U.S. Talk/Variety

A long-running late night program, the Tonight Show was the first, and for decades the most-watched, network talk program on television. Since 1954 NBC has aired a number of versions of the show which has, as of the mid-1990s, seen four principle hosts and one consistent format except for a brief diversion in its early days. What started out as a music, comedy and talk program first hosted by Steve Allen became, for a time, a magazine-type program, broadcasting news and entertainment segments from various correspondents located in different cities nationally. That short-lived format, however, lacked the appeal of a comedy-interview show revolving around one dynamic host. From mid-1957 until the present, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno have all three followed Allen's lead and hosted a show of celebrity interviews, humor and music, each host leading his show with signature style. Late night talk in the first three decades of television was dominated by the Tonight Show, and for the majority of that time by Johnny Carson. However, during the 1980s and early 1990s the late-night landscape began to change as more talk shows took to the air. Change was accelerated by the appeal of David Letterman and a combination of other factors, including inexpensive production, audience interest in celebrity and entertainment gossip, and an overall increased reliance on the talk show as forum for information and debate about the important as well as unimportant issues of the day. The late-night talk genre expanded as network competitors and comrades sought the kind of success that was originally the province of the Tonight Show.

Each of the Tonight Show principal hosts brought his own unique talent and title to the program. All of the shows featured an opening monologue, a sidekick or co-host, in-house musicians and cadre of guest hosts. Steve Allen's Tonight! featured his musical talents and penchant for unique comedy. He was well known for performing his own musical numbers on the piano and for humorous antics such as on-the-street improvisations and bantering with the audience, both of which were forerunners to the kinds of comedy stunts that became a staple much later on Late Night with David Letterman, also on NBC. In 1957 Allen left Tonight! to concentrate on another variety show he hosted on Sunday evenings. Allen's version of the show was immediately followed by the unsuccessful magazine format, Tonight: America After Dark, which lasted only a few weeks. That show was led by Jack Lescoulie, but he was never the central figure Allen had been. Essentially, Lescoulie introduced the segments and correspondents around the nation.

Jack Paar (right) with Hugh Downs

In July 1957 Jack Paar took over as new host of The Jack Paar Tonight Show. Paar brought the show back to its in-studio interview format. More a conversationalist than comedian, audiences were drawn to Paar's show because of the interesting guests be brought on, from entertainers to politicians, and for the controversy that occasionally erupted there. Paar did not shy away from politics or confrontation, and often became emotionally involved with his subject matter and guests. He had a few stormy run-ins, both on camera and off, and finally left the show following controversy surrounding his broadcast from the Berlin Wall in 1962. With another change in hosts came a complete change in tone and style.

In October, 1962 Johnny Carson took over as host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Carson was more emotionally detached and less political than Paar. He, like Allen, was a comic. Named the king of late night, Carson hosted the show for thirty years, from 1962 to 1992. During that time the show moved from New York City to Burbank, California. Carson was known for his glib sense of humor and his middle-American appeal, and quickly recognized his increasing popularity as well as the strain of doing comedy and talk five nights a week. He threatened to leave the show, but was lured back with a generous offer that included a huge salary increase and more time off. Guest hosts during Carson's tenure included c

When Carson retired Jay Leno was appointed the next principal host of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Leno, a well-known stand-up comedian, brought to the show his own writers and comic style, showcasing it in his opening monologues and banter with guests.

Changes in Leno's show reflected other major changes in television since its earlier days. By the late 1980s late-night talk had become slightly less a white male domain. Joan Rivers hosted her own talk show for a short time, and popular black comedian Arsenio Hall had his own show which enjoyed a wide following, attracting mostly a young black audience, a segment previously ignored in late night talk. The first leader of Jay Leno's late night studio band was the accomplished black jazz musician Branford Marsalis. The second band leader and Leno sidekick was Kevin Eubanks, also black. A big change for The Tonight Show during Leno's tenure was its first serious competition.

Starting in the mid- to late-1980s, television talk shows, both daytime and late-night, multiplied in number. The in-studio talk program was inexpensive to produce and audiences were increasingly drawn to the sensationalism and celebrity showcased each day and night on television. Some late-night talk shows--including those hosted by Joan Rivers, Chevy Chase and Pat Sajak on the FOX network--came and went quickly. Arsenio Hall's show was on the air for several years before cancellation. Especially successful in late night was the up-and-coming David Letterman. Late Night with David Letterman started out on NBC, airing immediately after The Tonight Show from 1982 until 1993. Passed over for the host position on The Tonight Show when Leno was chosen for the post, Letterman moved to CBS where his new show ran in direct competition with Leno.

For the first time The Tonight Show shared the late-night spotlight. The two host/comedians, Leno and Letterman, were polished performers with large audiences. They became, as Carson had been, the gauge by which mainstream entertainment and politics were measured. On both programs comedy was delivered--and guests and issues of day treated--the same way, as gossip and light entertainment. After four decades The Tonight Show was still outlining and defining, even when not at the forefront of, the essence of contemporary televised culture.

-Katherine Fry

Jay Leno

Steve Allen

September 1954-January 1957

Steve Allen
Ernie Kovacs (1956-1957)


Gene Rayburn
Steve Lawrence
Eydie Gorme
Pat Marshall (1954-1955)
Pat Kirby (1955-1957)
Hy Averback (1955)
Skitch Henderson and His Orchestra
Peter Handley (1956-1957)
Maureen Arthur (1956-1957)
Bill Wendell (1956-1957)
Barbara Loden (1956-1957)
LeRoy Holmes and Orchestra (1956-1957)

28 January 1957-26 July 1957

Jack Lescoulie (January-June)
Al "Jazzbo" Collins (June-July

July 1957-March 1962

Jack Paar


Hugh Downs
Jose Melis and Orchestra
Tedi Thurman (1957)
Dody Goodman (1957-1958)

2 April 1962-28 September 1962


Hugh Downs
John Haskell
Ed Herlihy


Skitch Henderson and His Orchestra


Johnny Carson


Ed McMahon
Skitch Henderson (1962-1966)
Milton Delugg (1966-1967)
Doc Severinsen (1967-1992)
Tommy Newsom (1968-1992)

May 1992--

Jay Leno


Branford Marsalis (1992-1995)
Kevin Eubanks (1995--)

Johnny Carson (center with Doc Severinsen and Ed McMahon)


September 1954-October 1956
                                      Monday-Friday 11:30-1:00 A.M.
October 1956-January 1957
                                    Monday-Friday 11:30-12:30 A.M.
January 1957-December 1966
                                      Monday-Friday 11:15-1:00 A.M.
January 1965-September 1966
                              Saturday or Sunday 11:15-1:00 A.M.
September 1966-September 1975
                              Saturday or Sunday 11:30-1:00 A.M.
January 1967-September 1980
                                      Monday-Friday 11:30-1:00 A.M.
September 1980-August 1991
                                    Monday-Friday 11:30-12:30 A.M.
September 1991            Monday-Friday 11:35-12:35 A.M.


Carter, Bill. The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

Cox, Stephen. Here's Johnny!: Thirty Years of America's Favorite Late-Night Entertainment. New York: Harmony, 1992.

De Cordova, Frederick. Johnny Came Lately: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Metz, Robert. The Tonight Show. New York: Playboy, 1980.

Munson, Wayne. All Talk: The Talkshow in Media Culture. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1993.

Smith, Ronald L. Johnny Carson: An Unauthorized Biography. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Tynan, Kenneth. Show People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.


See also Allen, Steve; Carson, Johnny; Downs, Hugh; Leno, Jay; Letterman, David; National Broadcasting Company; Paar, Jack; Talk Shows