hour was growing late. In those days before 500 TV channels and 24-hour-everything, that still meant something.
If you grew up during the Carson era, he was a rite of passage, a part of your parents' lives when he was still just background in your own. You felt grown-up when you could finally stay up for Carson -- and if you were like most kids, you liked Carnac the Magnificent and the animal acts, but the majority of his show sailed right over your head. It was only when you were older that you could appreciate his charm, wit, and class. Carson, who died in 2005 at age 79, was a gentleman. He knew he was a guest in your home, and he was never rude or unwelcome.
There's a nice fact-filled tribute to Carson on blog The Morning Delivery, noting that Carson's first guests, back in 1962, included "Tony Bennett, Rudy Vallee, Joan Crawford, Groucho Marx, and a rising comedy writer, Mel Brooks." What talent he pulled in, right from the start.
As Carson was closing the book on one era in TV, another one was beginning. The day before Carson's final send-off back in 1992, MTV premiered "The Real World." -- which at the time was a very different version of the raunchy hot-tubbing tempest it would become. It wasn't the nation's first reality show, but it helped bring a new awareness and popularity to the form. For good or for ill, it's part of why we now have umpteen "Real Housewives" franchises and why you likely know the names "Kim Kardashian," "Snooki" and "Taylor Hicks."
Carson's final show featured a loving tribute from his last-ever guest, Bette Midler, singing the Frank Sinatra classic "One More For My Baby (and One More For the Road)" while clips of the host's 30-year career on "Tonight" flashed on the screen. The tribute brought the host to tears, and watching it even now will put a lump in your throat too.
Take a watch. Just one more time, heeeeeeere's Johnny.
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