June 17, 1991 12:00 PM

ED MCMAHON’S BARREL-CHESTED HO HO HOS HAVE echoed from the sidelines of The Tonight Show, late night upon late night, for nearly 30 years. But he isn’t laughing at his buddy’s latest pronouncement: Come next spring, Johnny Carson is packing away his laughs-in-stock—Carnac the Magnificent, the Great Carsoni, Art Fern—and calling it quits. Not coincidentally McMahon will retire too, along with bandleader Doc Severinsen. “It’s going to be tough for us to say goodbye,” says McMahon. “It’s very tough for America to say goodbye. People come home and have a snack, watch the news. Then they watch Johnny Carson. And then they go to bed. And that kind of Johnny Carson fix is going to be very hard to live without.”

McMahon and others on the set may wax sentimental, but Carson has treated his departure just as he has treated three former marriages, seven Presidents and just about every national topic since he succeeded Jack Paar as host of Tonight on Oct. 1,1962—as grist for his opening monologue. “I’ve announced that May 22, 1992, will be my last show,” the permanently puckish Carson told the audience late last month. “Ed announced that he’ll be going with me. But I don’t know if he read the fine print in his contract. When I die, he’s also going with me.” (Hi-o! Ho ho ho ho ho.)

Carson has been declaring—or others have been declaring for him—a desire to quit since 1986, when his quarter-century anniversary was approaching and his contract was on the verge of expiring. But he has continued to stay with NBC and continued to sweeten his deal. How big is it, Johnny? A reported $25 million a year for doing three shows a week, with 15 weeks vacation.

And now, having signed for one last season, Johnny is looking forward to the longest vacation of all. “I’ve always said Johnny is the master of timing,” says McMahon, 68. “There’s a time to leave, and this is the time.” Observes Laurence Learner, author of the 1989 best-selling unauthorized Carson biography, King of the Night: “Carson’s not going to be a Sinatra. If he’s announced he’s retiring, he’s retiring.”

In doing so, Carson is leaving 41-year-old Jay Leno, permanent guest host since 1987, as his successor. Ending its hesitation, NBC finally named Leno to the post, giving him the nod over nine-year late-night veteran David Letterman, 44, who, in pre-Leno days, was considered to be the front-runner.

The unanswered question about Carson’s departure is: Why now? Well, maybe Johnny is worn out from all those nights miming that golf swing, sitting behind the desk tapping that pencil, waiting for the next guest. “I think Johnny has just had it,” says comic David Brenner. “I think he truly is just tired.” A former guest host, Brenner is one of the chatty armada of entertainers—including Mery Griffin, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Pat Sajak and, most notoriously, fallen permanent guest host Joan Rivers—who have come up against Johnny with their own late-night shows and sunk with barely a trace. Recalls Brenner: “He once said something interesting to me during a commercial break:’I have asked every question there is to ask.’ ”

Perhaps Carson has felt even deeper stirrings—including those of mortality, which could hardly be ignored during Michael Landon’s May 9 visit. (On what turned out to be the best-rated show of this past decade, Landon talked openly about his battle against pancreatic cancer.) “There was one moment, just before Landon came on,” says home viewer Dick Cavett, who was a Carson staff writer in the early 1960s and remains a good friend of his old employer and rival. “Johnny got kind of a lump in his throat. I know when that tone comes into his voice. He’s very easily moved, and amiable, and any number of things people would prefer to think he isn’t.”

One thing Carson most definitely is: a jingling bag of money for NBC. His show earns the network an estimated $100 million-plus in advertising annually. But while Johnny’s ratings are generally a few points higher than those of his most successful rival, Arsenio Hall, 35, his older demographics aren’t as alluring to advertisers. Johnny is strong with viewers 35 and up; Arsenio’s pull is with viewers 18 to 34. Leno, on the other hand, is younger and hipper and attracts the same age group as Arsenio. (“I like Jay Leno,” Carson told an NBC affiliates meeting in New York City when he announced his retirement. “And as a matter of fact, he’s very concerned for my health. In fact, he suggested that I jog through Central Park after midnight tonight.” Ho ho ho.)

Whatever the reason for his decision—and Carson won’t say—it is McMahon, more than any other colleague, who will take Johnny’s departure the hardest. The two have been professionally inseparable since 1958, when McMahon was hired as Carson’s announcer for the game show Who Do You Trust? “That first day that we worked together [in New York City], Johnny said, ‘Let’s go next door and have a drink,’ ” recalls his nostalgic; sidekick. “So we went next door to Sardi’s, and we just became pals.”

Pals? Well, as Ed would say: Yes! But definitely not bosom buddies. “Very rarely do I see him until seven minutes before the program,” says McMahon. “We admire each other. We like each other. I remember when I threw a party after we’d been together for 25 years. He got up that night to speak. And he was kind of struggling, and Fred de Cordova, our executive producer, said, ‘Go ahead, Johnny, and say it.’ And Johnny said, ‘All right, Ed, I love ya.’ ”

When Johnny does go, he can afford to go in whatever style he chooses. He is currently worth an estimated $120 million (he was ranked 11th last year on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s highest-paid entertainers) and has his own production company, which has had a hand in Late Night with David Letterman, Amen and such movies as The Big Chill. He also owns his old Tonight Show sketches and recycles them in syndicated specials. He’ll be able to enjoy all this lucre in the breathtaking Malibu home that he shares with fourth wife Alexis Maas, 40ish, whom he married in 1987. Biographer Learner expects that in retirement Johnny “will probably play tennis and continue to do [stand-up in] Vegas. He’s not going to be Milton Berle, going to the Friars Club and telling jokes.”

McMahon won’t be idle either. He is already busy as host of Star Search, going into its ninth year in syndication, as well as with other projects. Ed predicts that Johnny won’t go out with a bang: “I think he may just do a normal show. And at the end he’ll say, ‘Well, good night, folks. I’ll be seeing ya.’ ”

Carson, of course, already has touched on this topic—lightly, as always—in his monologue. “There are other things to do in television,” he said, “and I’ll be hanging around. In fact on the 22nd of May I finish The Tonight Show, and on May 23 I’ll be a contestant on Star Search.” That’s your cue, Ed.



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