Classic TV

The short history of the late-night talk show

Late-night talk shows are truly an American contribution to the world of TV. They founded their origins from variety shows which started to take off during the 1940s and the 1950s. They were called “variety shows” because they showcased different kinds of entertainment such as comedy sketches, music and dance numbers, acrobatics, magic tricks, juggling, etc. Variety shows were typically shown on the prime-time slot (usually 7:00 to 10:00 in the evening), where most families would usually stay in their own living rooms and watch TV after a tiring day of work and household chores.

One of the earliest-known variety shows at the time was Toast of the Town on CBS. Hosted by Ed Sullivan, Toast of the Town was first aired in 1948 and was later renamed as The Ed Sullivan Show. It enjoyed 23 successful years before ending in 1971.

Variety shows paved the way for the birth of the late-night talk shows. One of the earliest shows to air on the late-night slot was Broadway Open House on NBC, in 1950. Although Broadway Open House was not successful, it provided the starting point for the late-night talk show format.

Tonight Starring Steve Allen began airing on NBC in 1954 and was the first version of The Tonight Show. It is generally considered as the first talk show. It had the elements of the quintessential late-night talk show: opening monologues, stand-up comedy, celebrity interviews and a house band.

But the program really hit its stride when Johnny Carson took over in 1962, and it’s from that point when The Tonight Show became a permanent fixture among the night-owls. The Tonight Show, as well as Carson himself, transformed into TV legends. Carson continued hosting The Tonight Show until his retirement in 1992, and comedian Jay Leno eventually took over the hosting chores. But the transition didn’t leave without animosity and media-fueled controversy.

David Letterman, who was then the host of Late Night with David Letterman (which was aired right after The Tonight Show) was once even considered by Carson as his “natural successor.” Carson made this comment despite the fact that Leno had been a permanent guest-host on The Tonight Show for many years.

In addition, Letterman had expressed his desire to move to the earlier time slot from Late Night. After Leno replaced Carson as the new host of The Tonight Show, Letterman moved to rival network CBS and hosted Late Show with David Letterman, as a straight-out competition to The Tonight Show which now had Leno behind the desk. That began the legendary late-night rivalry between the two programs, which led to the actual hard feelings that were developed between the two hosts.

Most late-night talk shows of today have still not changed, in terms of formula: opening monologues, stand-up comedy, celebrity interviews and a house band (who sometimes provide the backing music for guest artists and performers). Other notable late-night talk show hosts include Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert.

Check out our articles Johnny Carson Fun Facts and Fun Facts about Conan O’Brien That You Didn’t Know for more interesting trivia about these popular talk show hosts!