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The Tonight Show has been hosted by Steve Allen (1954–1957), Jack Paar (1957–1962), Johnny Carson (1962–1992), Jay Leno (1992–2009), and Conan O'Brien (2009–present). The longest-serving host to date was Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 30 seasons, from the fall of 1962 through the spring of 1992.
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.
Steve Allen (1954–1957)The 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 Ed Sullivan Show's dominance of the Sunday night ratings.
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. This new version of the show was not popular, resulting in a significant number of NBC affiliates dropping the show.
Jack Paar (1957–1962)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. Paar also introduced the idea of having guest hosts; one of these early hosts was Johnny Carson. In the late 1950s, it was one of the first regularly scheduled shows to be videotaped in color.
Transition to Carson (1962)Jack Paar left the show in March 1962, citing the fact that he could no longer handle the load of putting on the show five nights a week. 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 (they held him to his contract until the day it expired, prompting him to make occasional wisecracks on Who Do You Trust? about the situation- "I'd like to welcome you to ABC...the network with a heart"), 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 and Mort Sahl. The show was broadcast under the title The Tonight Show during this interregnum.
Johnny Carson (1962–1992)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. 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)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. Conan O'Brien took over as host of Late Night.
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 having Conan he wanted to avoid the hardship of when he took over as host between him and David Letterman and that Conan was "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 backlot, 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.
Jay Leno (2010–2014)In their new roles, neither O'Brien nor Leno succeeded in delivering the viewing audiences the network anticipated. It was reported that beginning March 1, 2010, Jay Leno would move from his 10pm weeknight time slot to 11:35pm. This would move The Tonight Show to 12:05am, a post-midnight timeslot for the first time in its history. 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. On January 21, it was announced that NBC had struck a deal with O'Brien. O'Brien would receive a $33 million payout, and his staff of almost 200 would receive $12 million in the departure. O'Brien's final episode aired on Friday, January 22, and Jay Leno is expected to resume hosting The Tonight Show on March 1, 2010.
Jimmy Fallon (2014–)Jimmy Fallon (who had hosted The Tonight Show's follow-up show, Late Night, since 2009) assumed The Tonight Show hosting role on February 17, 2014, with his initial guests being Will Smith and the rock band U2, plus an assortment of celebrity cameos, including an appearance by one of Fallon's direct broadcast competitors, Stephen Colbert, and another by former permanent guest host Joan Rivers, making her first appearance on Tonight since cutting ties with Carson in 1986. The show's opening sequence was directed by filmmaker Spike Lee. As part of the transition to Fallon, The Tonight Show would be brought back to New York City after 42 years in Southern California... Aside from the title change and a new set, Fallon's version of The Tonight Show is nearly identical to the format of Late Night he employed, as he imported many of his signature comedy bits and much of his Late Night staff...
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The Tonight Show links: TV.com Tonight Show - TV.com Carson - TV.com Leno - IMDB - IMDB Allen/Kovacs Episodes
Bye-bye Steverino Time magazine, obituary for Steve Allen, Nov 03, 2000
Show Business: Late-Night Affair Time magazine, cover story on Jack Paar, Aug 18, 1958
Television: Midnight Idol Time magazine, cover story on Johnny Carson, May 19, 1967