The Tonight Show is an American late-night talk show that has aired on NBC since 1954. It is the longest currently running regularly scheduled entertainment program in the United States, and the third longest-running show on NBC, after Meet the Press and Today.
The Tonight Show has been hosted by Steve Allen (1954 1957), Jack Paar (1957 1962), Johnny Carson (1962 1992), Jay Leno (1992 2009, 2010 present), and Conan O'Brien (2009 2010). Many "guest hosts" have also appeared, particularly during the Paar and Carson eras.
The longest-serving host to date was Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 29 seasons, from the fall of 1962 through the spring of 1992. The current host of the show is Jay Leno, who had previously hosted the show from 1992 2009, and began his current tenure on March 1, 2010.
NBC's Broadway Open House, which began in 1950, first demonstrated the potential for late-night network programming. The format for The Tonight Show can be traced to a nightly 40 minute local New York show hosted by Allen, which premiered in 1953 on what is now WNBC-TV. Beginning in September 1954, it was renamed Tonight! and shown on the full NBC network. Detailed history of hosts can be found here http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=tonightshow.
- of episodes
||September 27, 1954
||January 25, 1957
||Tonight Starring Steve Allen
||Between all of the hosts from The Tonight Shows debut until the Carson era, 2,000 episodes were made
||October 1, 1956
||January 22, 1957
||Monday Tuesday host
||January 28, 1957
||June 21, 1957
Today veteran hosted format switch to news program Tonight! America After Dark
|Al "Jazzbo" Collins
||June 24, 1957
||July 26, 1957
||Replaced Lescoulie, who remained on Today
||July 29, 1957
||March 30, 1962
||Format switch to talk show; also called Tonight Starring Jack Paar and Jack Paar Tonight
||April 2, 1962
||September 28, 1962
||Interlude between Paar and Carson eras. Temporary hosts included Groucho Marx and Jerry Lewis.
||October 1, 1962
||May 22, 1992
||The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
||May 25, 1992
||May 29, 2009
||The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
||June 1, 2009
||January 22, 2010
||The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien
||March 1, 2010
||The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
Steve Allen (1954 1957)
The very first Tonight announcer was Gene Rayburn. Allen's version of the show originated such talk show staples as an opening monologue, celebrity interviews, audience participation, and comedy bits in which cameras were taken outside the studio, as well as music, including guest performers and a house band under Lyle "Skitch" Henderson.
When the show became a success, Allen got a prime-time Sunday comedy-variety show in June 1956, 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 Lillian Miller became such an integral part that 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 The Ed Sullivan Shows dominance of the Sunday night ratings. Unlike the first installment of Johnny Carson's tenure, which is lost except for audio recordings, a kinescope recording of the opening monologue from the very first Tonight Show under Allen survives in which he states, accurately, that "this show is going to go on forever."
Tonight! America After Dark (1957)
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 (later replaced by the Mort Lindsey Quartet). This new version of the show was unpopular, resulting in a significant number of NBC affiliates dropping the show.
Jack Paar (1957 1962)
Jack Paar and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960 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. A combo band conducted by Paar's Army buddy pianist Jose Melis filled commercial breaks and backed musical entertainers. [See music and announcers below.] Paar also introduced the idea of having guest hosts; one of these early hosts was Johnny Carson. It was one of the first regularly scheduled shows to be videotaped in color. On February 11, 1960, Jack Paar walked off his show an absence which lasted almost 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 from Paar to Carson (1962)
Citing that he would prefer to do one prime time show per week rather than five late night installments, Jack Paar left the show in March 1962. The Jack Paar Show moved to prime time (as The Jack Paar Program) and aired weekly, on Friday nights, through 1965.
As for Tonight, Johnny Carson was chosen as Paar's successor. At the time, Carson was host of the weekday afternoon quiz show Who Do You Trust? on ABC. Because Carson was under contract to ABC through September (and who held him to his contract until the day it expired), he could not take over as host until October 1, 1962. The months between Paar and Carson were taken by a series of guest hosts, including Groucho Marx, Jerry Lewis, and Mort Sahl, some of whom later noted that they were being led to believe that they were auditioning for the job. The show was broadcast under the title The Tonight Show during this interregnum, with Skitch Henderson returning as bandleader and Hugh Downs continuing as announcer until he took over Today in September 1962, after which he was replaced by Ed Herlihy.
Johnny Carson (1962 1992)
Carson as Carnac the Magnificent, one of his most well known routines New Year's Eve 1962
Marx introduced Carson as the new host on October 1, 1962; Ed McMahon was Carson's announcer. The Tonight Show orchestra was for several years still led by Skitch Henderson. After a brief stint by Milton DeLugg, beginning in 1967 the "NBC Orchestra" was then headed by trumpeter Doc Severinsen who played in the Tonight Show Band in the years that Skitch Henderson conducted. [See music and announcers below.] 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 into Studio One of NBC Studios West Coast (although it was announced as coming from nearby Hollywood), for the remainder of his tenure.
Jay Leno (1992 2009)
Jay Leno in 1993 Will Ferrell and Conan O'Brien
Johnny Carson retired on May 22, 1992, and was replaced by 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). 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 The Tonight Show ever since. After Leno's run as host of The Tonight Show, Conan O'Brien took over as host.
Conan O'Brien (2009 2010)
On September 27, 2004, the 50th anniversary of the show's premiere, NBC announced that Jay Leno would be succeeded by Conan O'Brien in 2009. Leno explained that in yielding to Conan, he wanted to avoid repeating the hard feelings that developed between him and David Letterman, and called O'Brien "certainly the most deserving person for the job." The final episode of The Tonight Show with Leno as host aired on Friday, May 29, 2009. O'Brien replaced Leno as host on The Tonight Show on Monday, June 1 from a new studio in Stage 1 of the Universal Studios Hollywood back lot, ending an era (since 1972) of taping the show in Burbank. Leno, meanwhile, went on to host The Jay Leno Show, a prime time talk show which aired directly before Conan's Tonight Show.
Timeslot conflict and Leno's return
O'Brien quickly gained online support during the controversy. O'Brien's audience tailed off significantly compared to that of Leno; at one point he attracted two million fewer viewers than Letterman. While Leno's primetime show did fairly well, several NBC affiliates complained that it was hurting the ratings for their late newscasts.
On January 7, 2010, multiple media outlets reported that beginning March 1, 2010, Leno would move from his 10pm weeknight time slot to 11:35pm due to Leno and O'Brien's sagging ratings, as well as pressure from NBC affiliates. Leno's show would be shortened from an hour to 30 minutes. All NBC late night programming would be preempted by the 2010 Winter Olympics between February 15 and February 26. This would move The Tonight Show to 12:05am, a post-midnight timeslot for the first time in its history.
On January 10, NBC confirmed they would be moving Jay Leno out of primetime as of February 12 and intended to move him to late-night as soon as possible. TMZ reported that O'Brien was given no advance notice of this change, and that NBC offered him two choices: an hour-long 12:05am time slot, or the option to leave the network. On January 12, O'Brien issued a press release that stated he would not continue with Tonight if it moved to a 12:05am time slot, saying, "I believe that delaying The Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn t The Tonight Show." On January 21, it was announced that NBC had struck a deal with O'Brien in which he would leave The Tonight Show and receive a $33 million payout. His staff of almost 200 would receive $12 million in their departure. O'Brien's final episode aired on Friday, January 22, and Jay Leno resumed hosting The Tonight Show on March 1, 2010. O'Brien returned to late-night television on November 8, 2010, hosting Conan on cable channel TBS.
Leno's second tenure (2010 present)
Jay and President Barack Obama on the set of The Tonight Show during a break in taping, October 25, 2011. On March 1, 2010, Jay Leno returned to The Tonight Show, with Wally Wingert as his announcer. On April 12, 2010, Eubanks announced his departure after 18 years on May 28. He was replaced as bandleader by Rickey Minor on June 7. On July 1, 2010, Variety reported that only six months into its second life, Jay Leno's Tonight Show posted its lowest ratings since 1992. By September 2010, Leno's ratings had fallen below those of Conan O'Brien when he had hosted The Tonight Show. NBC ratings specialist Tom Bierbaum commented that due to the host being out of late-night television for a period of time and the subsequent 2010 Tonight Show conflict, Leno's ratings fall was "not a surprise at all". In October 2010, David Letterman beat Leno's program in the ratings, for the first time since Leno returned to hosting The Tonight Show. Nevertheless, Leno's show beat Letterman's in both total viewership and in the 18-49 group for 34 of the 36 weeks in the season until May 2011.
Music and announcers
Music during the show's introduction and commercial segues is supplied by The Tonight Show Band. This ensemble was a jazz big band until the end of Johnny Carson's tenure. 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 six months between the Steve Allen and Jack Paar eras of The Tonight Show. Jos 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 Shows 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 big band featured several accomplished sidemen in addition to saxophonist Newsom, including trumpeter Snooky Young, pianist Ross Tompkins, drummer Ed Shaughnessy, trumpeter Bobby Shew, trumpeter Conte 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...?" When Carson's tenure ended in 1992, the orchestra was axed and replaced by a smaller ensemble. The first bandleader during Leno's tenure was Branford Marsalis. In 1992, the Tonight Show band also welcomed its first female member, Vicki Randle. In 1995, Marsalis was replaced by Kevin Eubanks, though the Marsalis-written theme was used throughout the show's run. On March 29, 2004, Leno's long-time announcer Edd Hall was replaced by John Melendez from The Howard Stern Show. Conan O'Brien announced on the February 18, 2009 episode of Late Night that The Max Weinberg 7 (rechristened as the Tonight Show Band, and adding a second percussionist), the house band on that program, would be accompanying him to The Tonight Show as his version's house band. It was announced February 23, 2009 that former Late Night sidekick Andy Richter would be O'Brien's announcer. Richter replaced O'Brien's former long-time announcer Joel Godard (who stayed behind in New York) when his rendition of The Tonight Show began. For the second incarnation of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a new bandleader was selected, though original bandleader Kevin Eubanks stayed for a few weeks in the transition. He officially announced his May 28, 2010 departure after 18 years on April 12, 2010. Rickey Minor was announced as his replacement, and took over on June 7, 2010.
The Tonight Show 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 began at 11:15 and another for those who joined at 11:30. By early 1965, only 43 of the 190 affiliated stations carried the entire show. Johnny Carson, who was not happy that Ed McMahon was "hosting" the 11:15 segment when he refused to appear until 11:30 after February 1965, finally insisted that the show's start time be changed to 11:30, eliminating the two-opening practice in December 1966.
When the show began it was broadcast live. 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.
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. In September 1991, the show postponed its starting time by five minutes to 11:35, to give network affiliates the opportunity to sell more advertising on their local news. On April 26, 1999, the show started broadcasting in 1080i HDTV, becoming the first American nightly talk show to be shot in that format.
On March 19, 2009, The Tonight Show became the first late-night talk show in history to have the sitting President of the United States as a guest, when President Barack Obama visited.
Throughout the years, the time at which The Tonight Show aired and the length has changed multiple times.
First run episodes
|September 27, 1954
||October 5, 1956
|October 8, 1956
||January 4, 1957
|January 7, 1957
||December 30, 1966
||Allen, Paar, Carson
|January 2, 1967
||September 5, 1980
|September 8, 1980
||August 30, 1991
|September 2, 1991
||Carson, Leno, O'Brien, Leno
||O'Brien (Planned but O'Brien rejected the offer)
Note that many NBC affiliates chose not to carry the first fifteen minutes of the show during this period, instead preferring to air a local newscast from 11 to 11:30. As of February 1965, Carson refused to host the first 15 minutes of the program, preferring to wait until the full network was in place before delivering his opening monologue. For nearly two years, until the show's start time was adjusted to 11:30 in January 1967, the host for the opening 15 minutes of The Tonight Show was announcer Ed McMahon.
From 1965 to 1975, until the advent of Saturday Night Live, weekend repeats of The Tonight Show were staples of the NBC schedule. These repeats ran in the following timeslots:
|January 2, 1965
||January 1, 1967
||Sat or Sun
||Repeats, known as The Saturday/Sunday Tonight Show
|January 7, 1967
||September 28, 1975
||Sat or Sun
||Repeats; eventually known as The Weekend Tonight Show
Gag, skit, and segments
- Crazy Shots: Later known as *"Wild Pictures". Allen's supporting cast and guest stars would participate in quick visual gags while Allen played piano accompaniment.
- Stump the Band: 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. This segment went on to become part of Carson's Tonight Show.
Carnac the Magnificent: 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, he 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" and the Matin e 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 supposedly sponsoring a mid-afternoon movie. Invariably the jokes refer to his buxom Matin e 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 Matin e Lady before announcing another movie and another commercial.
Headlines (Monday): Humorous print items sent in by viewers. These real-life headlines usually contain typographical errors or unintentionally inappropriate items. The segment usually starts out with a fake, humorous Headline during the introduction for the segment, such as Arabs Wish Bush "A Happy Shoe Year!", usually reflecting some current event. Reflecting Jay's moving of this segment to a 10 PM ET/PT time slot, the lead Headline on the final broadcasting of this segment was 4 Out Of 5 Scientists Say "Headlines" Funnier at 10PM Than 11:30PM.
- Jaywalking: A pre-taped segment, "Jaywalking" is a play on the host's name and the illegal practice of jaywalking. Leno asks people questions about current news and other topics in public areas around Los Angeles (usually Hollywood Boulevard, Melrose Avenue or Universal Studios). Most responses are outrageously incorrect; for example, one person believed that Abraham Lincoln was the first president, and another could not identify a picture of Hillary Clinton. Sometimes the questions are of the "What color is the White House?" level, such as asking in what country the Panama Canal is located in. Up to 15 people are interviewed in an hour or less for each segment, with about nine interviews used on the air.
- Stuff We Found on E-Bay: Outrageous, real-life items available on the auction website E-Bay are shown, with the audience asked to guess whether or not the item was sold.
- Unusual Mother's Day, Father's Day, Christmas gifts: Gift items appropriate for holidays are shown; some real, some phony, but all unusual
- Twitter Tracker: In this sketch, Conan is interrupted by an overzealous announcer (voiced by show writer Brian McCann) while lamenting the increasing number of celebrities who are using Twitter. The announcer attempts to prove to Conan that celebrity tweets are exciting by reading some of his favorites, which all describe mundane activities. The sketch is always accompanied by increasingly elaborate animations in which the bird from the Twitter logo is repeatedly killed. It also includes the announcer trying to persuade Conan to play a game by using a rhyming sentence in which he refers to him as CoCo.
- Wax Fonzie/Wax Tom Cruise: While visiting a warehouse full of poor quality celebrity wax figures, Conan identified two as his favorite and purchased them. One was of Henry Winkler as his Happy Days character Arthur Fonzarelli (whose hand positioning caused Conan to comment that he had just finished up at the urinal), and the other was a creepy-looking figure of Tom Cruise. Both wax figures made several appearances on the show, most notably by both being shot out of a cannon used for a bit. Wax Tom Cruise for the most part survived, while Wax Fonzie's face became irreplaceable. Wax Fonzie ultimately met its final fate when it was obliterated in an explosion, part of a contest involving blowing up the contest winner's old car.
- Ridiculously Expensive Sketches: As an act of mock revenge for NBC forcing him out of The Tonight Show's traditional time slot, O'Brien spent the last few episodes debuting sketches that ostensibly would cost NBC an extremely large amount of money. The sketches used rare and expensive props (usually on loan) and contained media with unusually high licensing fees.
Timeslots and International broadcasts
||Weekly Schedule (local time)
||The Comedy Channel
||Weeknights 12.00am AEST
Record News (as Talk Show Jay Leno)
||Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 10:15 pm / Weekly 4:00 am and 7:00 am (reruns)
CTV 2 & Access
||Simulcast with NBC's broadcast
TV3 + (as The Tonight Show)
||Weeknights 12.05 am CET
||Cable de Tricom (as Tonight Show)
||Simulcast with NBC's ET broadcast
e2 (as The Tonight Show)
||Weeknights 11 pm IST
||Weeknights 12 am CET, Weekends 9 pm CET
||Weeknights 12 am IST
yes stars Comedy (as Jay Leno)
||Weeknights 7:00 pm
CNBC Pakistan (as Tonight Show)
Jack TV (as The Tonight Show)
||Tuesday to Saturday 3 pm (via satellite) / Tuesday to Saturday 11 pm (late telecast)
SIC Radical (as The Tonight Show)
||Weeknights 9:30 pm
Antena 3 (as Tonight Show)
||Weeknights 12:25 am
Kanal 9 (as The Tonight Show med Jay Leno)
||Weeknights around 11:50 pm, 7:10 am rerun
||MTV3 MAX (as Tonight Show)
||Weeknights 11:20 pm, Repeated on weekday mornings
CNBC Africa (as Tonight Show)
CNBC (as The Tonight Show)
||Weeknights 11 pm
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 10.30 pm AEDST weeknights on The Comedy Channel in Australia, 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 1990s 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) OK, we're gonna have to cut away. We're just gonna see a commercial. We sell things occasionally. It's not like the British telly, you know. You just go forever, ten or twelve [minutes]. British television ends when they you know, when they want to.
McCartney: (jokingly) Yeah, you're just mad because they didn't like your show.
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