In 1956, NBC offered Steve Allen a new, prime-time Sunday night variety hour, The Steve Allen Show, aimed at dethroning CBS's top-rated The Ed Sullivan Show. The show included a typical run of star performers, including early TV appearances by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Many popular film and television stars that guest starred included Bob Hope, Kim Novak, Errol Flynn, Abbott and Costello, Esther Williams, The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis and a host of others.The show's regulars were Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Bill Dana, Don Knotts, Pat Harrington, Jr., Dayton Allen, and Gabriel Dell. All except film veteran Dell were relatively obscure performers prior to their stints with Allen, and all went on to stardom.
Other recurring routines included "Crazy Shots, also known as "Wild Pictures," a series of sight gags accompanied by Allen on piano; Allen inviting audience members to select three musical notes at random, and then composing a song based on the three notes; a satire on radio's long-running The Answer Man and a precursor to Johnny Carson's Carnac the Magnificent.The live Sunday night show aired opposite The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS and Maverick on ABC. One of Allen's guests was comedian Johnny Carson, a future successor to Allen as host of The Tonight Show. Among Carson's material during that appearance was a portrayal of how a poker game between Allen, Sullivan, and Maverick star James Garner (all impersonated by Carson) would transpire. Allen's programs also featured a good deal of music; he helped the careers of singers Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, who were regulars on his early Tonight Show, and Sammy Davis Jr.
Allen's show also had one of the longest unscripted "crack-ups" on live TV when Allen began laughing hysterically during "Big Bill Allen's Sports Roundup." He laughed uncontrollably for over a minute, with the audience laughing along, because, as he later explained, he caught sight of his unkempt hair on an off-camera monitor. He kept brushing his hair and changing hats to hide the messy hair, and the more he tried to correct his appearance the funnier it got.
Allen helped the recently invented Polaroid camera become popular by demonstrating its use in live commercials and amassed a huge windfall for his work because he had opted to be paid in Polaroid Corporation stock.
Allen remained host of "Tonight" for three nights a week until early 1957, when he left the "Tonight" show to devote his attention to the Sunday night program. It was his (and NBC's) hope that The Steve Allen Show could defeat Ed Sullivan in the ratings. Nevertheless, the TV Western Maverick often bested both Sullivan and Allen in audience size. In September 1959, Allen relocated to Los Angeles and left Sunday night television (the 1959-'60 season originated from NBC Color City in Burbank as The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, on Monday nights). Back in Los Angeles, he continued to write songs, hosted other variety shows, and wrote books and articles about comedy.