Who else (besides Jack Lescoulie) has hosted late night’s iconic talk show?
These days, if you blink, it’s possible The Tonight Show will have a new host. Turn your head for a minute, and a new face will walk through the curtain to deliver the nearly 60-year-old late night talk show’s monologue.
At least it seems that way.
But the truth is the show’s early years were ripe with changing hosts, different formats, and celebrity controversy. It wasn’t until Johnny Carson took the desk in 1962 that the show settled down for three decades – and truly became the powerhouse program we know and love today.
So who has hosted The Tonight Show? And when did they reign? Here’s a rundown.
1. Steve Allen – 1954 to 1957
Steve Allen was Tonight‘s first host. His run on the show set the bar for nearly every talk show to come. He was a pioneer, and his impact is still felt today. How so? Well, Allen is considered the originator of the talk show monologue, the comedy sketch break, and playful banter with the audience. So, in a very big way, we could consider Allen the father of the modern day talk show. Because Allen was so popular with viewers, NBC gave him his own prime time talk show. Rather than quit the Tonight Show, Allen hosted both programs simultaneously, sharing hosting duties with Ernie Kovacs during his final 1956-57 season.
2. Jack Lescoulie & Al Collins – Six months in1957
You’ve never heard of Jack Lescoulie and Al “Jazzbo” Collins. You’re not the first. At least when it comes to talking about The Tonight Show. Lescoulie, a radio and television announcer, and one-time host of The Today Show, and Collins, a deejay, radio personality and recording artist, hosted the show for six months in 1957 after Allen retired. NBC completely revamped Tonight, at the time, turning it more into a late-night Today show. The format didn’t work. By year’s end, Jack Paar was behind the desk in a once-more formatted Tonight Show, this one more closely resembling the format we know and love today.
3. Jack Paar – 1957 – 1962
Most consider Jack Paar the true Tonight successor to Steve Allen. Perhaps most famously, Paar abruptly quit The Tonight Show after NBC censored one of his monologue jokes. After delivering his monologue the following evening, Paar walked out, leaving his announcer, Hugh Downs, to fill in for the remainder of the program. He returned – a month later – delivering the 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.”
4. Johnny Carson – 1962 to 1992
Johnny Carson will be forever known as the king of late night television. His 30 years as host of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson serves as an achievement – both in longevity and artistically – for current and future talk show hosts to aspire. Carson reinvented the monologue, scored with clever skits and memorable characters, and became loved by Americans young and old. Nearly every major talk show host of the last 20 years includes Carson as both an inspiration and an influence, including David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien.
5. Jay Leno – 1992 to 2009
After Carson retired from Tonight, comedian and regular guest host Jay Leno took over the late night desk – but not without some controversy. Most people assumed Late Night‘s host, David Letterman, would be named Carson’s replacement. But heavy lobbying – and some questionable actions by Leno’s then-manager, including planting a false story about NBC executives want Carson gone – scored Leno the job. Leno had the last laugh, though, regularly beating his late night competition in the ratings. Leno also brought a more mellow, California-flavor to the program.
6. Conan O’Brien – June 2009 to January 2010
When Leno left late night to take a shot at primetime in 2009, Late Night host Conan O’Brien stepped into the role of Tonight Show host. Then the wheels came off the bus. Leno’s primetime program was flailing in the ratings, O’Brien wasn’t doing much better with his younger version of Tonight, and NBC felt pressure to bring Leno back to late night. Another messy transition saw O’Brien relinquish his role as host, break his contract with NBC and bolt for greener pastures on TBS. Leno returned to late night after a little more than nine months away from The Tonight Show.
7. Jay Leno – March 2010 to present
Since his return after cancellation of The Jay Leno Show, Leno has steered Tonight to relatively stable ratings. But as he faces new competition from Jimmy Kimmel, who is steadily pulling coveted young viewers away from Tonight, Leno faces another challenge. How long can he keep his seat before NBC asks him to leave?
8. Jimmy Fallon – ???
Rumor suggests that Leno’s contract will not be renewed when it is up in 2014. If true, then who will follow Leno? Most bets are on Late Night host Jimmy Fallon, who has done well to try to stay out of the conversation as much as possible. If Fallon does take over, further rumor suggests that The Tonight Show will return to New York from L.A. Possible? Sure! Anything’s possible. We just have to wait and see.