The Tonight Show went on the air in 1953, and the show is still running strong well into the 21st century. In all this time, The Tonight Show has had only six permanent hosts. (One of them, like President Grover Cleveland, had two non-consecutive terms.)
Here’s a salute to all those sturdy hosts who sat behind the Tonight Show desk.
STEVE ALLEN first hosted Tonight on New York’s WNBT in June of 1953; the local show went national on the NBC network on September 27, 1954. Allen’s show was done live and featured the multi-talented host playing piano, joking with the audience and doing comedy sketches with guest stars. (Allen’s announcer was Gene Rayburn, later the host of the game show The Match Game.)
In 1956, Allen began a separate prime-time show and hosted Tonight only Wednesday through Friday nights. Mondays and Tuesdays were handled by a series of guest hosts, including avant-garde comedian Ernie Kovacs. Steve Allen stepped down for good in January of 1957.
Allen was replaced by JACK PAAR in the summer of 1957, after a few experimental months where Tonight was a news variety show. Paar turned the emphasis to talk and interviews, and quickly gained a reputation for clever chat and quirky emotional outbursts. His most famous moment came on the show of February 11, 1960, when Paar walked off the stage in protest over NBC’s censorship of one of his jokes from the night before. (He returned a few weeks later.) Paar’s five-year run ended in 1962.
JOHNNY CARSON hosted The Tonight Show for nearly 30 years, becoming one of TV’s favorite personalities along the way. His longtime sidekicks were announcer Ed McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen. At first Carson’s show ran nearly two hours each night, from 11:15 pm until 1:00 am. That was cut back to 90 minutes and then (in 1980) to one hour, 11:30 to 12:30. (The leftover 30 minutes made room for the eventual creation of David Letterman‘s show Late Night.)
Johnny Carson opened his shows with a standup comedy monologue, a notion which became a staple of nearly all late-night talk shows. In later years Carson’s extended vacations became a running joke, and his chair was filled with a series of guest hosts. His final show on 22 May 1992, with Carson being serenaded by guest Bette Midler, is remembered as one of TV’s great farewells.
JAY LENO was named the exclusive guest host of Carson’s show in 1986. When Carson announced his impending retirement, a struggle for succession followed between Leno and David Letterman. The struggle ended when NBC executives named Leno as the show’s permanent host. (Letterman defected to CBS shortly thereafter, and was replaced by Conan O’Brien.)
Ed McMahon retired with Carson and Leno worked without a sidekick, extending the opening monologue even further into the show. Leno brought on jazz star Branford Marsalis as his bandleader; that arrangement never quite satisfied anyone and Marsalis was later replaced by guitarist Kevin Eubanks.
By 2001, Leno had become The Tonight Show‘s longest-running host after Carson. In 2004 he signed a contract extension to continue hosting through 2009. The same year, NBC announced that Leno would step down as the host of The Tonight Show in 2009, to be replaced by Conan O’Brien. As 2009 got closer, though, it was widely reported that Leno was not entirely eager to step down. In a surprise move, as O’Brien was confirmed as the new host of The Tonight Show, Leno was given his own new nightly show on NBC from 10:00-11:00 pm.
Conan O’Brien (2009-2010)
CONAN O’BRIEN did indeed take over The Tonight Show in 2009; his first show as host aired on June 1st, and he also was interviewed by Leno in a segment on Leno’s last show on May 29th. O’Brien relocated to Los Angeles from New York, bringing with him many of the writers and staff from Late Night, including drummer Max Weinberg and his band, The Max Weinberg Seven. O’Brien also brought back his old sidekick, Andy Richter, who had left Late Night in 2000 to star in his own TV show. In a surprise twist, Conan O’Brien got the boot after only seven months, when poor ratings for both O’Brien’s Tonight Show and Leno’s new 10 o’clock show prompted NBC to make a change. The network at first announced a scheme to give Leno a new half-hour show at 11:35, moving O’Brien and The Tonight Show back to 12:05. O’Brien refused to move, leading NBC to buy out his contract (for a reported $44 million) and give The Tonight Show to…
JAY LENO. Yes, again. After Conan O’Brien’s forced departure, Leno returned to triumphantly reclaim The Tonight Show, with his original 11:35 pm time slot and a big new contract from NBC. His first show back was on March 1, 2010. (One month later, O’Brien accepted an offer to create his own late-night show on cable network TBS, which started in November 2010.)
In 2013, NBC announced (with Leno’s blessing) that Leno would once again step down in 2014. His last show aired on February 6, 2014, with Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks among the guests. Leno rode into the sunset, and was replaced by…
JIMMY FALLON became the sixth official host of the The Tonight Show on February 17, 2014. He took the reins of the show during NBC’s coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics from Sochi, Russia.
Jimmy Fallon was already a veteran of the talk show format, having hosted the NBC show Late Night, which aired right after The Tonight Show, from 2009-14. (He got that job when former host Conan O’Brien replaced Leno in 2009.) Under Fallon, The Tonight Show also moved back to 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City, the city where Steve Allen started it all in 1953.
A note on Tonight Show guest hosts: comedian JOEY BISHOP was the most frequent guest host of The Tonight Show in its early years, filling in for Johnny Carson 177 times. JOAN RIVERS also was a frequent guest host, with 93 shows behind the desk. But the all-time guest-hosting leader is… Jay Leno again! As the show’s “permanent” guest host from 1987 until 1992, he hosted more than 300 times.