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The Tonight Show is an Americanmarker late-night talk and variety show airing on NBC since 1954. Tonight is the third longest-running entertainment program in U.S. television history, after Guiding Light and Hallmark Hall of Fame.

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-TVmarker. 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. [See music and announcers below.] 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.

On February 11, 1960, Jack Paar walked off his show for a month after NBC censors edited out a segment, taped the night before, about a joke involving a "W.C." (water closet, a polite term for a flush toilet) being confused for a "wayside chapel." As he left his desk, he said, "I am leaving The Tonight Show. There must be a better way of making a living than this." Paar's abrupt departure left his startled announcer, Hugh Downs, to finish the broadcast himself.

Paar returned to the show on March 7, 1960, strolled on stage, struck a pose, and said, "As I was saying before I was interrupted..." After the audience erupted in applause, Paar continued, "When I walked off, I said there must be a better way of making a living. Well, I've looked... and there isn't."

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. [See music and announcers below.] For all but a few months of its first decade on the air, Carson's Tonight Show was based in New York Citymarker. In May 1972 the show moved to Burbank, Californiamarker into Studio One of NBC Studiosmarker West Coast (although it was announced as coming from nearby Hollywoodmarker), 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. After Leno's run as host of The Tonight Show, Conan O'Brien took over as host of Late Night.

Conan O'Brien (2009–present)

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 Hollywoodmarker backlot, ending an era (since 1972) of taping the show in Burbank.

Music and announcers

Music during the show's introduction and commercial segues is supplied by the Tonight Show Band. Skitch Henderson was the band leader during the Steve Allen and early Carson years, followed briefly by Milton DeLugg (who later went on to become the musical director of The Gong Show). Gene Rayburn served as Allen's announcer and sidekick and also guest-hosted some episodes. The Lou Stein Trio provided musical accompaniment during the short run of Tonight! America After Dark, which ran for six months between the Steve Allen and Jack Paar eras of The Tonight Show. José Melis led the band for Jack Paar, and Hugh Downs was his announcer. For most of Johnny Carson's run on the show, the Tonight Show's band, then called "The NBC Orchestra" was led by Doc Severinsen, former trumpet soloist in Henderson's band for Steve Allen.

When McMahon was away from the show, Severinsen was the substitute announcer and Tommy Newsom would lead the band. On the rare occasions that both McMahon and Severinsen were away, Newsom would take the announcer's chair and the band would be led by assistant musical director Shelly Cohen.

Severinsen's band featured several accomplished sidemen in addition to saxophonist Newsom, including trumpeter Snooky Young, pianist Ross Tompkins, drummer Ed Shaughnessy, trumpeter Bobby Shew, trumpeter Conte Candoli, saxophonist Pete Christlieb, and jazz trumpet legend Clark Terry. The band frequently appeared on camera in the "Stump the Band" segments, where an audience member would dare the band to play some obscure song title, and the band would comically improvise something appropriate. The routine was played for full comedy value and the band was not really expected to know the songs, but on two occasions the band did answer correctly, much to the maestro's surprise. Severinsen was heard to ask incredulously, "You mean we actually...!"

The first bandleader during Leno's tenure was Branford Marsalis; he was replaced by Kevin Eubanks in 1995, though the Marsalis-written theme was used throughout the show's run. On March 29, 2004, Leno's long-time announcer Edd Hall was replaced by John Melendez from The Howard Stern Show.

Conan O'Brien announced on the February 18, 2009 episode of Late Night that The Max Weinberg 7 (rechristened the Tonight Show Band, and adding a second percussionist), the house band on that program, would be accompanying him to The Tonight Show as his version's house band. It was announced February 23, 2009 that former Late Night sidekick Andy Richter would be O'Brien's announcer. Richter replaced O'Brien's former long-time announcer Joel Godard when his rendition of the Tonight Show began.

Broadcasting milestones

The Tonight Show began its broadcast at 11:15 pm ET, following an affiliate's 15-minute news broadcast. As more affiliates lengthened their local news programs to 30 minutes, the show began doing two openings, one for the affiliates that began at 11:15 and another for those who joined at 11:30. By early 1965, only 43 of the 190 affiliated stations carried the entire show. Johnny Carson, who was not happy that Ed McMahon was "hosting" the 11:15 segment when he refused to appear until 11:30 after February 1965, finally insisted that the show's start time be changed to 11:30, eliminating the two-opening practice in December 1966.

When the show began it was broadcast live. On January 12, 1959, the show began to be videotaped for broadcast later on the same day, although initially the Thursday night programs were kept live. Color broadcasts began on September 19, 1960.

The Tonight Show became the first American television show to broadcast with MTS stereo sound in 1984, although sporadically. Regular use of MTS began in 1985. In September 1991, the show postponed its starting time by five minutes to 11:35, to give network affiliates the opportunity to sell more advertising on their local news. On April 26, 1999, the show started broadcasting in 1080i HDTV, becoming the first American nightly talk show to be shot in that format.

On March 19, 2009, The Tonight Show became the first late night talk show in history to have the sitting President of the United States as a guest, when President Barack Obama visited.


Host From To Notes
Date Age Date Age
Steve Allen September 27, 1954 32 January 25, 1957 35 Variety show
Ernie Kovacs October 1, 1956 37 January 22, 1957 37 Monday–Tuesday host
Jack Lescoulie January 28, 1957 44 June 21, 1957 44 Format switch to news program Tonight! America After Dark
Al "Jazzbo" Collins June 24, 1957 38 July 26, 1957 38 Replaced Lescoulie, who was moved to Today show
Jack Paar July 29, 1957 39 March 30, 1962 43 Format switch to talk show; also called Tonight Starring Jack Paar and Jack Paar Tonight
Various hosts April 2, 1962 September 28, 1962 Interlude between Paar and Carson eras. Temporary hosts included Groucho Marx and Jerry Lewis.
Johnny Carson October 1, 1962 36 May 22, 1992 66 The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
Jay Leno May 25, 1992 42 May 29, 2009 59 The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
Conan O'Brien June 1, 2009 46 Present The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien


Begin Date End Date Nights Start End Notes
September 27, 1954 October 5, 1956 Mon-Fri 11:30 1:00
October 8, 1956 January 4, 1957 Mon-Fri 11:30 12:30
January 7, 1957 December 30, 1966 Mon-Fri 11:15 1:00
January 2, 1965 January 1, 1967 Sat or Sun 11:15 1:00 Repeats, known as The Saturday/Sunday Tonight Show
January 2, 1967 September 5, 1980 Mon-Fri 11:30 1:00
January 7, 1967 September 28, 1975 Sat or Sun 11:30 1:00 Repeats; eventually known as The Weekend Tonight Show
September 8, 1980 August 30, 1991 Mon-Fri 11:30 12:30
September 2, 1991 Mon-Fri 11:35 12:37

Gag, skit, and segment highlights

  • "Man on the Street interviews" (Allen). Frequently featured actors as recurring characters, most notably Don Knotts, Louis Nye and Tom Poston, though Allen also performed impromptu bits with non-professional civilians.
  • "Crazy Shots" (Allen). Later known as *"Wild Pictures." Allen's supporting cast and guest stars would participate in quick visual gags while Allen played piano accompaniment.
  • "Candid Camera" (Paar). The off-again, on-again show, hosted by Allen Funt since radio's heyday, was a segment on The Tonight Show in 1958.
  • "Stump the Band" (Paar, later Carson). Audience members are asked to name an obscure song and the band tries to play it. If the band doesn't know the song, it usually breaks into a comical piece of music.
  • "Carnac the Magnificent" (Carson). Carson plays a psychic who is given sealed envelopes (that McMahon invariably states, with a flourish, have been kept "hermetically sealed inside a mayonnaise jar underneath Funk & Wagnalls' porch since noon today"). Carnac holds an envelope to his head and recites the punchline to a joke contained within the envelope, then rips open the envelope and reads the matching question inside. Sample: "Saucepan... Who was Peter Pan's wino brother?" If a joke falls flat with the audience, Carnac invariably passes a comedic curse upon them (e.g., "May a bloated yak change the temperature of your jacuzzi!").
  • "The Tea Time Movie", with "Art Fern" (Carson) and the Matinée Lady (originally Paula Prentiss, then a parade of one shots including Edy Williams, Juliet Prowse and Lee Meredith, then for many years Carol Wayne, then Danuta Wesley, and finally Teresa Ganzel). Carson once said that Art Fern was his favorite character: "He's so sleazy!" Huckster Art usually wore a loud suit, lavish toupee, and pencil mustache, and spoke in the high, nasal approximation of Jackie Gleason's "Reginald van Gleason III" character. A parody of 1950s-style, fast-talking advertising pitchmen, the Tea Time Movie consists of a rapid-fire series of fake advertisements for products and companies supposedly sponsoring a mid-afternoon movie. Invariably the jokes refer to his buxom Matinée Lady assistant, and at least once in every skit a variation of the "Slauson Cutoff" joke is made (e.g., "You can find our store by heading down Hwy. 101 until you get to the Slauson Cutoff. Get out of the car, cut off your slauson, get back in the car."), as is a reference to "Drive until you get to... (a map is unfolded to reveal a table fork) the fork in the road!" Art would then return us to today's movie (like "Tarzan and Cheetah Have to Get Married" or "Rin Tin Tin Gets Fixed Fixed Fixed," etc.), followed by an antique, four-second film clip. Back to Art, caught necking with the Matinée Lady before announcing another movie and another commercial.
  • "Headlines" (Allen, later Leno)
  • "In the Year 3000" (O'Brien)

International broadcasts

Country TV Network(s) Weekly Schedule (local time)
Australia The Comedy Channel Weeknights 10.30 pm AEST
Canadamarker A & Accessmarker Simulcast with NBC's broadcast
Denmarkmarker Canal 9 (as The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien) Weeknights 11.30 pm CET
Dominican Republicmarker Cable de Tricom (as Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien) Simulcast with NBC's ET broadcast
Turkeymarker e2 (as The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien) Weeknights 11 pm IST
Europe CNBC Europe Weeknights 12 am CET, Weekends 9 pm CET
Indiamarker Zee Cafe Weeknights 10 pm IST
Israelmarker yes stars Comedy (as Conan O'Brien) Weeknights 8:00 pm
Pakistanmarker CNBC Pakistan (as Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien)
The Philippinesmarker Jack TV (as The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien) Tuesday to Saturday 3 pm (via satellite) / Tuesday to Saturday 11 pm (late telecast)
Portugalmarker SIC Radical (as The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien)
Romaniamarker Antena 3 (as Conan O'Brien Show) Weeknights 12:25 am
Swedenmarker Kanal 9 Kanal 5 (Currently on hiatus - stopped airing the show when Conan took over) Weeknights, Daytime
Finlandmarker Sub (as Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien) Weeknights 12:00 am, Repeated on weekday evenings
South Africa CNBC Africa (as Conan O'Brien Show)
United Kingdommarker CNBCmarker (as The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien) Weeknights 11 pm

The Tonight Show is also seen around the world. It is broadcast on CNBC Europe, usually three nights after it has been shown in the U.S. The show is screened at 10.30 pm AEDST weeknights on The Comedy Channel in Australia, where new episodes are shown hours after its American broadcast. In Swedenmarker, Kanal 5 has shown The Tonight Show (as Jay Leno Show) since the late '90s with one week's delay. Since October, 2006, it is also being aired in India on Zee Cafe 12 hours after the show is shown in the USA.

An early attempt at airing the show in the United Kingdommarker during the 1980s was unsuccessful, sparking jokes by Carson. On the October 23, 1984 broadcast, guest Paul McCartney had this to say of the show's British run:

Carson: (throwing to commercial) ...we have to pay some bills here. It's not like British television which just goes and goes till they end it.
McCartney: Oh you're just mad because they didn't like your show.

Shows such as Des O'Connor Tonight and Wogan were considered by many to be the UK equivalent of the show.

See also


External links

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