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This late-night series on NBC is part Variety Show and part celebrity Talk Show. Steve Allen was the first host, starting in 1954; Ernie Kovacs had Monday and Tuesday nights for the final (1956-57) season due to Allen's Sunday-night show on the same network.
In January 1957, both Allen and Kovacs were ousted and the show became Tonight! America After Dark, a serious news program with Jack Lescoulie; he was booted out in June to Today and replaced for the last month by Al "Jazzbo" Collins.
In July 1957, Jack Paar became the full-time Tonight Show host, but he walked off in February 1960 after NBC censors took offense at one of his jokes. Paar returned to the show within a month. From April-September 1962, The Tonight Show had a series of part-time hosts, including Groucho Marx, and an orchestra led by Skitch Henderson.
Johnny Carson made a career of The Tonight Show, acting as host from 1962-92. During that time, Carson created many memorable characters, including Art Fern, Floyd R. Turbo, and Carnac the Magnificent, while bringing fame to his announcer Ed McMahon and his bandleader Skitch Henderson. Henderson was later replaced by Carl "Doc" Severinsen.
After Carson left the series, Jay Leno took over as host. Thus began the "talk show wars" of 1993; it had been expected that David Letterman, who hosted the lead-out show Late Night with... since the early 1980s, would get the gig. When that didn't happen, CBS hired him as a direct competitor, The Late Show With David Letterman, launched in 1993. While Letterman initially was the stronger ratings draw, Leno eventually overtook him. The Tonight Show and The Late Show remain fierce competitors.
Leno's format wouldn't settle for a few months, until Kevin Eubanks signed on as bandleader. Jay Leno's most enduring skits are "Headlines" a bit previously used by Letterman who called it "Small Town News" on the original Late Night in the 1980s. "Jaywalking", is a man-on-the-streets skit with real people that highlights American stupidity. He also did film clips with Special Effects Failures with great frequency. He played a few characters, most notably Iron Jay (a dumb weightlifter), Mr. Brain (a condescending smart-aleck), and Beyondo (a "ghost" whose punchline-"first" schtick was almost identical to Carson's Carnac).
In 2004, Leno signed a contract to continue the show until 2009 and Conan O'Brien signed up to replace him when he left- but when the time grew near Leno's ratings were still strong. NBC decided it didn't want to risk him going to another network like Letterman, so they kicked Leno upstairs to make room for ~Conan O'Brien~, who had hosted Late Night since 1993. They gave Leno a similar show in late Prime Time five nights a week starting that Fall, the "five nights a week" part being a first-ever for American network prime time (The Jay Leno Show). For the first time, there was no "interregnum" of temporary hosts (as in 1957 and 1962) or reruns (as in 1992); Leno's last show was May 29, 2009 and O'Brien's first was June 1.
However, both Conan and Leno both performed well beneath the norm for their time slots. The network itself didn't care, but affiliates lost a major chunk of ad revenue and some hinted that they weren't going to endure it for much longer.
NBC attempted to fix this by moving Leno's show to The Tonight Show's time slot and bumping O'Brien's critically-acclaimed but ratings-poor run back a half-hour to 12:05 AM. This wasn't received well. Leno was upset about it, he had agreed to the arrangement by insisting the network promise both his and O'Brien's shows a full year before making any further decisions. The network agreed, but within less than four months they reneged. O'Brien threatened to quit, Leno had as well, and both routinely savaged NBC in their nightly opening monologues.
On January 15, 2010 Conan, tired of the whole fiasco, settled on a $30 million payout from NBC (later upped to $45 million to accommodate his staff) to leave The Tonight Show. O'Brien came out of the debacle with most of the public and TV writers on his side, Leno ended up taking a severe PR beating.
And then there's the series regular who didn't expect to be one — Lillian Miller (aka "Miss Miller") was an audience member on so many episodes of the Allen/Kovacs, Parr, and Carson versions that she was forced to join AFTRA. She also frequented Game Shows (including Match Game and What's My Line), The Merv Griffin Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and even appeared on The Jack Paar Program in November 1962 as a guest alongside Liberace and Cassius Clay.
Steve Allen's incarnation (1954-57) provides examples of:
- Missing Episode: Much of his tenure is gone, although the premiere seems to exist.
- Suit Of Awesome: In one episode Allen sat in a giant teacup in warm water with 200 lemon wedges while wearing a Suit of Teabags. Years later this stunt would inspire David Letterman to wear Suits of Alka-Seltzer, Rice Krispies and Velcro at various times during Late Night with David Letterman.
Tonight! America After Dark (1957) provides examples of:
- Retool: It was more of a news show than an entertainment program.
Jack Paar's incarnation (1957-62) provides examples of:
- The Beatles: Paar showed clips of fans reacting to the Fab Four during the very early days of Beatlemania, mainly to dis the clothing, manners and hairlength of the teenagers.
- Precious Puppies: On his last night, after saying his Final Speech, Paar ended the show by calling to his dog sitting in the audience area. "Come on, Lika. We're going home".
- Smoking Is Cool: Back in the day where smoking was not only the norm, it was expected of celebrity guests. Paar and many (not all) of his celebrity guests regularly caused the set to be fogged over with smoke, thanks to five (or more) smoking guests on the set at any one time.
- Ten-Minute Retirement : See Below
- Writer Revolt: Jack walked off during the February 11, 1960 show after discovering that NBC censored a joke the previous night regarding a lady looking for the "water closet" who was directed to a wedding chapel due to her only using the initials "W.C." (the network cut into a news report over the joke). His sidekick, Hugh Downs, took over for the remainder of that telecast. Leading to a Funny Moment when he returned for his next show a few weeks later with the words "...Now as I was saying..."
Johnny Carson's incarnation (1962-92) provides examples of:
- Baa Bomb: "Sis boom bah!"
- Beware the Nice Ones: Carson was forever affable on-stage but had a legendary temper in his private life. Madonna and Sean Penn got married right next to his house; legend has it he was so annoyed by paparazzi helicopters that he went out and spelled FUCK OFF on his front lawn with rocks.
- After Charlie Callas tried to get a cheap laugh by deliberately shoving Carson, he retaliated by banning him from ever appearing on the show again...on-air, after which he left Callas to sit there pleading pathetically for another chance for the rest of the show.
- Close friend and "permanent guest host" Joan Rivers accepted a talk show gig on FOX (The Late Show) without first asking Carson's permission; when she subsequently called to apologize, he hung up on her without a word and never spoke to her again for the rest of his life.
- Catch Phrase: "Heeeeeeeeeerrrrreeee's JOHNNY!"
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: Carson would frequently have zoology experts like Jack Hanna on with various animals for him to interact with.
- Groin Attack: Accidentally carried out on a wooden target by actor Ed Ames during an axe-throwing demonstration. The entire audience went into hysterics for over a minute, and their efforts to stop laughing were not at all aided by a circumcision joke from Johnny.
- Head Pet: Johnny's encounter with an undiapered pygmy marmoset (see above) is a blooper-reel favorite.
- Leisure Suit Larry: Art Fern.
- Missing Episode: Much of the first 10 years, due to tape reuse. 1972-92 are intact.
- Signature Laugh: Ed McMahon's deep belly-laugh.
- Smoking Is Cool: Many of Carson's celebrity guests smoked, and unashamedly lit up on the set. There were frequent instances where five or more people on the set (Carson and McMahon included) had lighted cigarettes in hand at any one time, with ashtrays provided. By the early 1980s, with the habit becoming less socially acceptable and health risks becoming better known, both Carson and McMahon stopped smoking on the set. (McMahon ultimately quit, while Carson continued his pack-plus-a-day habit for most of the rest of his life, ultimately dying in 2005 of respiratory failure brought on by emphysema.)
- Who's on First?: A variant occurs in a skit where Carson played Ronald Reagan being briefed on his day's activities by his aide. One of the most memorable exchanges was Reagan reviewing his plans to go swimming with James G. Watt at the YMCA.
Both (1992-2009, 2010-Present) of Jay Leno's incarnations provide examples of:
- Catch Phrase
- Coca Pepsi Inc: One segment involves showing products of hypothetical mergers between companies to make humorous product names.
- Cool Car: Leno owns a warehouse full of them, and they turn up on the show occasionally.
- Deadpan Snarker
- Juxtaposition Gag: Some jokes on the "Headlines" special come from this sort of thing. Sometimes, two ads with incompatible content are placed by each other, or two ads with pictures are placed together and create improbable anatomy. Other times, the headline of one article is next to a picture from a different news story altogether, with unfortunate implications.
- Parodied on The Simpsons as Marge cuts out an article to send in ... Ketchup Truck Crashes into Hot Dog Stand - 30 Dead.
- Lantern Jaw of Justice
- Leno Device: Trope Namer.
- The Pete Best: Branford Marsalis was the bandleader before Kevin Eubanks.
- The Rival: David Letterman.
"He's only saying that because I'm here."
- Running Gag
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: The primetime failure of The Jay Leno Show was responsible for the fiasco by sabotaging ratings for the local 11:00 PM newscasts and Conan's Tonight.
- Vox Pops
- What Could Have Been: Originally, Leno's post-Tonight project was to have been an American Top Gear. Leno actually turned down this idea when it was initially proposed to him, realizing that what made Top Gear work was its non-commercial carriage on The BBC...and an NBC version would be filled with Product Placement and Executive Meddling. There was also some concern from BBC America that an American version would cannibalize ratings of the original on BBC America, where it's very popular. An American version did eventually premiere on the History Channel.
- The Tonight Show Starring David Letterman could well have been the case, but Letterman assumed he'd be the successor, as did Carson. Leno actively but quietly campaigned to get the job from the people that actually made the decision, however, so he got it and Letterman went to CBS.
~Conan O'Brien~'s incarnation (2009-10) provides examples of:
- Benevolent Boss: Reportedly, the exit negotiations were held up by Conan's insistence that NBC shell out severance money for his staff. Conan reportedly paid out of pocket to provide for staff/crew members who weren't covered by the NBC contract.
- Biting the Hand Humor: The last two weeks of Conan were downright vicious.
"NBC announced that they expect to lose $200 Million on the Winter Olympics next month. Now, folks, is it just me...or is that story hilarious?"
- Butt Monkey: On every single talk show, when the NBC fiasco was discussed, Carson Daly (who hosts Last Call at 1:30 in the morning, after all the major talk shows are done) was known as "that poor guy".
- Cool Car / The Alleged Car: Conan's 1992 Ford Taurus SHO played both roles as needed, seemingly varying based on whether or not he washed it for that particular star turn.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: The Super Mario Bros. 3 curtain, which Conan even mentioned after someone posted the original picture.
- Conan hires a Na'vi assistant along with his vampire assistant. The vampire is unhappy, and Conan suggests he can start work later and share the role. The vampire ends up running out into the sunlight rather than share the job.
- Executive Meddling: The entire debacle that NBC created by trying to reward Leno's show for failing in the ratings by moving him to 11:30 and moving Tonight, Late Night, and Last Call back half an hour.
- Failing a Taxi: Part of the gag that "introduced" Conan at the start of his first show. Unable to catch a cab in Manhattan, he ran...all the way to Hollywood. Then he realized he forgot his keys back in New York, so he burst into the studio with a bulldozer.
- Final Speech:
"Before we end this rodeo, a few things need to be said. There has been a lot of speculation in the press about what I legally can and can't say about NBC. To set the record straight, tonight I am allowed to say anything I want. And what I want to say is this: between my time at Saturday Night Live, the Late Night show, and my brief run here on The Tonight Show, I have worked with NBC for over 20 years. Yes, we have our differences right now and yes, we're going to go our separate ways. But this company has been my home for most of my adult life. I am enormously proud of the work we have done together, and I want to thank NBC for making it all possible. Walking away from The Tonight Show is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Making this choice has been enormously difficult. This is the best job in the world, I absolutely love doing it, and I have the best staff and crew in the history of the medium. But despite this sense of loss, I really feel this should be a happy moment. Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show and, for seven months, I got to. I did it my way, with people I love, and I do not regret a second. I've had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-Eleven parking lot, we'll find a way to make it fun. And finally, I have to say something to our fans. The massive outpouring of support and passion from so many people has been overwhelming. The rallies, the signs, all the goofy, outrageous creativity on the internet, and the fact that people have traveled long distances and camped out all night in the pouring rain to be in our audience, made a sad situation joyous and inspirational. To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I'll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask of you is one thing: please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism — it's my least-favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. As proof, let's make an amazing thing happen right now. Here to close out our show, are a few good friends, led by Mr. Will Ferrell!"
- Judgment of Solomon: Conan's open letter saying The Tonight Show was an American institution and he'd rather see Leno take it back than let it be "killed" in a later timeslot.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Following the NBC-Comcast merger, Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts fired Jeff Zucker for royally screwing up the whole Leno thing, replacing him with Comcast COO Steve Burke.
- Last Stand: The comedy talk show version. Conan, knowing he had about two weeks before NBC forced him off the show, started reaming out his own network (and Leno) on a nightly basis.
- Melee a Trois: What erupted among pretty much every late-night television host as a result of the Screwed by the Network situation.
- Conan O'Brien ripped on NBC and Jay Leno in his monologue, increasingly so as it became apparent he was being forced off the show and/or network in Leno's favor.
- Leno took shots at David Letterman's sex scandal.
- Letterman retaliated by spending the next week tearing into Leno and NBC.
- Jimmy Kimmel did a devastating parody of Leno on his own ABC show, then visited Leno during a Ten At Ten segment to call him out.
- Craig Ferguson first said he never wanted to work for NBC, then called the network executives "lying rat bastards" among other things, some of which were bleeped out.
- Jon Stewart called Jeff Zucker "the Dick Cheney of television, just shooting television shows in the face".
- Stephen Colbert mocked NBC's dishonesty, later accusing Zucker of wanting to burn the network down for the insurance money.
- George Lopez asked "What does NBC stand for, Nobody Backs Conan?"
- To complete the circle, Leno ended the week by swiping at Conan's ratings and hitting Letterman's sex scandal again. At one point, he said that "Fox is looking pretty good this time of year".
- NBC sent executive Dick Ebersol out to the New York Times to call Conan "gutless" and "chicken-hearted".
- Howard Stern weighed-in with the suggestion that Leno intended to screw Conan out of Tonight all along.
- Jimmy Fallon was stuck between siding with one of his comedy heroes (Leno) or his close friend and the guy who gave him Late Night (Conan), and tried as hard as he could to stay out of it, winning major points from Conan fans originally skeptical of him when he took over Late Night. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly celebrating his first year of hosting Late Night, Fallon stated that he called Conan to offer his support and tell him he would be willing to host Late Night at 1:00 AM with no resentment.
- Carson Daly, whose show is on at a dead hour and always on the brink of cancellation, appeared in the crowd of Kimmel's show asking if he could have his job.
- Robin Williams sang an Irish Drinking Song, the last half of which consisted of him alternating between chants of "FUCK THE BASTARDS THAT CANCELED THE SHOW" and "FUCK THE BASTARDS, THEY CAN'T TAKE A JOKE".
- Parallel Porn Titles: In a Triumph sketch where he visited a dog hotel in L.A., he took over a room and ordered one of the hosts to play a bunch of dog porn videos for him: "Turner and Cooch", "Marley in Me", "Beverly Hills Chi-Hoo-Hah", "Rear Bud: Golden Receiver", "An American's Tail: Fievel Goes Deep", "Homeward Bound and Gagged", and "Lassie Come Twice".
- Precious Puppies: Conan's Tonight Show Mini-Dose of Joy: Puppies dressed as cats! Complete with Ear Worm theme music. They were so gosh-darn cute, Conan couldn't help but laugh. "I can't compete with this!"
- Running Gag: Several.
- Larry King's oldness (carried over from Leno's era).
- The Green Car Challenge (done on both shows).
- "Andy'll Try It!"
- Making fun of a certain South American leader's fatness (not Hugo Chavez), even though said leader isn't fat.
- The Moody Vampire. It even got to the point where Jacob's actor from New Moon got into a fight with him (staged, of course).
- For a time, Conan's concussion.
- Puppies Dressed As _____.
- Sketches involving two creepy and poorly-done wax statues of The Fonz and Tom Cruise that Conan picked up at a wax-figure warehouse.
- Take That: Conan decided to exploit his loopholes by buying outrageously-expensive items, such as a Bugatti Veyron dressed up as a mouse with the master recording of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" as its theme song. It cost NBC $1.5 Million. He followed up the next night by buying out the winning horse and jockey from the 2009 Kentucky Derby. The horse was wearing a mink Snuggie, and both were watching NFL Super Bowl footage restricted from the public. The cost? $4.8 Million on NBC's tab.
- Conan pointed out on the Finale that those things were fake (except the Veyron, which was loaned from a museum) and didn't really cost millions of dollars...except for the Rolling Stones song, which really cost a lot of money.
- Later in that same episode, Tom Hanks came out to the tune of "Lovely Rita" by the Beatles, ostensibly a tribute to his wife Rita Wilson. According to Questlove, Jimmy Fallon's band leader and drummer for The Roots, the song cost NBC up to $500,000 in royalty fees.
- Unperson: Shortly after the end of Conan's run, NBC erased just about every single trace of him from their website, even going back to before his Late Night run, including his picture from the mural at 30 Rockefeller Center. Pretty much the only things involving Conan still on the NBC and Hulu websites are the episode of Saturday Night Live he guest hosted in 2001, and the 30 Rock episode "Tracy Does Conan" in which he guests and plays an important role in the plot. Even the "Tonight Show Experience" website, a grand multimedia salute to the Long Runner show's history, was yanked out of existence.
- What Do You Mean It's Not Awesome?: The "Tonight Show Twitter Tracker" was all about parodying entertainment shows' breathless reporting of celebs' most boring tweets.
- Widget Series: Perhaps the only major late night show to become one, ever. That's saying something.
- Writer Revolt: Since NBC's last bits of Executive Meddling, Conan devoted his monologues to openly bashing NBC, and did so right up until the Grand Finale.
- There's an element of Could Say It, But... here, as Conan had been given a gag order prohibiting him from badmouthing the network. He took to lampshading this in his last few shows.
- One of the writers did a sketch so against the network it seems Conan didn't want to say it.
- Conan deliberately ratcheted up the cost of his show, thanks to a contract loophole that allowed him to do whatever the hell he wanted on NBC's tab. Starting with a Bugatti Veyron mouse and the 2009 Kentucky derby winner in a mink coat. Most of it wasn't real...except the expensive songs and their royalties.
- Zeerust: Deliberately invoked by "In The Year 3000", a continuation of his "In The Year 2000" bits on Late Night.
- ↑ (Okay, so he was talking about the show's night-by-night length, but still...)