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Series / The Tonight Show

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The show's logo as of its current incarnation.

The Tonight Show is an American late-night Talk Show on NBC that is part talk show and part Variety Show. A true Long Runner, it is the longest-running regularly scheduled entertainment program in American TV history and (unlike some long-running shows that leave the air and come back), it has never been off the air for more than a few very brief stretches during its run.

Steve Allen was the first host, starting in 1954; Ernie Kovacs had Monday and Tuesday nights for the final (1956-1957) 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. It was during his tenure that Tonight first became a "water cooler" show—the next morning, people would talk about what happened on the show the night before. Paar was intelligent and quick-witted, but also very unpredictable and candid. He didn't try to put on a fake showbiz persona. He'd get emotional on the air, and would publicly feud with newspaper columnists. For many viewers, the host was even more interesting than the guests. His most notorious moment took place in February 1960, when Paar walked off after NBC censors took offense at one of his jokes. Paar returned to the show within a month. By the spring of 1962, Paar, burned out with doing a daily show, quit. 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, a prime time series, premiered around that time and lasted three years.note 

Johnny Carson took over on October 1, 1962 and made The Tonight Show a career and an American institution, acting as host until 1992. 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 left in 1966, was replaced for a few months by Milton DeLugg, then Carl "Doc" Severinsen, who'd been a trumpeter in the band during the Allen years and returned in that role when Carson took over, was promoted to bandleader in 1967 and stayed in the job through the end of Carson's tenure.

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" with a failed retool (as in 1957), temporary hosts (as in 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 — and thus, the "talk show wars" entered its second round.

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, comedians, and TV writers on his side, Leno returned to Tonight and continued to host until February 2014, where he was replaced with Jimmy Fallon of Saturday Night Live fame.

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 What's 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.

Fun fact: Of the six individuals to have hosted The Tonight Show (Allen, Paar, Carson, Leno, O'Brien, and Fallon), five have appeared as themselves on The Simpsons (Paar being the odd one out).

Incarnations of the show with their own pages include:

The other incarnations of the show provide examples of:

    open/close all folders 

    Steve Allen (1954-1957) 
  • Impossibly Cool Clothes: 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) 
  • Retool: It was more of a news show than an entertainment program.

    Jack Paar (1957-1962) 
  • 10-Minute Retirement: Paar infamouly walked off in February 1960 after NBC censors took offense at one of his jokes, but Paar returned to the show within a month. During his return episode he stated that he had a reason, namely...
    Parr: I believe my last words before leaving were 'There's got to be a better way out there to make a living'... well, I looked... [audience laughter] and there wasn't...
  • "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 Catchphrase of his, to the point where Paar used it as the title of his autobiography.
  • Point-and-Laugh Show: Paar showed clips of fans reacting to The Beatles during the very early days of Beatlemania, mainly to diss the clothing, manners, and hair length of the teenagers. Vee-Jay Records, probably believing that any publicity is good publicity, mentioned on sleeves shipped with promotional copies of the "Please Please Me"/"From Me to You" single that the group "just did" the Jack Parr Show. That sleeve is extremely rare.
  • 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.


Video Example(s):


Tonight Show [Axe Near Groin]

The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson: In one of the infamous moments of the show in it's heyday, Ed Ames tries to show Johnny how to throw a tomhawk at a painted target. However his aim turns out to be quite unpredictable.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (10 votes)

Example of:

Main / NearMissGroinAttack

Media sources: