It’s a field filled with big personalities, larger-than-life late night television comedians and conversationalists who put America to bed each night. From Jack Paar’s extemporaneous small talk to Steve Allen’s infectious laugh to Johnny Carson’s witty monologues, and all the big personalities that filled the guest chairs, America has had a love affair with late night television programming for years. It’s how we unwind, ingest the day’s news and laugh at ourselves. And some of the most talented, and varied, hosts have led us down the path to the Land of Nod.
For 30 years “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” starred the boy from Nebraska who never seemed to lose his quick smile and friendly demeanor. His ratings remain the highest in the history of late night television. But Carson and many others in this crowded field — Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and David Letterman among them — owe much to funny man Steve Allen, who broke the plane between stage and viewer and pioneered the first audience participation gags that dominate late night comedy today.
For years, late night TV programming has prompted America to look at the lighter side of the day’s news, to giggle a little before climbing into bed. And, because of the late hour, the programming has grown edgier and more provocative through the years, challenging us with humor to understand ourselves a little better.
“The Tonight Show” with Steve Allen
Steve Allen was the first host of “The Tonight Show,” and he is largely responsible for developing the late night TV format — a cross between a talk show and a variety program. Allen proved that wacky worked on the air, setting up on-air stunts where he jumped into vats of oatmeal or cottage cheese or was made into a human banana split, as staffers covered the comedian with ice cream, hot fudge and pieces of banana.
“There was something sort of wonderfully childlike about Steve Allen. He was like an adult who acted like a kid. He was loud,” says late night show host Jay Leno.
Allen also deconstructed the stage of late night television, going into the audience or out on the city streets to involve regular people in his televised antics.
“I went out into the audience and began to speak to people at random, horsing around the way I did in high school, and it got very big laughs,” recalls Allen. “But I didn’t know you could do that for a living. I thought that was too easy.”
“The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson”
Fresh-faced Johnny Carson steered the successful “Tonight Show” franchise on NBC for 30 years, and his Midwestern sensibilities and boy-next-door demeanor struck just the right chord with late night viewers.
“He never wanted to be the flashiest, fanciest,” recalls late night talk show host, Jay Leno. “He was always the classiest.”
Carson inherited the venerable “Tonight Show” stage from the greats before him — Steve Allen and Jack Paar — but he broadened the show’s appeal and made it a staple of American pop culture. “People don’t realize: As well as Jack Paar did in the ratings, when Johnny Carson came out, I don’t know if [the ratings] doubled, but it was pretty close to it,” says Leno.
Carson created humorous skits with comic regulars like Betty White, Jonathan Winters and Don Rickles, and he also developed funny characters for himself to play such as, “Carnac the Magnificent” and “Aunt Blabby.”
“Late Night With Conan O’Brien”
In 1993, Conan O’Brien was a comedy writer who had caught the eye of “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels. When a replacement was sought by NBC executives for an empty slot left by comedian and host David Letterman, Michaels urged the writer to audition. Although Conan had little on-screen experience, the tall, gawky writer aced the audition, edging out more seasoned talent such as Drew Carey and Jon Stewart. The first few seasons of his show were rocky, but “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” ultimately drew critical praise and many fans, and it lasted on the air for 16 years.
O’Brien brings to the air a self-deprecating, sarcastic humor punctuated with his own physically quirky movements. When O’Brien first appeared on the air, notable Washington Post television critic Tom Shales said, “The young man is a living collage of annoying nervous habits. He giggles and titters, jiggles about and fiddles with his cuffs. He has dark, beady little eyes like a rabbit. He’s one of the whitest white men ever.” Shales later recanted his criticisms, and, to his credit, O’Brien has capitalized on these traits, endearing him to legions of fans.