Why 'The Tonight Show's' move back east is a big win for New York

Robin Williams, left, with host Johnny Carson during Robin Williams, left, with host Johnny Carson during his second-to-last taping of the "Tonight Show" on Thursday, May 21, 1992 at NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif. Williams presented Carson with a rocking chair as a retirement gift. Photo Credit: TCM

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Verne Gay Verne Gay

Gay is the television critic.

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May 1972, a tough month for the city that never sleeps (and didn't sleep much then, either). The Knicks lost to the Lakers in the NBA championship, then a few days later, the Rangers fell to the Bruins in the Stanley Cup final. New York had long since shed its John Lindsay-bestowed appellation as "Fun City," but "fun" really seemed to drain right into the Hudson after Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" went west around the same time.

During his 10-year tenure at 30 Rock, starting in 1962, Carson had defined the city for the better -- the world capital of arts, publishing and haute couture. And for the worse: A crime-ridden, rat-infested island of decay and dysfunction.

But even that was OK. Made for better jokes and one-liners. ("New York is an exciting town, where something is happening all the time, most unsolved.")

Carson's departure for Los Angeles was worse than deflating. It was catastrophic. The barbarians had scaled the gates. The philistines had triumphed. That's right: Hollywood had won. This represented the final cruel conquest of West Coast culture over East. As a final insult, "Tonight" didn't even go to Hollywood, but to Burbank. (Justice was ultimately served: Bland Burbank became a punchline, too. "They have a nightclub for senior citizens out here," Johnny once remarked. "It's called the Slipped Disco."

The record states that the month of June 1972 was bright and sunny, but one small dark cloud took position over Fifth Avenue at 49th Street, where it has remained ever since -- until Monday, when Jimmy Fallon brings "Tonight" back to Studio 6B, where this classic belongs.

Why did Johnny leave? Long story, many answers. Comedian and writer David Steinberg, who appeared on Carson's "Tonight" more than 130 times, beginning in 1968, said in a recent radio interview: "Carson had ordained" the culture in the city, but as payback, "he couldn't go anywhere" without being mobbed. Worse, "the weather got to him."

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Carson also had a personal reason to go west -- a bitter divorce here, and a new wife there. He would marry Joanna Holland that September.

"The Tonight Show," as fans would aver, had many great years in (ummm) Burbank. But something was indisputably lost in the move west. In fact, David Letterman -- who many had considered Carson's heir apparent -- also wrestled with the idea of moving his new late-night show for CBS from New York to Los Angeles back in 1992.

He did not.

Hal Gurnee, longtime director of Jack Paar's "Tonight," and later "Late Show With David Letterman," explains: "When Dave asked Morty (Robert Morton, former exec producer) and me to look at studios we went out to the West Coast because CBS was very anxious to get him out there to fill up one of its big new studios. So Dave afterwards called me as soon as we went through the studios and wanted to know how it was. I said, 'It's like NASA -- there's an enormous white building and a parking lot for 2,000 cars. If that's appealing to you, it's not to me....'"

Gurnee would ultimately persuade Letterman to move a few blocks to the old Hammerstein Theater on Broadway, better known as "The Ed Sullivan."

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There's a "magic" to New York, and "more interesting people and greater diversity" than any place on the planet, he adds.

I speak for Gurnee and millions of others when I say: Welcome home, "Tonight." You were missed.

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