The Tonight Show is a long-running American late-night talk and variety show airing on NBC whose current incarnation has been hosted by Jay Leno since 1992. Now in its 54th season, The Tonight Show is the third longest-running entertainment program in U.S. television history (after the soap opera Guiding Light and Hallmark Hall of Fame).
The Tonight Show can date its origins to a local New York program called Broadway Open House, which started in 1950; its format can be traced to New York show hosted by
Steve Allen and which premiered in 1953 on what is now WNBC-TV.
The show was hosted by Steve Allen (1954-57), Jack Paar (1957-62), Johnny Carson (1962-92), and Jay Leno (1992-present). Conan O'Brien is currently slated to take over the reins from Leno on June 1, 2009. The longest-serving host to date was American comedian Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 29 years.
The original host of Tonight
was Steve Allen; his announcer was Gene Rayburn
. When the show became a success, Allen got a primetime Sunday comedy-variety show, leading him to share Tonight
hosting duties with Ernie Kovacs
during the 1956–1957 season
. To give Allen time to work on his Sunday evening show, Kovacs hosted Tonight
on Monday and Tuesday nights, with his own announcer and bandleader.
During the later Steve Allen years, regular audience member Miss Miller became such an integral part, she was forced to join AFTRA, the television/radio performers union.
Allen and Kovacs departed Tonight in January 1957 after NBC ordered Allen to concentrate all his efforts on his Sunday night variety program, hoping to combat CBS's Ed Sullivan Show's dominance of the Sunday night ratings.
'Tonight! America After Dark
Rather than continuing with the same format after Allen and Kovacs' departure from Tonight
, NBC changed the show's format to a news and features show, similar to that of the network's popular morning program Today
. The new show, renamed Tonight! America After Dark
, was hosted first by Jack Lescoulie
and then by Al "Jazzbo" Collins
, with interviews conducted by Hy Gardner
, and music provided by the Lou Stein
Trio. This new version of the show was not popular, resulting in a number of NBC affiliates dropping the show.
In July 1957, NBC returned the program to a talk/variety show format once again, with Jack Paar
becoming the new solo host of the show. Under Paar, most of the NBC affiliates which had dropped the show during the ill-fated run of America After Dark
began airing the show once again. Paar's era began the practice of branding the series after the host, and as such the program, though officially still called The Tonight Show
, was marketed as The Jack Paar Show
. Paar also introduced the idea of having guest hosts; one of these early hosts was Johnny Carson
. In the late 1950's, it was one of the first regularly scheduled shows to be videotaped in color.
On February 11, 1960, Jack Paar walked off his show for a month after NBC censors edited out a segment, taped the night before, about a joke involving a "W.C." (water closet, a polite term for a flush toilet) being confused for a "wayside chapel." As he left his desk, he said, "I am leaving The Tonight Show. There must be a better way of making a living than this." Paar's abrupt departure left his startled announcer, Hugh Downs, to finish the broadcast himself.
Paar returned to the show on March 7, 1960, strolled on stage, struck a pose, and said, "As I was saying before I was interrupted..." After the audience erupted in applause, Paar continued, "When I walked off, I said there must be a better way of making a living. Well I've looked and there isn't."
Transition to Carson
Jack Paar left the show in March 1962
, and Johnny Carson was chosen as his successor. For contractual reasons, Carson could not take over as host until October 1
, and the months between Paar and Carson were taken by a series of guest hosts, including Groucho Marx
and Mort Sahl
. The show was broadcast under the title The Tonight Show
during this interregnum.
Marx introduced Carson as the new host on October 1; Ed McMahon
was Carson's sidekick. For all but a few months of its first decade on the air, Carson's "Tonight Show" was based in New York City
. In May 1972
the show moved to Burbank, California
, (although it was announced as coming from nearby Hollywood
) for the remainder of his tenure.
Johnny Carson retired on May 22
, and was replaced by current host Jay Leno amid controversy. David Letterman
not only wanted to move into that earlier time slot from his late night spot after The Tonight Show
, but was considered by Carson and others as the natural successor (despite Leno having been Carson's permanent guest host for several years). In the years following his retirement until his death in 2005, Carson never appeared as a guest on Leno's The Tonight Show
. Letterman, having had his heart set on the earlier time slot, left NBC and joined CBS. Late Show with David Letterman
, airing in the same slot, has been competing head to head against Leno's The Tonight Show
ever since. Conan O'Brien
slid into the late night time slot vacated by Letterman, and has himself enjoyed success. Carson died on January 23
. Leno, now the last living host of The Tonight Show
, paid tribute to Carson soon after.
Unlike Carson and Paar before him, Leno has rarely utilized guest hosts, reruns are broadcast during Leno's absence.
On September 27
, the 50th anniversary of the show's premiere, NBC announced that Jay Leno will be succeeded by Conan O'Brien
in 2009. It was then that Leno explained that he did not want to see a repeat of the hard feelings and controversy that occurred following Carson's retirement when he was given the show instead of Letterman. It has also been speculated that NBC asked Leno to do this so that Conan would not accept a more lucrative offer. It was rumored that at the time of the announcement ABC was talking to O'Brien about possibly replacing Jimmy Kimmel
Since the announcement of the 2009 move, Leno's feelings on the matter have been questioned, though he later said he will leave the network once he leaves the show. Sources say he could also move to ABC or FOX to host a new late-night show.
Leno will tape his last show from Burbank on Friday, May 29, 2009. O'Brien replaces Leno the following Monday, June 1 from a new studio in the Universal Studios backlot, ending an era during which the show will have been taped from Burbank since 1972 (Universal Studios and NBC are both owned by NBC Universal).
Music and announcers
Music during the show's introduction and commercial segues
is supplied by the Tonight Show Band
. Skitch Henderson
was the band leader
during the Steve Allen and early Carson years, followed briefly by Milton DeLugg
(who later went on to become the musical director of The Gong Show
). Gene Rayburn
served as Allen's announcer and sidekick and also guest-hosted some episodes. The Lou Stein
Trio provided musical accompaniment during the short run of Tonight: America After Dark
, which ran for seven months between the Steve Allen and Jack Paar eras of the Tonight Show
. Jose Melis
led the band for Jack Paar, and Hugh Downs
was his announcer. For most of Johnny Carson's run on the show, the Tonight Show
's band, then called "The NBC Orchestra
" was led by Doc Severinsen
, former trumpet soloist in Henderson's band for Steve Allen.
When McMahon was away from the show, Severinsen was the substitute announcer and Tommy Newsom
would lead the band. On the rare occasions that both McMahon and
Severinsen were away, Newsom would take the announcer's chair and the band would be led by assistant musical director Shelly Cohen.
Severinsen's band featured several accomplished sidemen in addition to saxophonist Newsom, including trumpeter Snooky Young, pianist Ross Tompkins, drummer Ed Shaughnessy, trumpeter Bobby Shew, trumpeter Conti Candoli, saxophonist Pete Christlieb and jazz trumpet legend Clark Terry
. The band frequently appeared on camera in the "Stump the Band" segments, where an audience member would dare the band to play some obscure song title, and the band would comically improvise something appropriate. The routine was played for full comedy value and the band was not really expected to know the songs, but on two occasions the band did answer correctly, much to the maestro's surprise. Severinsen was heard to ask incredulously, "You mean we actually
The first bandleader during Leno's tenure was Branford Marsalis; he was replaced by Kevin Eubanks in 1995. On March 29, 2004, Leno's long-time announcer Edd Hall was replaced by John Melendez from The Howard Stern Show.
The New York Post has reported that Max Weinberg will be joining O'Brien in Los Angeles, though there has been no news whether the rest of The Max Weinberg 7 will accompany him.
When the show began it was broadcast live
. It began its broadcast at 11:15 pm ET
, following an affiliate's 15-minute news broadcast. As more affiliates lengthened their local news programs to 30 minutes, the show began doing two openings, one for the affiliates that joined at 11:15 and another for those who joined at 11:30.
On January 12, 1959, the show began to be videotaped for broadcast later on the same day, although initially the Thursday night programs were kept live. Color broadcasts began on September 19, 1960.
In the late 1960s Johnny Carson insisted that the show's start time be changed to 11:30, eliminating the two-opening practice.
The Tonight Show became the first American television show to broadcast with MTS stereo sound in 1984, although sporadically. Regular use of MTS began in 1985. On April 26, 1999, the show started broadcasting in 1080i HDTV, becoming the first American nightly talk show to be shot in that format.
|| Notes |
| Steve Allen
|| September 27, 1954
|| January 25, 1957
|| variety show |
| Ernie Kovacs
|| October 1, 1956
|| January 22, 1957
|| Monday–Tuesday host |
| Jack Lescoulie
|| January 28, 1957
|| June 21, 1957
|| format switch to news program Tonight! America After Dark |
| Al "Jazzbo" Collins
|| June 24, 1957
|| July 26, 1957
|| replaced Lescoulie, who was moved to Today show |
| Jack Paar
|| July 29, 1957
|| March 30, 1962
|| format switch to talk show; also called Tonight Starring Jack Paar and the Jack Paar Tonight |
| Various hosts
|| April 2, 1962
|| September 28, 1962
|| interlude between Paar and Carson eras. Temporary hosts included Groucho Marx and Jerry Lewis. |
| Johnny Carson
|| October 1, 1962
|| May 22, 1992
|| The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson |
| Jay Leno
|| May 25, 1992
|| May 29, 2009
|| The Tonight Show with Jay Leno |
| Conan O'Brien
|| June 1, 2009
|| The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien
| Begin Date
|| End Date
| September 27, 1954
|| October 5, 1956
| October 8, 1956
|| January 4, 1957
| January 7, 1957
|| December 30, 1966
| January 2, 1965
|| January 1, 1967
|| Sat or Sun
| January 2, 1967
|| September 5, 1980
| January 7, 1967
|| September 26, 1975
|| Sat or Sun
| September 8, 1980
|| August 30, 1991
| September 2, 1991
Gag, skit, and segment highlights
- "Man on the Street interviews" (Allen). Frequently featured actors as recurring characters, most notably Don Knotts, Louis Nye and Tom Poston, though Allen also performed impromptu bits with non-professional civilians.
- "Crazy Shots" (Allen). Later known as *"Wild Pictures." Allen's supporting cast and guest stars would participate in quick visual gags while Allen played piano accompaniment.
- "Candid Camera" (Paar). The off-again, on-again show, hosted by Allen Funt since radio's heyday, was a segment on The Tonight Show in 1958.
- "Stump the Band" (Paar, later Carson). Audience members are asked to name an obscure song and the band tries to play it. If the band doesn't know the song, it usually breaks into a comical piece of music.
- "Carnac the Magnificent" (Carson). Carson plays a psychic who is given sealed envelopes (that McMahon invariably states, with a flourish, have been kept "hermetically sealed inside a mayonnaise jar underneath Funk & Wagnalls' porch since noon today"). Carnac holds an envelope to his head and recites the punchline to a joke contained within the envelope, then rips open the envelope and reads the matching question inside. Sample: "Saucepan... Who was Peter Pan's wino brother?" If a joke falls flat with the audience, Carnac invariably passes a comedic curse upon them (e.g., "May a bloated yak change the temperature of your jacuzzi!").
- The Tea Time Movie, with "Art Fern" (Carson) and the Matinée Lady (originally Paula Prentiss, then a parade of one shots including Edy Williams, Juliet Prowse and Lee Meredith, then for many years Carol Wayne, then Danuta Wesley, and finally Teresa Ganzel). Carson once said that Art Fern was his favorite character: "He's so sleazy!" Huckster Art usually wore a loud suit, lavish toupee, and pencil mustache, and spoke in the high, nasal approximation of Jackie Gleason's "Reginald van Gleason III" character. A parody of 1950s-style, fast-talking advertising pitchmen, the Tea Time Movie consists of a rapid-fire series of fake advertisements for products and companies sponsoring a late-night movie. Invariably the jokes refer to his buxom Matinée Lady assistant, and at least once in every skit a variation of the "Slauson Cutoff" joke is made (e.g., "You can find our store by heading down Hwy. 101 until you get to the Slauson Cutoff. Get out of the car, cut off your slauson, get back in the car."), as is a reference to "Drive until you get to... (a map is unfolded to reveal a table fork) the fork in the road!" Art would then return us to today's movie (like "Tarzan and Cheetah Have to Get Married" or "Rin Tin Tin Gets Fixed Fixed Fixed," etc.), followed by an antique. four-second film clip. Back to Art, caught necking with the Matinée Lady before announcing another movie and another commercial.
- "Headlines" (Allen, later Leno)
The Tonight Show
is also seen around the world. It is broadcast on CNBC Europe
, usually three nights after it has been shown in the U.S. The show is screened at 11:00pm AEDST weeknights on The Comedy Channel
, where new episodes are shown hours after its American broadcast. In Sweden
, Kanal 5
has shown The Tonight Show
(as Jay Leno Show
) since the late '90s with one week's delay. Since October, 2006
, it is also being aired in India on Zee Cafe
12 hours after the show is shown in the USA.
An early attempt at airing the show in the United Kingdom during the 1980s was unsuccessful, sparking jokes by Carson. On the October 23, 1984 broadcast, guest Paul McCartney had this to say of the show's British run:
Carson: (throwing to commercial) ...we have to pay some bills here. It's not like British television which just goes and goes till they end it.
McCartney: Oh you're just mad because they didn't like your show.
Shows such as Des O'Connor Tonight and Wogan were considered by many to be the UK equivalent of the show.