Thursday, June 04, 2009

History of Late Night TV

With all of the recent changes in late night TV, I decided to find out a bit about the predecessors to today's late night hosts. Different networks have tried to establish late night franchises, and some have had more success than others. I will look at the different personalities which have contributed to the genre. The above pictures show some of the greats in late night TV. From top: the original host of The Tonight Show, Steve Allen. The next picture shows Tom Snyder who hosted The Tomorrow Show and The Late Late Show. The third picture shows Johnny Carson doing his "Carnac" bit. The bottom picture shows from left to right; Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien.

The network that has been the most successful in establishing a late night audience has been NBC. Saturday Night Live has aired from 11:30 pm to 1:00 am on NBC since 1975. The Tonight Show is the third longest running TV show in history, only eclipsed by Guiding Light and the Hallmark Hall of Fame. When the show started in 1954 it was 90 minutes in length, airing from 11:30 pm until 1:00 am. Its first host was Steve Allen, and he did the show from 1954 to 1957. His original announcer was Gene Rayburn, who later spent many years hosting The Match Game. Allen was known for his man on the street bits and David Letterman has cited him as an influence. The next host of the show was Jack Paar, from 1957 to 1962. His announcer was Hugh Downs, who later worked for ABC for many years as host of 20/20 with Barbara Walters. In 1960, Paar's show became one of the first programs to air in color. He left the show after becoming frustrated with the network for censoring his material. The next host would change late night TV forever and become one of the most beloved icons in entertainment history. Johnny Carson hosted the show from 1962 to 1992 and he got his start entertaining people as a magician in his home state of Nebraska. In 1970, The Tonight Show moved its operations from New York City to Burbank, California. Johnny's show had announcer/sidekick Ed McMahon as a significant aspect of the show as well as fantastic big band jazz music from trumpeter Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Orchestra. When Johnny retired in 1992, Jay Leno took over and hosted until 2009. It has been reported that Carson wanted Letterman to take over but NBC wanted Leno, who was seen as more of a safe bet and he was not known as an edgy, trouble maker like Letterman. Carson wrote some jokes for Letterman, and this was acknowledged by Dave after Carson's death. Letterman sometimes does a "Stump the Band" bit on his show, preceded by music leader Paul Shaffer doing an homage to Carson's Carnac character. To have the right to do these, Letterman must have received clearance from Carson, which is more proof that Carson favored Letterman over Leno. When Jay Leno took over the show he fired Carson's entire staff and did not acknowledge Johnny on his first episode. The animosity between Letterman and Leno exists to this day. In June, 2009, Conan O'Brien took over for Leno as the 5th host of The Tonight Show.

NBC decided they wanted to add another late night show to air after Johnny Carson, so in 1973, Tom Snyder started hosting The Tomorrow Show and this lasted until 1982. From 1982 to 1993, David Letterman took over the 12:35 am time slot with his show Late Night. His band was led by Paul Shaffer, who had previously worked on Saturday Night Live. After being denied the job hosting The Tonight Show, Letterman was fed up with NBC and his show was taken over by Conan O'Brien. Conan was known as a writer, not a performer and he got off to a shaky start. He had been a writer for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, and he is a Harvard graduate. Conan hosted the Late Night show from 1993 to 2009, before leaving to host The Tonight Show. Conan's announcer on the 12:35 am show was Joel Goddard. His band on the 12:35 am show and on the 11:35 pm show is led by Bruce Springsteen drummer, Max Weinberg. His sidekick on the 12:35 am show for many years was Andy Richter, who left to pursue TV and film opportunities. He will be back with Conan as sidekick/announcer on the 11:35 pm show. Former Saturday Night Live cast member Jimmy Fallon took over for Conan in 2009.

NBC decided to add another show after the 12:35 am show, when the interview show Later started in 1988. This aired from 1:35 am to 2:05 am and was hosted by Bob Costas until 1994. This was a change of pace for late night TV since this was a show with one guest, no house band, and no studio audience. From 1994 to 1996 it was hosted by Greg Kinnear, who had hosted Talk Soup on the E! network. Kinnear left to focus on his film career and from 1996 to 1998 the show rotated various hosts. Cynthia Garrett hosted from 1998 to 2000. For the next 2 years this time slot was filled with SCTV reruns, a sketch comedy show which featured Martin Short and John Candy. From 2002 to the present, the show in this time slot has been Last Call with Carson Daly, who previously hosted TRL on MTV.

CBS got into the late night talk show game in 1993 when David Letterman left NBC, and his show was called The Late Show with David Letterman. Letterman wanted an 11:35 pm show, and since he did not get The Tonight Show, he figured that at least at CBS he could go head to head with Leno. Many staff memebers have worked with Letterman since the days at NBC, including musicians Paul Shaffer, Sid McGinnis, Will Lee, Anton Fig, stage manager Biff Henderson and producers Maria Pope, Jude Brennan and Barbara Gaines. Letterman's announcer for many years was Bill Wendell and the current announcer is Alan Kalter.

From 1995 to 1999, the 12:35 am slot on CBS was filled by Tom Snyder who hosted The Late Late Show. Former host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, Craig Kilborn took over for Snyder, and he did the show until 2004. From 2004 to the present the show has been hosted by former cast member from The Drew Carey show, Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson. The show has been produced by Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants, since the beginning. This company also produced the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond.

ABC has dabbled on an off in late night and from 1967 to 1969 a late night show was hosted by rat pack member Joey Bishop. His sidekick was a then little known Regis Philbin. Nightline has been on ABC for many years at 11:35 pm, but this is a news show, not a typical late night talk show. In 2003 Jimmy Kimmel started hosting his own talk show after Nightline, at 12:05 am and his show has become the longest running ABC late night talk show since Dick Cavett hosted from 1969 to 1975.

In the early days of the Fox network, Joan Rivers had a late night show, but it only lated a year, starting in 1986. The sketch comedy show Mad TV aired on Fox from 1995 to 2009 from 11 pm to 12 am Saturday nights. Former Seinfeld writer Spike Feresten had a show on Fox called Talk Show with Spike Feresten. This aired from 2006 to 2009 on Saturdays. Fox has cancelled Talk Show and Mad TV.

Many other have tried to helm late night talk shows, some more successfully than others. Arsenio Hall had a late night syndicated show from 1989 to 1994. Chevy Chase did not fare as well since his late night outing only lasted 6 weeks in 1993. Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak had a show from 1989 to 1990. NBA legend Magic Johnson did not have much luck with his late night show, lasting only 3 months in 1998.

In the fall of 2009, NBC will try a new experiment when they move Jay Leno to have a show from 10 pm to 11 pm weeknights. The struggling network saw it as a way to hang on to Leno, as well as a way to cut costs since the one hour dramas that typically air in the 10 pm hour are expensive to produce. We will have to see how this affects the ratings for NBC affiliates' 11 pm newscasts as well as how many viewers stick around to watch Conan at 11:35 pm.

* Some information from

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