Johnny Carson (Wikimedia Commons/NBC Television)
Fifty-six years ago today, The Tonight Show debuted on NBC. We take a look back at one of the longest running shows on television.
The first Tonight Show (then called “Tonight Starring Steve Allen”) featured announcer Gene Rayburn and bandleader Skitch Henderson. The show had a runtime of 90 minutes and many elements were remarkably similar to today’s, as the format included an opening monologue, celebrity interviews and comedic bits that sometimes took place outside the studio. It was first hosted by Steve Allen, who also hosted The Steve Allen show on Sunday nights, going head-to-head with Ed Sullivan.
Jack Paar took over in July of 1957, and the show became one of the first TV programs regularly taped in color. Paar was the first to introduce the idea of a guest host, and one of them he brought into America’s homes was none other than Johnny Carson. Paar walked off the show when censors cut a joke he made about a “water closet,” before returning nearly a month later. When he left the show for good in 1962, Groucho Marx and Mort Sahl were among the guest hosts who took over until a permanent replacement could be found. Paar often featured personalities who weren’t necessarily there to promote anything. Because NBC’s policy was to re-use videotape, almost none of Jack Paar’s Tonight Show work survives.
Johnny Carson took over in 1962 and hosted the show for the next 30 years. Ed McMahon appeared as his sidekick for the duration of Carson's run. The format of Carson’s show remains today, with a monologue of one-liners, the use of sketch comedy and appearances by guests looking to plug their latest film, record, book or TV show. Carson created a number of long running characters and sketches, including the pun-happy Carnac the Magnificent and ridiculous product pitchman Art Fern. Among his many guest hosts, some of the most frequent were Joey Bishop, Joan Rivers, Bob Newhart, David Letterman and Jay Leno. The guests for Johnny Carson’s final show, aired May 21, 1992, were Robin Williams and Bette Midler.
Jay Leno is the 2nd longest serving host after Carson, taking over on May 25, 1992. Branford Marsalis was the original bandleader, but left in 1995 and was replaced by guitarist Kevin Eubanks. He too, bowed out in 2010, and the reins were handed over to Ricky Minor. Nominated for only one Emmy award since Leno took over hosting duties, the show has never been a critical darling.
And then there was the whole Conan O’Brien kerfuffle in 2009, which saw O’Brien take over the show as agreed upon by Leno back in 2004. Leno was instead given a prime-time slot, but he failed to attract an audience. NBC were also disappointed with O’Brien’s late night viewership, and wanted to push his show later in the evening to make way for a new Leno time slot. O’Brien refused, and following lots of media campaigning and public support, eventually bowed out, leaving the much-criticized Leno free to take back his old job.
With all the changes in television, it's hard to say whether the show will still be around 56 years from now, but it can be proud of its legacy of entertaining America's night owls.