It is 10:35p.m. central time and the lights come on, the band starts playing music, an audience full of people begin to clap and cheer and a man walks onto stage with a big smile and skip in his step.
Every weeknight on NBC since 1954, a comedian has walked onto stage to make a crowd of people smile and laugh at a take on modern news. Making headway for a nationally recognized television program, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver created NBC’s The Tonight Show— originally referred to as “Tonight.”
Weaver created both NBC’s Today in 1952 and Tonight in 1954. As the mastermind behind one of Americas greatest lasting programs, he placed Steve Allen as the first host of Tonight and it became a smashing hit.
Allen introduced the idea of an opening monologue, celebrity interviews and comedic segments, and he was the first person to interview the random person on the streets of New York City. Executive producer Jules L. Green changed the backstage portion of the American talk show industry forever. He came up with the idea to pay all guests no matter the fame, the same union price for their appearance to spend more money on the host and segments.
People began to love Allen and yearned for more of his work. He then began starring and hosting his own Sunday show “The Steve Allen Show.” As this program became more popular, Allen left the NBC Tonight show, and it was canceled for a short period of time.
NBC then placed Jack Paar as the new host in 1957, naming the show “The Jack Paar Tonight Show,” and he is the host that made the program take off. He not only hosted the show, but also put emotion and his own opinions into the mix. People were infatuated by his passion and comedic genius, as he never shied away from controversy. Paar eventually quit NBC after they censored one of his jokes and came back over a month later continuing the joke in his open monologue. He eventually left the show for good in 1962.
NBC scouted Johnny Carson after he quickly became known as one of the most humorous hosts on television. Then in October of 1962, Carson was made the new host of The Tonight Show. Carson’s already large following carried to Tonight and his hosting was set to last for a long time. In 1973, Carson moved the original home of the New York Tonight Show to Los Angeles, California.
He stayed with NBC for 30 years because of his high ratings reportedly taking over around 20% of NBC’s income. Carson knew his worth and around 1980 became fed up with the demand of the job. He and NBC negotiated for roughly a year and settled on the show lasting 60 minutes instead of 90, along with having Mondays off. Carson stayed with the program for 12 more years and retired his crown.
After a few trial runs, NBC placed Jay Leno as the new host of Tonight in 1992. From this great success, many companies tried to copy this show style. David Letterman and Leno were competing for the best primetime late night show. Letterman was originally supposed to take over Tonight as he was hosting Today for some time to get him ready for the position, but he was pushed out because of his “sass” behind the cameras compared to the likeable Jay Leno.
Letterman had Leno beat for a few years with his late-night show until Leno took the Tonight Show into his own hands and replaced those who were not team players. His personality and quick wit soon won over the late-night watchers, and NBC was back on top.
In 2009, Conan O’Brien was made the new host of Tonight, which he had been waiting for since 2001 when he turned down offers to become other hosts of late-night shows. Leno was hurt by this take over and NBC favored Leno in their decisions to continue. O’Brien only lasted one year in waiting for better agreements with NBC and his show, but Leno was put back on in 2010 after O’Brien was bought out. Leno hosted for another four years.
Then in 2014, a former SNL star and young heartthrob Jimmy Fallon took the reins of the Tonight Show and moved the program back to the heart of New York City. The show, now called The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, was introduced to the media with Fallon entering the stage on his opening night, where he announced his gratitude for the opportunity to be back home after 40 years.
Speaking to the people and appealing to the audience, Fallon remains an A-list celebrity, as he has introduced a new way not only to interview, but also to become friends with his guests. Fallon makes connections with the people and plans on his show being relaxing “so you can go to sleep with a smile on your face and live a longer life,” as he stated on his opening night.
This single show has created the outline for all late-night talk shows worldwide. American television would be tangibly different without Tonight’s appearance due to the programs that followed in its steps: The Late Late Show with James Cordon, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Jimmy Kimmel Live, etc. All comedians and actors alike admire these late-night show hosts and their work on the screen. Although they are not acting, these comedians have made a huge impact on modern-day television.