The Tonight Show

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The Tonight Show

NBC's venerable late-night talk show The Tonight Show has provided a unique window into the changing times and mores of contemporary American culture. Beginning in 1954, its four principal hosts have used the program as a pulpit for nightly commentary on events both profound and piddling. Over the decades, the show has fluctuated wildly in terms of its influence and quality. At various times it offered groundbreaking comedy, scintillating conversation, and instructions for stylish living. Even Jay Leno's tepid, non-threatening Tonight Show of the 1990s seemed somehow to reflect the tenor of its self-satisfied times.

The first host of The Tonight Show was Steve Allen, a former disc jockey who had presided over a succession of Golden Age TV offerings. During his innovative three-year run as host, Allen established the program's basic format: a monologue followed by a comedy set piece and a series of conversations with celebrity guests. Allen also inaugurated the show's long-running practice of breaking in new stand-up comics. Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were just two of the comedians who got their start slinging jokes at Allen's audience. In later years, such prominent entertainers as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Roseanne Barr would gain their initial national exposure on the program.

In 1956, NBC moved Allen onto another show and briefly retooled The Tonight Show. That experiment failed and the network eventually brought in Jack Paar, a garrulous game show host, as Allen's replacement. Beginning in July of 1957, Paar brought a more erudite presence to The Tonight Show. He eschewed comedy skits for genteel conversation, often booking guests from the political arena. Robert F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and labor leader George Meaney were a few of the luminaries who chatted with Paar over the years.

Behind the veneer of a highbrow gabber, there was a darker side to Paar as well. He picked fights with notable figures in broadcasting, Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan among them. On numerous occasions he threatened to quit the program, citing network interference and his own ennui with the late-night grind Paar was the first of The Tonight Show hosts to cut his work week down from five days to three. On February 11, 1960, Paar finally walked out on the program—literally, in the middle of a broadcast. He did return to his desk a few weeks later, but after a series of additional controversial incidents, Paar took his leave of The Tonight Show in March of 1962.

After a half-year interregnum, during which guest hosts filled the command chair, Johnny Carson became Paar's successor. A glib boy magician from Nebraska, Carson brought a midwestern geniality, along with a sharp wit, to the hosting chores. He also introduced America to Ed McMahon, his second banana from the game showWho Do You Trust, to serve as announcer and sounding board. The pair would remain together on the program for the next 30 years, with McMahon's famous introduction, "Heeeeere's Johnny!" becoming a globally recognized refrain.

For a time, Carson retained Paar's reliance on learned guests, though over the decades Hollywood glitz began to trump intelligent conversation. In a reflection of this shift, the show moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1972. Out west, The Tonight Show took on more of an adult urban contemporary feel. Hipsters like Burt Reynolds and Hugh Hefner replaced the stodgy Hubert Humphreys of the Paar years. The Tonight Show became more popular than ever, as "Johnny" reveled in his shaman of late-night status.

The show's veneer of cool began to melt away in the 1980s, as The Tonight Show grew old along with its audience. Once the icon of hipness, Carson now seemed a mainstream fuddy-duddy, as edgier comics like David Letterman and, later, Arsenio Hall began to steal some of his limelight. The nadir of The Tonight Show came with the 1983 installation of Borscht Belt fossil Joan Rivers as Carson's permanent guest host. The whining, shrewish Rivers alienated many of the show's loyal viewers—and eventually enraged her patron by jumping ship for her own, competitive late-night program. Carson replaced her with comedian Jay Leno, who took over when Carson abruptly announced his retirement as of May 1992.

Leno, who beat out the more talented Letterman for the job after a well-publicized internecine struggle, took over the day after Carson signed off. He made almost no changes to the format, apart from dropping the unnecessary second banana. A workaholic stand-up, Leno relied on his strong monologues to distract attention from his sub-par interviewing skills. He seemed on the verge of losing control of the show when Letterman fielded a competitive program on CBS, but rode back to the top of the ratings on the strength of his jokes about the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Though Leno's tame take on late-night chat offered little to differentiate it from its competitors, the equity in The Tonight Show franchise and the host's skill with a one-liner ensured it would remain a subject of office water cooler conversation for years to come.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Carter, Bill. The Late Shift. New York, Hyperion, 1995.