When Johnny Carson said goodbye to the Tonight Show after 30 years, he said, “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.”
Less than a month later, it was announced that Carson had made a deal to develop a new project for NBC. Unfortunately, it never came to be and the king of late night didn’t return to television on a regular basis. Perhaps wisely, he felt he’d never be able to top what he’d already done.
Thankfully he did make a few brief appearances in the next couple years. Carson taped a rare voiceover cameo for the “Krusty Gets Kancelled” episode of The Simpsons that aired on May 13, 1993. The next night, he could be seen stopping by NBC for a birthday special called Bob Hope: The First 90 Years.
Carson called his friend David Letterman’s The Late Show on the air on November 11, 1993. A month later, he accepted an award at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, DC. Fellow honorees were Arthur Mitchell, Sir Georg Solti, Stephen Sondheim, and Marion Williams.
In May 1994, Letterman was doing a week of shows in Los Angeles. In a montage shown on May 9th, Letterman and band leader Paul Shaffer were seen traveling around the area in a convertible. By the end, they’ve gotten a flat tire and are standing by the side of the road. Carson approaches in his own convertible, briefly slows down to see what’s going on, and then drives off in mock disgust.
Carson’s last appearance on television came a few days later, on May 13, 1994 — 15 years ago this month. It was once again on Letterman’s show. Take a look.
It’s believed that the two had a short skit worked out but, because the crowd applauded for so long, Carson backed out.
The talk show legend died on January 23, 2005 from emphysema. Shortly before he died, it was revealed that he’d been faxing occasional jokes to Letterman who used them in his opening monologues.
Letterman was on vacation when Carson passed away but his January 31st show was a tribute to his longtime mentor. The opening monologue for that show was made up entirely of jokes sent in by Carson.