HOLLYWOOD -- Johnny Carson's final stint as host of NBC's 'The Tonight Show' became the highest-rated late-night TV show ever, with an estimated 55 million Americans tuning in, a network spokesman said Saturday.
In his final performance, Carson was low-key and humble as he played a video diary of the wide array of guests he interviewed in 4,500 shows during his nearly 30-year reign as the king of late night.
He acknowledged his family, 'Tonight' co-workers and the subjects of his monologues, including Vice President Dan Quayle.
'I'm one of the lucky people of the world. I found something I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it,' Carson said.
John Hogan, an NBC spokesman, said overnight numbers show Carson's final show averaged a 31.9 rating, or a 62 percent audience share. Based on those numbers, NBC researchers estimate 55 million people watched the show.
That rating shatters the previous all-time record, the Dec. 17, 1969, marriage on 'The Tonight Show' of singer Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki. That show was watched by an estimated 45 million people, Hogan said.
Because of the late hour, however, Carson's farewell didn't even crack the Top 50 of all-time television shows. The No. 1 rated show was the final episode of 'M*A*S*H,' which aired on Feb. 28, 1983, and earned a 60.2 rating.
Still, Carson's last show gave a boost to NBC's entire Friday night lineup, with 'Late Night with David Letterman' also earning its highest-ever ratings.
Hogan said 'Late Night' earned a 13.6 rating, or a 43 share. 'Friday Night Videos,' which usually averages a 2 rating, pulled in a 4.3 rating, or 24 share.
The record numbers were a bittersweet triumph for Letterman, who was once being groomed as Carson's replacement. The job eventually went to comic Jay Leno.
Carson's final show opened with still images and audio from his first show on Oct. 1, 1962, in which he admitted his opening-night jitters, saying 'I want my nanna.'
'This show tonight is our farewell show. It's going to be a little quieter,' Carson told the audience in his final monologue.
'One of the questions people have been asking me, especially this last month, is 'What's it like doing 'The Tonight Show' and what does it mean to me.'
'Well, let me try to explain it. If I could magically somehow, that tape you just saw, make it run backwards, I would like to do the whole thing over again. It's been a hell of a lot of fun.'
But Carson told the audience to look on the bright side.
'You won't have to read or hear one more story about my leaving this show,' he said, praising and thanking the news media for their efforts.
'But my God, the Soviet Union's end did not get this kind of publicity.'
While the focus of the night was Carson's farewell, he did not overlook the chance for one more topical jab in the monologue.
He said that in light of Quayle's criticism this week of the TV show 'Murphy Brown' for glamorizing single motherhood, 'I'm going to join the cast of 'Murphy Brown' and become surrogate father to that kid.'
He also thanked Quayle for making his final week 'so fruitful.'
In addition to the expected acknowledgements of his longtime cohorts, Ed McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen, Carson also took time to thank his family.
Unlike his anniversary shows over the years, the old clips he chose were snippets of conversation and music, not the usual sketches and embarrassing moments, such as the famous Ed Ames tomahawk throw.
The clips represented the spectrum of guests he has brought to Studio One in Burbank from Richard Nixon, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and Sen. Robert Kennedy, to Jack Benny, James Stewart and Bette Davis. The musical guests ran the gamut from Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra to violinist Itzhak Perlman and Joe Cocker.
Carson also paid tribute to the staff and crew, many of whom have been with the show for years and will be out of a job when the Jay Leno regime begins next week.
In closing his show, Carson addressed the audience: 'You people watching, I can only tell you it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. And I hope that when I find something that I want to do and I think you will like and I come back that you will be as gracious in inviting me into your homes as you have been.'
And before stepping into television history, Carson, in a voice cracking with emotion, said, 'I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight.'