This late-night series on NBC is part Variety Show and part celebrity Talk Show. Steve Allen was the first host, starting in 1954; Ernie Kovacs had Monday and Tuesday nights for the final (1956-57) season due to Allen's Sunday-night show on the same network.In January 1957, both Allen and Kovacs were ousted and the show became Tonight! America After Dark, a serious news program with Jack Lescoulie; he was booted out in June to Today and replaced for the last month by Al "Jazzbo" Collins. Allen went on to host his own talk shows until 1971.In July 1957, Jack Paar became the full-time Tonight Show host, but he walked off in February 1960 after NBC censors took offense at one of his jokes. Paar returned to the show within a month. From April-September 1962, The Tonight Show had a series of part-time hosts, including Groucho Marx, and an orchestra led by Skitch Henderson. The Jack Paar Program premiered around that time and lasted three years.Johnny Carson made a career of The Tonight Show, acting as host from 1962-92. During that time, Carson created many memorable characters, including Art Fern, Floyd R. Turbo, and Carnac the Magnificent, while bringing fame to his announcer Ed McMahon and his bandleader Skitch Henderson. Henderson was later replaced by Carl "Doc" Severinsen.After Carson left the series, Jay Leno took over as host. Thus began the "talk show wars" of 1993; it had been expected that David Letterman, who hosted the lead-out show Late Night with... since the early 1980s, would get the gig. When that didn't happen, CBS hired him as a direct competitor, The Late Show With David Letterman, launched in 1993. While Letterman initially was the stronger ratings draw, Leno eventually overtook him. The Tonight Show and The Late Show remain fierce competitors. (The controversy would be dramatized in the 1996 movie The Late Shift.Leno's format wouldn't settle for a few months, until Kevin Eubanks signed on as bandleader. Jay Leno's most enduring skits are "Headlines", a bit previously used by Letterman (under the moniker "Small Town News") on the original Late Night in the 1980s; "Jaywalking", a man-on-the-street skit with real people that highlights American stupidity (on Hollywood Boulevard; talk about playing with loaded dice). He also did film clips with Special Effects Failures with great frequency. He played a few characters, most notably Iron Jay (a dumb weightlifter), Mr. Brain (a condescending smart-aleck), and Beyondo (a "ghost" whose punchline-"first" schtick was almost identical to Carson's Carnac).In 2004, Leno signed a contract to continue the show until 2009 and Conan O'Brien signed up to replace him when he left...but when the time grew near, Leno's ratings were still strong. NBC decided it didn't want to risk him going to another network like Letterman, so they kicked Leno upstairs to make room for Conan O'Brien, who had hosted Late Night since 1993. They gave Leno a similar show (The Jay Leno Show) at 10:00 PM five nights a week starting that Fall, the "five nights a week" part being a first-ever for American network prime time. For the first time, there was no "interregnum" of temporary hosts (as in 1957 and 1962) or reruns (as in 1992): Leno's last show was May 29, 2009 (a Friday) and O'Brien's first was the following Monday, June 1.However, both Conan and Leno performed well beneath the norm for their timeslots. The network itself didn't care, but affiliates lost a major chunk of ad revenue and some hinted that they weren't going to endure it for much longer.NBC attempted to fix this by moving Leno's show to The Tonight Show's time slot and bumping O'Brien's critically-acclaimed but ratings-poor run back a half-hour to 12:05 AM. This wasn't received well. Leno was upset about it, as he had agreed to the arrangement by insisting the network promise both his and O'Brien's shows a full year before making any further decisions; the network agreed, but within less than four months they reneged. O'Brien threatened to quit, Leno had as well, and both routinely savaged NBC in their nightly opening monologues.On January 15, 2010 Conan, tired of the whole fiasco, settled on a $30M payout from NBC (later upped to $45M to accommodate his staff) to leave The Tonight Show. O'Brien came out of the debacle with most of the public and TV writers on his side, Leno (who returned to Tonight) ended up taking a severe PR beating. This likely contributed to the March 2013 announcement that Leno would retire for good with Jimmy Fallon of Saturday Night Live fame taking over sometime in early 2014.And in all this history, there was the regular who didn't expect to be one — Lillian Miller (aka "Miss Miller") was an audience member on so many episodes of the Allen/Kovacs, Parr, and Carson versions that she was forced to join AFTRA. She also frequented Game Shows (including Match Game and Whats My Line), The Merv Griffin Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and even appeared on The Jack Paar Program in November 1962 as a guest alongside Liberace and Cassius Clay.
Steve Allen's incarnation (1954-57) provides examples of:
Missing Episode: Much of his tenure is gone, although the premiere seems to exist.
Allen: In case you're just joining us this is The Tonight Show, and I can't tell you too much about it, but I want to give you the bad news first...this show is going to go on FOREVER!note (Okay, so he was talking about the show's night-by-night length, but still...)
Suit Of Awesome: In one episode Allen sat in a giant teacup in warm water with 200 lemon wedges while wearing a Suit of Teabags. Years later, this stunt would inspire David Letterman to wear Suits of Alka-Seltzer, Rice Krispies, and Velcro at various times during Late Night.
Tonight! America After Dark (1957) provides examples of:
Re Tool: It was more of a news show than an entertainment program.
Jack Paar's incarnation (1957-62) provides examples of:
The Beatles: Paar showed clips of fans reacting to the Fab Four during the very early days of Beatlemania, mainly to diss the clothing, manners, and hairlength of the teenagers.
"Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: When starting a joke about a bizarre news item, Jack would often employ the phrase "I kid you not." It got to be a sort of Catch Phrase of his, to the point where Paar used it as the title of his autobiography.
Precious Puppies: On his last night, after saying his Final Speech, Paar ended the show by calling to his dog sitting in the audience area. "Come on, Lika. We're going home."
Smoking Is Cool: Back in the day where smoking was not only the norm, it was expected of celebrity guests. Paar and many (not all) of his celebrity guests regularly caused the set to be fogged over with smoke, thanks to five (or more) smoking guests on the set at any one time.
Writer Revolt: Jack walked off during the February 11, 1960 show after discovering that NBC censored a joke the previous night regarding a lady looking for the "water closet" who was directed to a wedding chapel due to her only using the initials "W.C." (the network cut into a news report over the joke). His sidekick, Hugh Downs, took over for the remainder of that telecast. Led to a Funny Moment when Parr returned a few weeks later with the words "...Now as I was saying..."
Johnny Carson's incarnation (1962-92) provides examples of:
Added Alliterative Appeal: One of the most famous sketches on the show involved Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb) asking Johnny Carson about his stolen "clappers". Among the words that started with "C" (or used the "C" sound) used in the sketch: Clappers, caper, copper, closet, Claude Cooper, copped, Cleveland, clean, kleptomaniac, cleaning woman, Clara Clifford, clobber.
Beware the Nice Ones: Carson was forever affable on-stage but had a legendary temper in his private life.
Madonna and Sean Penn got married right next to his house; legend has it he was so annoyed by paparazzi helicopters, he went out and spelled FUCK OFF on his front lawn with rocks.
After Charlie Callas tried to get a cheap laugh by deliberately shoving Carson, he retaliated by banning him from ever appearing on the show again...on-air, after which he left Callas to sit there pleading pathetically for another chance for the rest of the show.
Close friend and "permanent guest host" Joan Rivers accepted a talk show gig on FOX (The Late Show) without first asking Carson's permission; when she subsequently called to apologize, he hung up on her without a word and never spoke to her again for the rest of his life.
Bigger Than Jesus: In one of the interviews with Charles Grodin, Grodin addressed something Carson said in an earlier interview, when he said that $18.95 isn't too much for a book if you're Mother Teresa. Grodin found that "insulting", but Carson explained that Grodin isn't as famous as Teresa. Grodin asked if Carson considers himself as famous as Teresa. Carson's reply? "Of course not!... (reconsiders) I might be."
Carson: I don't do as much good work as she does... Grodin: You certainly don't.
Colbert Bump: Doing stand-up on the show was a major career boost, and being called over to the couch pretty much guaranteed overnight success. More recent comedians to get the honor include Drew Carey, Ellen DeGeneres, and Jeff Foxworthy.
Edited for Syndication: In 1983, a Clip Show series called Carson's Comedy Classics was offered to local stations. Each half-hour episode consisted of two or three extended segments, usually "Mighty Carson Art Players" skits and/or segments with Carson characters such as Carnac and Aunt Blabby, plus shorter segments (i.e. commercial spoofs).
Groin Attack: Accidentally carried out on a wooden target by actor Ed Ames during an axe-throwing demonstration. The entire audience went into hysterics for over a minute, and their efforts to stop laughing were not at all aided by a circumcision joke from Johnny in its wake that ensured the segment's immortality as a high point in his career.
Head Pet: Johnny's encounter with an undiapered pygmy marmoset is a blooper-reel favorite.
Ironic Echo: Used numerous times during any interview with Charles Grodin, for comedic effect.
Keep Circulating the Tapes: With selected episodes officially being released on DVD, Carson Productions is becoming increasingly insistent on having unauthorized YouTube Carson clips removed from the site.
Missing Episode: Much of the first 10 years, due to tape reuse. 1972-92 are intact.
Off the Rails: Could occur with certain guests. See the Burt Reynolds / Dom DeLuise episode from the '70s for just one instance.
Precious Puppies: During the early years while the show was broadcast live, Ed McMahon would do in studio advertisements for Alpo dog food, which included an eager dog waiting to eat the stuff. One night the dog ignored the food and walked offstage, leaving Johnny to quickly fill in, sitting up for Ed in one famous blooper.
Product Placement: One skit involved Carson as Hamlet, reciting the famous Alas, Poor Yorick monologue, except inserting product plugs after certain words. Among the items Hamlet plugged included AAMCO, Mentholatum deep heating rub, Preparation H, and American Express.
Smoking Is Cool: Many of Carson's celebrity guests smoked, and unashamedly lit up on the set. There were frequent instances where five or more people on the set (Carson and McMahon included) had lighted cigarettes in hand at any one time, with ashtrays provided. By the early 1980s, with the habit becoming less socially acceptable and health risks becoming better known, Carson and McMahon stopped smoking on the set; McMahon ultimately quit, while Carson continued his pack-plus-a-day habit for most of the rest of his life, ultimately dying in 2005 of respiratory failure brought on by emphysema.
Spin-Off: Of sorts. In July of 2013 Turner Classic Movies aired a five-part series hosted by Conan O'Brian called Carson on TMC; each episode consisting of five classic Carson Tonight Show intervews with stars such as George Burns, Liz Taylor, and Henry Fonda.
Stealth Insult: Done repeatedly in any interview with Charles Grodin. Of course, this supposed bitterness was all part of the act. Example: When Carson was accused of not reading Grodin's latest book:
Carson: I've read the book cover to cover.
Grodin: You have?
Carson: Yes I have.
Carson: ...It's a very long book.
Technology Marches On: In July of 2013 it was announced that Johnny Carson Tonight Show interviews would be available on iTunes.
Who's on First?: A variant occurs in a skit where Carson played Ronald Reagan being briefed on his day's activities by his aide. One of the most memorable exchanges was Reagan reviewing his plans to go swimming with James G. Watt at the YMCA.
Carson: Who? Aide: Watt. Carson: Where? Aide: Y.
Both (1992-2009, 2010-2013) of Jay Leno's incarnations provide examples of:
Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: One of the Headlines involved a person selling "cabbits": Rabbits and cats mixed. Leno found this quite humorous, as he interpreted it as an animal that doesn't exist in real life instead of what the author likely intended, rabbits and cats sold together.
Leno: What, does it sleep for 23 hours and mate for an hour?!
Don't Explain the Joke: One of the "Headlines" showed an Amish buggy with the caption reminding people not to take the Amish's picture. After a tepid response, Leno quipped, "You see, they took their picture. I should've explained it more clearly."
Juxtaposition Gag: Many clippings sent to the "Headlines" segment involve amusing accidental juxtapositions. It can be two ads with incompatible content placed next to each other, or two ads with pictures placed together to create improbable anatomy. Other times, the headline of one article is next to a picture from a different news story altogether, with unfortunate implications. (For example, a story of murder victims' bodies being recovered from a yard was placed next to a photo of then-President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy with shovels, as they cheerfully broke ground on his presidential library.)
Parodied on The Simpsons, where Marge cuts out this article to send in: "Ketchup Truck Crashes into Hot Dog Stand - 30 Dead."
Loophole Abuse: In 2005, Leno was called to testify for the defense in the Michael Jackson child molestation trial, as he was familiar with the accuser and his family. This didn't keep him from his regular gig, but he was legally unable to joke about anything related to it during his nightly monologues. The solution was to have other comedians (Roseanne Barr, Drew Carey, etc.) take over for a chunk of said monologues and tell all the Michael Jackson jokes they pleased.
Once an Episode: Starting around 2007, Leno would use part of his monologue to tell "The economy is bad!" jokes, one after another. When he would finish telling a joke, the band would play a brief snippet of "Hooray For Hollywood".
The Pete Best: Branford Marsalis was the bandleader before Kevin Eubanks.
Squick: Invoked. One Headline involved using cremated ashes being used to paint portraits for a widower. The audience groaned more than they laughed, which led to this:
Leno: Isn't that horrible? Kevin: ...Yes. Leno: Too bad it's not FUNNY. (audience laughs)
Too Much Information: One of the Headlines involved putting plastic molds on your face. When the image in the clipping looked too much like Uncanny Valley to Leno, he snarked, "It's like having sex with a cyborg!"
Kevin Eubanks: ...You've had sex with a cyborg, Jay?? Jay Leno: (straightens tie) In my single days.
Unwitting Instigator of Doom: The primetime failure of The Jay Leno Show was responsible for the fiasco by bringing down the ratings for the local 11:00 PM newscasts and Conan's Tonight.
What Could Have Been: Originally, Leno's post-Tonight project was to have been an American Top Gear. Leno actually turned down this idea when it was initially proposed to him, realizing that what made Top Gear work was its non-commercial carriage on The BBC...and an NBC version would be filled with Product Placement and Executive Meddling. There was also some concern from BBC America that an American version would cannibalize ratings of the original on BBC America, where it's very popular. An American version did eventually premiere on the History Channel.
The Tonight Show Starring David Letterman could well have been the case, but Letterman assumed he'd be the successor, as did Carson. Leno (or his manager, Helen Kushnick; nobody's actually really sure) actively but quietly campaigned to get the job from the people that actually made the decision, however, so he got it and Letterman went to CBS.
Accidental Misnaming: Conan told a story about how a supposed fan recognized him on the street and said, "It's Coen O'Riley from the radio!"
Beat: In one of the William Shatner interviews, Conan asked Shatner how his Thanksgiving was. Shatner responded that it was awful, because it was so messy. Then he paused, and when he began talking again, Conan interrupted him:
Conan: I never know what's going to happen when you come out here. I asked you a question and you took, I think, a 45-second pause.
Benevolent Boss: Reportedly, the exit negotiations were held up by Conan's insistence that NBC shell out severance money for his staff. Conan reportedly paid out of pocket to provide for staff/crew members who weren't covered by the NBC contract.
"NBC announced that they expect to lose $200 Million on the Winter Olympics next month. Now, folks, is it just me...or is that story hilarious?"
Broken Record / Manipulative Editing: One "Conan on the Aisle" sketch had Conan criticizing Public Enemies for being too repetitive, which padded the running time. A clip from the film was shown where an announcement was made to look to your left and then to your right to see if you spot John Dillinger. In the actual film, the audience only did this once, but as presented in this segment, they were instructed to look to their left and right several times.
Butt Monkey: On every single talk show, when the NBC fiasco was discussed, Carson Daly (who hosts Last Call at 1:30 in the morning, after all the major talk shows are done) was known as "that poor guy".
Daly survived when O'Brien decided to leave NBC rather than have Tonight start a half-hour later.
Catch Phrase: "In the Year 3000" always began with William Shatner saying: "And so we take a cosmic ride into that new millennium; that far off reality that is the year 3000. It's the future, man."
Cool Car / The Alleged Car: Conan's 1992 Ford Taurus SHO played both roles as needed, seemingly varying based on whether or not he washed it for that particular star turn.
Conan hires a Na'vi assistant along with his vampire assistant. The vampire is unhappy, and Conan suggests he can start work later and share the role. The vampire ends up running out into the sunlight rather than share the job.
Executive Meddling: The entire debacle that NBC created by trying to reward Leno's show for failing in the ratings by moving him to 11:30 and moving Tonight and Late Night back half an hour. It was unclear if Last Call would remain on the air.
"Before we end this rodeo, a few things need to be said. There has been a lot of speculation in the press about what I legally can and can't say about NBC. To set the record straight, tonight I am allowed to say anything I want. And what I want to say is this: between my time at Saturday Night Live, the Late Night show, and my brief run here on The Tonight Show, I have worked with NBC for over 20 years. Yes, we have our differences right now and yes, we're going to go our separate ways. But this company has been my home for most of my adult life. I am enormously proud of the work we have done together, and I want to thank NBC for making it all possible. Walking away from The Tonight Show is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Making this choice has been enormously difficult. This is the best job in the world, I absolutely love doing it, and I have the best staff and crew in the history of the medium. But despite this sense of loss, I really feel this should be a happy moment. Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show and, for seven months, I got to. I did it my way, with people I love, and I do not regret a second. I've had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-Eleven parking lot, we'll find a way to make it fun. And finally, I have to say something to our fans. The massive outpouring of support and passion from so many people has been overwhelming. The rallies, the signs, all the goofy, outrageous creativity on the internet, and the fact that people have traveled long distances and camped out all night in the pouring rain to be in our audience, made a sad situation joyous and inspirational. To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I'll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask of you is one thing: please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism — it's my least-favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. As proof, let's make an amazing thing happen right now. Here to close out our show, are a few good friends, led by Mr. Will Ferrell!"
Flipping the Bird: William Shatner gave Conan the finger during one of his interviews.
Full Body Disguise: One of the first sketches on the show involved Conan disguising himself as a focus group leader who showed clips of Late Night to older viewers to see what they said about him. Among the comments about Conan: He's not funny, he makes a fool of himself, is probably mentally unstable, and would only appeal to porn addicts.
Funny Background Event: In the first episode of 2010, Conan asked La Bamba what his New Year's resolution would be. Check out Scott Healy behind La Bamba; he's desperately trying not to crack up.
George Jetson Job Security: During one of the "In the Year 3000" skits, La Bamba was unprepared for the robe that lowered from the ceiling and ducked out of the way just before it hit his head. After he got the robe on and everyone laughed, Conan (kidding, of course) announced: "You're fired. What the hell!"
In another episode, Conan noticed that the band members were watching a baseball game during the show. Conan casually remarked to the ringleader, "Well you're fired."
Heel Realization: In one of the "Andy'll Try It" skits, Andy was supposed to drink Tofurkey and Gravy Soda, but refused and made La Bamba try it instead. La Bamba only poured a tiny bit into his cup but Conan insisted on a full glass. After La Bamba tried to drink it but spit it out after only a couple seconds, Conan immediately and repeatedly apologized for essentially forcing La Bamba to drink a lot of it.
Judgment of Solomon: Conan's open letter saying The Tonight Show was an American institution and he'd rather see Leno take it back than let it be "killed" in a later timeslot.
Laser-Guided Karma: Following the NBC-Comcast merger, Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts fired Jeff Zucker for royally screwing up the whole Leno thing, replacing him with Comcast COO Steve Burke.
Last Stand: The comedy talk show version. Conan, knowing he had about two weeks before NBC forced him off the show, started reaming out his own network (and Leno) on a nightly basis.
To complete the circle, Leno ended the week by swiping at Conan's ratings and hitting Letterman's sex scandal again. At one point, he said that "FOX is looking pretty good this time of year".
NBC sent executive Dick Ebersol out to The New York Times to call Conan "gutless" and "chicken-hearted".
Howard Stern weighed in with the suggestion that Leno intended to screw Conan out of Tonight all along.
Jimmy Fallon was stuck between siding with one of his comedy heroes (Leno) or his close friend and the guy who gave him Late Night (Conan), and tried as hard as he could to stay out of it, winning major points from Conan fans originally skeptical of him when he took over Late Night. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly celebrating his first year of hosting Late Night, Fallon stated that he called Conan to offer his support and tell him he would be willing to host Late Night at 1:00 AM with no resentment.
Carson Daly, whose show is on at a dead hour and always on the brink of cancellation, appeared in the crowd of Kimmel's show asking if he could have his job.
Robin Williams sang an Irish Drinking Song, the last half of which consisted of him alternating between chants of "FUCK THE BASTARDS THAT CANCELED THE SHOW" and "FUCK THE BASTARDS, THEY CAN'T TAKE A JOKE".
Persona Non Grata: During the long-running "feud" between Conan and Newark mayor Cory Booker, Cory banned Conan from Newark airport, to which Conan banned Cory from L.A.'s airports. Then, Cory upped the ante by banning Conan from the entire state of New Jersey.
Precious Puppies: Conan's Tonight Show Mini-Dose of Joy — puppies dressed as cats! Complete with Ear Worm theme music. They were so gosh-darn cute, Conan couldn't help but laugh. "I can't compete with this!"
Sketches involving two creepy and poorly-done wax statues of The Fonz and Tom Cruise that Conan picked up at a wax-figure warehouse.
Side Effects Include...: Parodied in the "Andy'll Try It" where La Bamba was forced to drink Tofurkey & Gravy Soda:
Conan: Oh, La Bamba, it says right here: "May cause death."
Take That: Conan decided to exploit his loopholes by buying outrageously-expensive items, such as a Bugatti Veyron dressed up as a mouse with the master recording of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" as its theme song; it cost NBC $1.5M. He followed up the next night by buying out the winning horse and jockey from the 2009 Kentucky Derby. The horse was wearing a mink Snuggie, and both were watching NFL Super Bowl footage restricted from the public. The cost? $4.8M on NBC's tab.
Conan pointed out on his Grand Finale that those things were fake (except the Veyron, which was loaned from a museum) and didn't really cost millions of dollars...except for the Rolling Stones song, which really cost a lot of money.
Later in that same episode, Tom Hanks came out to the tune of "Lovely Rita" by the Beatles, ostensibly a tribute to his wife Rita Wilson. According to Questlove, Jimmy Fallon's band leader and drummer for The Roots, the song cost NBC up to $500,000 in royalty fees.
Unperson: Shortly after the end of Conan's run, NBC erased just about every single trace of him from their website even going back to before his Late Night run, including his picture from the mural at 30 Rockefeller Center (replacing it with Leno). Pretty much the only things involving Conan still on the NBC and Hulu websites are the episode of Saturday Night Live he guest hosted in 2001, and the 30 Rock episode "Tracy Does Conan" in which he guests and plays an important role in the plot. Even the "Tonight Show Experience" website, a grand multimedia salute to the Long Runner show's history, was yanked out of existence.
Referenced in a mock audition/comedy skit on Conan. Andy is "auditioning" for the announcer position on the show when Conan asks about his previous work experience. After Andy stated he was the announcer on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, Conan asks if there is any video to prove this. Andy sadly replies no.
Widget Series: Perhaps the only major late night show to become one, ever. That's saying something.
There's an element of Could Say It But here, as Conan had been given a gag order prohibiting him from badmouthing the network. He took to lampshading this in his last few shows.
One of the writers did a sketch so against the network it seems Conan didn't want to say it.
Conan deliberately ratcheted up the cost of his show, thanks to a contract loophole that allowed him to do whatever the hell he wanted on NBC's tab. Starting with a Bugatti Veyron mouse and the 2009 Kentucky derby winner in a mink coat. Of course, most of it wasn't real...except the expensive songs and their royalties.
Zeerust: Deliberately invoked by "In The Year 3000", a continuation of his "In The Year 2000" bits on Late Night.
Early information on Jimmy Fallon's incarnation of the show includes:
Big Applesauce: Production of the show will return to New York when Fallon takes over.
Variety Show: He's expressed interest in having more guests give performances as opposed to simply plugging their latest project.