Thursday, October 18, 2007

1954: first "Tonight" show

The Tonight Show is NBC's long-running late-night talk and variety show, now in its 52nd season. It's the second longest-running entertainment program in US television history (after soap opera Guiding Light). Its roots date back to a local New York program called Broadway Open House in the early 1950s.

"Tonight!" was originally hosted by Steve Allen in 1954. Allen’s regular side-kick was Ernie Kovacs. Kovacs became known as "the first commercial tonight show tv television artist." Ernie Kovacs alternated hosting the show with Steve Allen. However, it was Steve Allen who established many of the standards of late night television, introducing the desk and couch and an emphasis on conversations with guests.

While NBC executive Pat Weaver is credited as the Tonight Show creator (he created its morning companion, Today), Allen had already created much of the structure of Tonight with his local New York late-night Steve Allen Show, which premiered in 1953 on WNBT-TV, now WNBC-TV. The announcer was Gene Rayburn. The show's orchestra was first conducted by Bobby Byrne and then Skitch Henderson.

Among the regular features that became classics were Steve’s passionate readings of “Letters to the Editor,” adlib interviews of his audience, and mock Man-on-the-Street interviews. Regular characters included Tom Poston, Louis Nye, and Don Knotts.

Poston earned an Emmy award for his work with Paar, and played numerous characters, typically the befuddled common man on the street.

Nye primarily played urbane, wealthy bon vivant types (in contrast, his parents were both Yiddish speaking Jews born in Russia). His characterization of the delightfully pretentious country-club braggart Gordon Hathaway, his catchphrase, "Hi, ho, Steve-a-reeno," and Allen's inability to resist bursting into hysterical laughter at Nye's ad-libs during gags, made Nye one of the favorites on Allen's show.

Knotts always played a man obviously very nervous and breathing heavily about being on camera. The humor in the interviews would be increased when Knotts stated his occupation -- always one that wouldn't be appropriate for such a nervous, shaking person, such as a surgeon or explosives expert.

Crazy Shots was an original idea setting eccentric sight gags to music that later was used on such shows as Laugh-In.

Steve writes in his book, Hi-Ho Steverino!, "The program appealed to TV viewers tired of a diet of old Charlie Chan movies and the frenetic tempo of Broadway Open House, which it replaced, and it enjoyed popularity from the start. For the first time since coming to New York I felt completely in my element in television, partly because the new program was much like my old Hollywood radio show, only instead of a table I now sat at a desk. There was very little script, mostly ad-lib chatter, questions from the audience, guest and audience interviews, piano music, and songs from Steve and Eydie, the band and myself.”

"When we first started the show, I had no writers at all; none were needed. Occasionally I would write a comic monologue or a simple sketch for a guest and myself, but all I actually required on a typical night was a piano, a couple of amusing letters form viewers, a newspaper article that had caught my fancy, an unusual toy that a member of my staff had picked up, a guest or two to chat with, and an audience to interview."

He hosted other comedy and variety shows on various networks from the 1950s through the 1980s, and emceed the game show I've Got A Secret. From 1977-81 he wrote and starred in A Meeting of Minds, a fictional talk show starring famous figures from history. On film he played jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman in the 1955 movie The Benny Goodman Story. Allen also claimed to have composed more than 7900 songs; in one famous stunt he dashed off 400 quickie tunes in one day. His best-known song is probably This Could Be The Start of Something Big, and his Gravy Waltz won a 1963 Grammy as best jazz composition. He was the author of over 50 books, including The Talk Show Murders (1982). An autopsy after Allen's death revealed that his fatal heart failure was likely caused by a minor traffic accident earlier the same day.

Allen's second wife was the actress Jayne Meadows, sister of The Honeymooners star Audrey Meadows.

In 1957, Jack Paar took over as host from Steve Allen. "The Jack Paar Tonight Show" ran for almost five years and ended in 1962.

It was during Paar's stint as host that The Tonight Show became the entertainment juggernaut that it remained for the next five decades. No other host generated the degree of obsessive fascination in the press or the public that Paar did, partly because his version of the television talk show was so amazingly unpredictable, with memorable occurrences like a slurring drunk Judy Garland talking about her rival Marlene Dietrich. Both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon appeared separately on the show when they were running against each other for president in 1960, and Robert F. Kennedy later granted Paar the first interview after his brother's assassination.

The Tonight focus was always on compelling conversation and Paar's guests tended to be literate raconteurs such as Peter Ustinov rather than actors promoting their current films, while Paar himself was a superb storyteller. Further, Paar surrounded himself with a memorable group of regulars and semi-regulars, including Cliff Arquette (as the homespun "Charlie Weaver"), author-illustrator Alexander King, Tedi Thurman (NBC's sultry "Miss Monitor") and comedy actresses Peggy Cass and Dody Goodman. In 1959, Paar's gagwriter Jack Douglas became a bestselling author (My Brother Was an Only Child, A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Grave: An Autobiography) after his regular appearances with Paar.

During this time, Paar also made occasional appearances on the television game shows Password and What's My Line? On episode 215 of the latter, Paar filled in as guest panelist for Steve Allen, his predecessor at The Tonight Show.

In 1959, Paar was criticized for his interview with Fidel Castro. Two years later, he broadcast his show from Berlin just as the Berlin Wall was going up. He also sustained numerous cancellations from sponsors of the show, when he would make ad-libs during live commercials for that sponsor's product, such as once describing a brand of men's underwear that sponsored his show as "fitting so tight, it's like being hugged by a midget." Paar also engaged in a number of public feuds, one of them with CBS luminary Ed Sullivan.

Paar was often unpredictable and emotional. The most salient example of this kind of on-screen behavior was demonstrated in 1960. One of his jokes was cut from a broadcast by studio censors. The joke in question involved a woman writing to a vacation resort and inquiring about the availability of a "W.C." The woman used that term to mean "water closet" (i.e., bathroom), but the gentleman who received the letter misunderstood "W.C." to mean "wayside chapel" (i.e., church). The full text of the joke reveals multiple double entendres that are tame by today's standards, but too much for the network to bear in 1960. NBC replaced that section of the show with news coverage and failed to inform Paar of their decision.

The decision to censor the joke so angered Paar that the next night, February 11, he announced on the air that he was leaving the show, saying "I've made a decision about what I'm going to do. I'm leaving The Tonight Show. There must be a better way to make a living than this, a way of entertaining people without being constantly involved in some form of controversy. I love NBC [...] But they let me down." After finishing this monologue, Paar abruptly walked offstage, leaving his flustered announcer Hugh Downs to finish the show for him.

Less than a month later, Paar was convinced to return; on March 7 he opened his monologue with the now-famous line, "As I was saying before I was interrupted...I believe the last thing I said was 'There must be a better way to make a living than this.' Well, I've looked...and there isn't." He then went on to explain his departure with typical frankness: "Leaving the show was a childish and perhaps emotional thing. I have been guilty of such action in the past and will perhaps be again. I'm totally unable to hide what I feel. It is not an asset in show business, but I shall do the best I can to amuse and entertain you and let other people speak freely, as I have in the past."

In 1962, Johnny Carson became the host of The Tonight Show.

Johnny began his career at age 14 with a magic act called "The Great Carsoni" in Norfolk, NE, where he grew up. As a Navy ensign aboard the USS Pennsylvania in 1945, he was the only officer to consciously entertain enlisted men during shows on the ship. While a student at the University of Nebraska, he was allowed to be late for his first class so that he could work at a local radio station, KFAB and then worked at WOW in Omaha, where he wrote comedy and announced commercials for a 15-minute program.

Deciding that his future was in California, he landed a job in 1950 as staff announcer for KNXT (now KCBS-TV) in Los Angeles, where he soon hosted his own program, "Carson's Cellar." It ran until mid 1953.

He temporarily stopped his on-camera appearances to write material for Red Skelton's TV program. One night, just before air time, Skelton ran into a break-away door and suffered a concussion. On short notice, Johnny went on in Red Skelton's place, opening the show with a monologue he had put together while driving to the studio. Jack Benny's reactions: "The kid is great, just great," and "You better watch that Carson kid."

At 29, Carson became host of his own network show, "Earn Your Vacation," while also appearing as a substitute host for Jack Paar, on CBS's "The Morning Show." Carson continued to appear on CBS until 1956.

In 1957 he moved to ABC as host of a new daytime game show, "Who Do You Trust?." It was his first teaming with his future "Tonight" announcer, Ed McMahon. In 1958 he was again asked to fill in for Paar, this time on NBC's "The Tonight Show." On October 1, 1962, Groucho Marx introduced Carson to the nation's late-night television audience as the new host of "The Tonight Show." Johnny's first words, reacting to applause as he walked onstage for the first time: "Boy, you would think it was Vice President Nixon."

When Johnny started, the show was originating from New York and was taped on the same evening that it aired. Johnny was on all five nights and began his monologue when the show began at 11:15 pm.

In February 1965 the 11:15-11:30 pm. segment was turned over to Ed McMahon and Skitch Henderson. On January 2, 1967 this first fifteen minutes was dropped from the show, leaving the show at 90 minutes.

Recurring bits included "Stump the Band," "Carnac the Magnificent," with Carson as a bad psychic; "Aunt Blabby," with Carson as a gossiping little old lady; "The Mighty Carson Art Players," spoofing movies, commercials, TV shows, and events in the news; "Floyd R. Turbo," with Carson as a "not so bright" super-patriot; and "The Art Fern Tea Time Movie," with Carol Wayne as the original "Matinee Lady."

The show would remain at 90 minutes in length until 1980 when it was cut back to one hour.

In May 1972 the show permanently moved from New York to Burbank, California. It was then that Johnny began offering the Monday nights to a guest host. The most frequent guest hosts were:

Joey Bishop (177 times)
Joan Rivers (93 times)
Bob Newhart (87 times)
John Davidson (87 times)
David Brenner (70 times)
McLean Stevenson (58 times)
Jerry Lewis (52 times)
David Letterman (51 times)

Joan Rivers was the "permanent" guest host from September 1983 until 1986. The Tonight Show reverted to various guest hosts after Joan left, with Jay Leno the most frequent. Leno then became the exclusive guest host in the fall of 1987, a position he held for the remainder of Johnny's reign.

Johnny's final telecast on May 22 1992 was a national event. A quiet reminiscence about the show's golden moments over the past 30 years. Johnny avoided show business after leaving the show. He won six Emmy Awards, received the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' prestigious Governors' Award and a George Foster Peabody Award. In 1987 he was inducted into the ATAS Hall of Fame. And for his humanitarian efforts, the American Friends of Hebrew University honored him with the Scopus Award. In 1992, Johnny won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the American Comedy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1993 he received the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award. Johnny passed away peacefully January 23, 2005

Johnny was succeeded in 1992 by Jay Leno (after a sometimes-vicious competition with David Letterman). Leno has announced that he will step down as host in 2009, and has named current Late Night host Conan O'Brien as his successor. The studio in "beautiful downtown Burbank" (as Carson called it) will be sold in 2009, and the show will move to the Universal Studio outside of LA.

The Tonight Show became the first American television show to broadcast with stereo sound in 1984. On April 26, 1999, it became the first American nightly talk show to be shot in HD.

A kinescope film exists of the very first broadcast of The Tonight Show (then called simply, Tonight). Steve Allen welcomed viewers with the warning, "This show is going to last forever", referring to the running time. He has yet to be proven wrong. (info from, Steve, and Wikipedia) (photo from shows Zsa Zsa Gabor with Steve Allen)

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