||THE TONIGHT SHOW
Late night talk show featuring celebrity guests, comedians and musical acts.
Over 8,000 shows since 1954
For more than six decades, millions of Americans have stayed up past their bedtimes to watch this television institution, featuring a host, some laughs, and a string of guest stars. The Tonight Show has spawned a number of competitors and made household names out of its best-known hosts. But it didn’t start with “Tonight”.
The idea came from the fertile mind of Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, the late former advertising executive who was NBC’s head of programming (and later network president) for the first half of the 1950’s. He would generate such concepts as the “breakfast” show for the morning hours (Today) and the special program-known back in the 50’s as the “spectacular”.
Weaver believed a show for the post 11:00 PM crowd could work, with the right concept and the right host. In May 1950, NBC launched Broadway Open House with comic Morey Amsterdam hosting on Mondays and Fridays. For Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, Weaver hired another comedian named Jerry Lester.
Amsterdam lasted until November (and would later find TV fame as a member of the Dick Van Dyke Show cast). But Lester struck a cord among insomniacs, with a mixture of comedy and musical performances. Most watched “Broadway” for Lester, but men were also drawn to his co-star-a statuesque blonde who went by the name of Dagmar. Her real name was Virginia Ruth Egnor, but the stage name stuck as Dagmar’s popularity soon rivaled that of Lester. Apparently jealous of her growing fame, Lester left Broadway Open House in May 1951; the show went off the air a few months later. Ironically, neither Lester nor Dagmar had real success after the demise of “Open House”, though Detroit stylists nicknamed the large chrome protrusions on the bumpers of 50’s Cadillacs and other makes “Dagmars” for their obvious attributes. Weaver reluctantly gave the time back to NBC affiliates, but vowed to try late night again.
THE STEVE ALLEN YEARS (1954-56)
Steve Allen was a talented performer who was working on radio and local television stations in the early 1950’s. In 1953, he began hosting a late-night entertainment show on WNBC, the NBC-owned station in New York City. Sponsored by a local brewery, Allen’s show combined monologues, various guests and plenty of comedy. The show clicked with Big Apple viewers, and Weaver found the post-prime time show he had been looking for.
In the fall of 1954, Allen’s New York show was rechristened Tonight! and was broadcast over the entire NBC network. With future game show host Gene Rayburn as the announcer, Allen brought his freewheeling style to millions of national viewers. A talented comic, he also interviewed studio audience members and played games with them-a style other hosts later borrowed. (David Letterman always gave credit to Allen for “inspiring” his own late-night shows.) But Allen was also intelligent, allowing him to interview a wide range of guests, from starlets to politicians. Allen also introduced new talent on Tonight!, including the singing duo of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, who became regulars.
Allen’s popularity was so strong, NBC gave him the unenviable task of hosting a prime time variety series against CBS’ formidable Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights. Eventually, doing both late night and the Sunday night shows became exhausting, and Allen gave up Tonight! in the fall of 1956. His prime-time variety show ended in 1961, but Allen continued to be a frequently seen host and entertainer until his death in October 2000.
Inventive comic Ernie Kovacs hosted the show until January 1957, when NBC scrapped late-night entertainment for a new format. Entitled Tonight! America After Dark, it was a mix of news and entertainment segments shown live by various correspondents, similar to that of NBC’s now-successful Today show. But what worked in the morning hours became a near-disaster in late night. America After Dark faded to black in July 1957, and NBC decided to go back to basics.
THE JACK PAAR ERA (1957-1962)
Jack Paar had been a performer in movies and on various national TV quiz and talk shows for years. But he never broke out as a star on his own.
Still, NBC felt Paar had the right instincts to host late night, and gave him the freedom to modify Tonight to fit his own personality. But network executives warned him the show would be canceled if ratings didn’t improve by the end of the year.
Paar went back to the “desk and sofa” format that served Steve Allen well. But he steered away from Allen’s freewheeling comedy style; laugh-out-loud humor was not Paar’s forte in any case. Instead, the revamped Tonight became a conversational show with many guests and a small stable of regulars who would chat with Paar every night. Television is said to be a “cool” medium; if that’s the case, then Paar was hot. Red hot. He never backed off on criticizing those he felt were against him; he feuded with such powerful figures as Ed Sullivan (a dispute over talent fees sparked the war of words) and gossip columnist Walter Winchell. One critic accurately described Paar as a “bull in his own china shop”.
Viewers were transfixed; with Paar, you never knew what would happen next. From a low of 46 affiliates when Paar took over, the show’s ratings surged; by the end of 1957 virtually all of NBC’s 170-plus stations carried Tonight.
Paar’s small group of regulars included outspoken woman about town Elsa Maxwell; entertainer and hypochondriac Oscar Levant; and the folksy Cliff Arquette, who became a success under the more homespun name Charlie Weaver. Paar also introduced new talent, including up and coming comics Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby; his show went to Cuba and the Berlin Wall; and he even found time to interview 1960 presidential candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Paar’s most-famous public row happened in early 1960, when he told audiences a slightly bawdy joke about a “water closet.” NBC censors removed the joke from that night’s taped episode, leading Paar to walk off Tonight the next evening, surprising announcer Hugh Downs and his scheduled guests. But the feud ended five weeks later when Paar returned to the show; ratings were higher than ever.
By 1962, he had enough of the late-night grind. With NBC willing to give him an hour-long prime time series, Paar left Tonight on March 30th of that year. Although his prime time program ran three years, Paar never again achieved the fame of his Tonight run, but by all accounts, he was happy to be semi-retired as an author and world traveler until his death on January 27th, 2004.
For the next six months, NBC filled Paar’s slot with celebrity guest hosts until his replacement came on board. He would prove to be the most successful and longest running Tonight Show host in history.
KING OF LATE NIGHT: JOHNNY CARSON (1962-1992)
Johnny Carson, like Allen and Paar before him, worked on TV’s fringes, doing everything from radio and daytime television. He wrote for Red Skelton; when Skelton injured himself, Carson substituted as host on the comic’s CBS series. His coolness under pressure led to his own comedy show that lasted just one season. In 1957, Carson became host of an ABC game show called Who Do You Trust? when he was tapped by NBC to replace Paar. But ABC would not release Carson from his contract, so it was not until October 1962 when Carson was able to begin work at NBC. The comic brought along his “Trust” announcer Ed McMahon to the new Tonight Show. Gone were the controversies and serious discussions that marked the Paar years. Carson believed viewers would tune in for light entertainment-some jokes, banter with guests and a few skits.
Carson was a 180-degree version of Paar; he was funny, self-depreciating and fast on his feet. Already a success under Paar, Carson helped make the Tonight Show even more popular, despite growing competition over his three decade run. (ABC tried and failed with Joey Bishop; CBS struck out with Merv Griffith and Pat Sajak; syndicated entries came and went; and the Fox network failed when it hired away Carson’s substitute host Joan Rivers.)
Before long, “Johnny” became a household name, along with his marriages and divorces, his many feuds and contract talks with NBC, and his trademark monologues at the start of each show. Carson biting wit worked well when he criticized politicians, celebrities and the trends of the day; he was more in touch with the public pulse than many whom served in public office. (Carson proved to be more of an American institution; “Tonight” episodes were briefly shown in the UK but they were not successful.) As the years went on, Carson’s audience became older, leaving room for younger talk show hosts such as Arsenio Hall and NBC’s own David Letterman (whose Late Night program followed Carson’s).
“Tonight” accounted for as much as 20% of NBC’s profits, so it was a shock in the industry when Carson announced he would retire as host in 1992, ending a legendary run. His final program on May 22nd was a quiet one, as Carson, Ed McMahon and bandleader Doc Severnson waxed nostalgic with help from clips of Johnny’s best moments. But it was his last regular show the night before that was one for the record books. Carson’s final guests were pros in their own right. Robin Williams gave an hysterical performance, before Bette Midler sang to Johnny in a now-classic serenade that won the “Divine Miss M” an Emmy award. It was a fitting end to an era in American television. Carson died on January 23rd, 2005, but The Tonight Show soldiered on–in a rapidly changing television universe.
THE HARD WORKER: JAY LENO (1992-PRESENT)
Many television observers were surprised when NBC designated comic Jay Leno as Carson’s successor once Johnny announced his retirement. They felt the job should have gone to Late Night host David Letterman, but Letterman did himself no favors by dissing NBC executives both on the air and off. By comparison, Leno was smart enough to make friends with key NBC executives and offering his services to the network’s affiliates, cutting promos for local news and being interviewed by anchors at NBC stations.
Both Leno and Letterman began their careers in comedy clubs before getting national exposure. During the 1980's, Leno was named the official guest host of The Tonight Show, filling in when Carson was sick or on vacation. Once Carson announced his retirement, Leno was signed as his permanent replacement. NBC executives knew the decision would unnerve the high-strung Letterman. And it did: In a very public series of negotiations (which were well-chronicled in Bill Carter’s definitive book 'The Late Shift'), Letterman–having been passed for the Tonight Show job, signed a deal with CBS, which never had a successful late night franchise. Despite heated battles behind the scenes, NBC executives felt Leno was the better of the two men and felt Letterman would not change his style of irreverent humor for an earlier and larger audience. As it turned out, the suits at NBC were wrong.)
Leno’s first year was shaky. Though the ratings remained steady compared to Carson, off-stage battles forced Leno to fire his long-time manager and the show’s producer Helen Kushnick. And critics never warmed up to Leno’s middle-of-the-road comic humor, occasionally bruising his subjects but seldom biting them. Leno seemed to be trying too hard to appeal to everyone, and that may have hurt him when Letterman’s new CBS late-night entry The Late Show went up against “Tonight”. Despite airing on fewer stations than NBC’s entrenched program, Late Show chalked up larger audiences than Leno and “Tonight”, and most of the viewers were younger than those watching Leno.
NBC executives gritted their teeth and stuck with Leno. Slowly, he began to improve his comic skills and interviewing techniques; the show was revamped to emphasize comedy and variety over talk. By 1996, “Tonight” began drawing more viewers than Letterman, helped in part by NBC’s improved ratings in prime time. He would continue to beat Letterman for the rest of the 1990's and the first decade of the new century. But NBC’s effort to avoid a repeat of the Letterman fiasco led to one of the biggest blunders in American TV history.
THE FAILED LENO/CONAN EXPERIMENT (2009-2010)
When David Letterman left NBC’s Late Night show for CBS, NBC quickly searched for a replacement host. After being rejected by Dana Carvey and Gary Shandling, the network settled on an unlikely choice--a former writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons who was not known by the general public.
Late Night with Conan O’Brien made its debut as Letterman’s replacement in the fall of 1993. The early years were not auspicious. Critics didn’t like the new host and the ratings were low. NBC did renew Late Night on what had to be an humiliating week-by-week basis. But along the way, Conan improved. He brought his own unique comic humor to the post-midnight crowd–sometimes a bit on the blue side but very funny. After several years, critics warmed up to Late Night–and so did television viewers. Conan’s renewal was now measured in years, not weeks, and his salary also increased. He soon became one of NBC’s more familiar faces, hosting various prime time specials. By 2004, there was agreement among network executives that Conan would succeed Jay Leno as host of Tonight. But Leno, always the workaholic, continued to lead the ratings and showed no signs of giving up his late night role. Meanwhile, Conan began making noises about doing a show that didn’t have to start at 12:35 PM. Some competing networks–notably ABC and Fox–were putting out feelers for Conan to host his own series to compete with Leno and Letterman.
In 2005, NBC Universal Entertainment chairman Jeff Zucker went directly to Leno and laid it on the line, telling him in effect: “You’re doing a great job and we’re glad to have you on the network. But we have a Conan problem.” Zucker wanted Leno to step down as Tonight Show host at the end of his contract in 2009, with Conan taking over. Leno–still haunted by the Letterman fallout--agreed. But as his retirement date grew closer, Leno began making public noises: Why should he step down, he told audiences, when “Tonight” was still the champion of late night? Still, a deal was a deal. And Leno began getting offers from other networks and syndicators who wanted him to host a late night program. Zucker went into panic mode; it wouldn’t be fair to Conan if Leno became his new competition. But how can he persuade Leno to stay at NBC? Jay had rejected offers for a daytime slot, a half-hour show five days a week at 8:00 PM, and his own show on one of NBC’s cable outlets such as USA or Bravo. In searching for a solution, Zucker learned that back in 1981, NBC had considered moving Johnny Carson to 10:00 PM on weeknights to jump start the network’s low ratings in prime time. By 2008, history had repeated itself: NBC was fourth among the broadcast networks, with its Sunday night football games the only major audience draw. NBC also had no luck with 10:00 PM dramas, save for the aging Law & Order: SUV and ER–and the latter was going off the air after a 15-year run. Zucker believed moving Leno to prime time five nights a week would result in a show far cheaper to produce than a scripted drama. Even if the ratings weren’t as good, Zucker was confident NBC would still make a profit. Zucker pitched the idea to Leno, who agreed to the deal.
On May 29th, 2009, Leno hosted his last Tonight Show, and Conan O’Brien took his place three days later, moving from NBC’s Burbank studios to a new sound stage on the nearby Universal Studios lot. (By this time, former Saturday Night Live player Jimmy Fallon had become the new host of Late Night.) Ratings were strong for the premiere episode, leading NBC publicists to crown Conan as “The New King Of Late Night.” That boast proved to be premature; the audience numbers fell each night after the first episode; within a few weeks, David Letterman’s CBS show began beating Conan in total audiences. By November 2009, Conan’s audience averaged two million viewers less than what Jay Leno was attracting a year earlier.
Meanwhile, even before the scheduled September 14th, 2009 premiere of The Jay Leno Show, several NBC affiliates threatened to air syndicated hour-long dramas instead of Leno. The network clamped down on those plans, but no one expected Leno to beat CBS and ABC’s dramas at 10:00 PM. Leno brought some of his favorite bits to the show and a few new twists–including a Top Gear inspired bit where celebrities drove an electric car on a track around NBC’s Burbank studios. The network also moved Leno’s most popular comedy segments to the end of the show, before NBC stations started their local newscasts. The Jay Leno Show received mostly negative reviews from critics; television producers slammed NBC for abandoning its 10:00 PM drama block, especially on Thursdays where Emmy-winners Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and ER thrived for nearly three decades. CBS and ABC refused to allow its series stars to appear with Leno in prime time. And while neither NBC nor Leno expected to beat such established dramas as CSI: Miami and The Mentalist, audiences for The Jay Leno Show averaged about six-point-five million viewers. But affiliated stations were angry; many local newscasts lost audiences because of the weaker Leno lead-in. Coupled with declining ratings for Conan’s Tonight, it wasn’t long before the network took action. Conan O’Brien, to use the title of an NBC weight-loss reality series, became the biggest loser.
LENO’S BACK AND CONAN’S GONE (2010-PRESENT)
With local NBC stations ready to revolt, the network announced in January 2010 The Jay Leno Show would leave prime time and air at 11:35 PM on weeknights, leading into Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon, whose shows would be pushed back 30 minutes. Leno accepted the new time slot, but despite a contract allowing NBC to push Tonight back to 12:05 AM, Conan O’Brien released a statement saying he “cannot participate in what I honestly believe is [The Tonight Show’s] destruction.”
Conan was quickly hailed as a hero by the public, while Leno was slammed in the press. After day after day of public feuding between all sides, Conan O’Brien signed a deal allowing him to leave NBC–with a reported settlement of $45 million. Conan’s final Tonight Show aired January 22nd. Jay Leno returned as host of Tonight on March 1st, after NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics. And the network returned to dramas and other programs at 10:00 PM in prime time, but struggled to find traction with such new entries as Parenthood and Lipstick Jungle. Conan eventually signed a deal with cable network TBS to host a new late night program, which premiered under the title Conan in November 2010. By this time, Tonight (with Leno back as host) regained its lead over David Letterman. The fiasco led NBC parent General Electric to sell a majority of the NBC Universal media empire to cable network Comcast. Jeff Zucker left NBCU once Comcast took over.
For all of its ups and downs, The Tonight Show remains an important part of NBC’s schedule and a money-maker to boot. Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno had unique talents that made them successful hosting a fast-paced variety-talk show. (So does Conan O’Brien, as his post-NBC career has proven.) More importantly, each had a comfort level with audiences, who tuned in past their bedtimes night after night.
Questions Site Information Contact
As long as there is television after 11:30 PM, there will always be The Tonight Show.
Return to Top of Page