Americans are a steadfast and energetic people. Damn all the well-intentioned health advice about getting eight solid hours of sleep every night! We simply refuse to let go of our day. We may defy the psychologist’s admonition that we should never go to bed angry with our spouses. But, from what we can gather from his debut late-night show, we’ll never go to bed angry with Jimmy Fallon — any more than we went to bed angry with Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Johnny Carson, Jack Paar or Steve Allen.
For the last 60 years, these hosts of NBC’s The Tonight Show have assured us that it’s OK to shut our eyes — finally — at one o’clock in the morning. In the kinescope recording of the very first Tonight Show in 1954, host Steve Allen assures his audience in his opening monologue that “this show is going to go on forever.” It’s a lofty claim, especially when fickle sponsors are involved. But after five, going on six, decades — who can argue? Through the years, the sponsors have changed. The staff and the show’s orchestras have given way to replacements. The hosts we’ve come to love and at laugh at have bid us adieu. But The Tonight Show itself has proven itself a persistent American institution.
The Tonight Show got off to an uneventful start in 1954 when a zany and unpredictable radio star named Steve Allen charmed America with his penchant for ad-libbing and uncontrollable laughter at surprises. Allen was also a credibly good jazz pianist who composed over 14,000 tunes. But he never took himself seriously in that capacity. Instead, he’d occasionally fall into moments of humility and seriousness when introducing true giants of jazz on his show.
Allen lasted as host on the show only three years. His show was successful, but NBC thought it wise for him to take on what was then bigger game — an eight PM show to steal ratings away from the prime-time Sultan, CBS’s Ed Sullivan.
Enter Jack Paar. As NY Times writer Nan Robertson points out in her 1984 column about him, it’s difficult to overestimate the influence of Paar throughout the nation. Robert Kennedy, brother of John F. Kennedy, once came on the Paar show and told the story of how his brother, during his campaign for the Presidency, was riding in a motorcade that was detoured around a city block. Robertson then recounts:
Attempting to get back in the line of march, he was stopped by a police officer. ”But I’m Senator Kennedy — I belong in the parade,” he said. ”I don’t care if you’re Jack Paar,” the officer said, ”you can’t get in there.”
In some ways, Jack Paar was just the opposite of his predecessor. If Steve Allen was comical, Paar was serious and emotional. Whereas Allen was humble and easy-going, Paar was difficult and moody. Allen was down-to-earth, but Paar was elitist and intellectual.
Still audiences loved him — precisely because he revealed himself to be a vulnerable performer who gave in to on-the-air flights of temper and whim. Once Paar stormed off the show for a month because censors had cut a joke he told about a “water closet” (a European phrase for “toilet”). Not until the network apologized and agree to let him finish the joke did he show up again at work. In 1962, Jack Paar ended his 5-year-stint on The Tonight Show because he could no longer abide the grind of scripting a TV show.
For the next thirty years, NBC audiences’ nightly love affair with insomnia would begin with these words from co-host Ed McMahon Monday through Friday: “And now ladies and gentlemen, h-e-e-e-ere’s Johnny.” Although The Tonight Show’s scripting under Johnny Carson was more heavy-handed then the shows of his predecessors, it allowed for enough mistakes and improvisations to engage audiences originally conditioned by the wacky Steve Allen.
Carson began reaching a new generation in his audience too — including a young kid and future host of The Tonight Show named Jimmy Fallon who begged his parents to stay up a bit later to watch Johnny. Eventually, Carson became rich and famous through his show and was regularly acknowledged to be “the King of Late Night.” Among the performers who got their start on his show are: Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Drew Carey, David Letterman, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, and Jay Leno, future host of The Tonight Show.
When Johnny Carson retired in 1992, Jay Leno had a hard act to follow. Leno’s show could be hilarious at times. But in general, it was more scripted and less spontaneous than Carson’s. Its pulled-back style was right for Baby Boomers now ready to let go of the sixties revolution and gear up for lighter entertainment. During the Leno era, riskier entertainment could be found deported to cable TV. The show continued with the Carson format though, and with its role as a platform for famous entertainers and politicians.
Carson’s and Leno’s battles with NBC were the stuff of legend. But it wasn’t until Leno was replaced with Conan O’Brien that the public discovered who rules despite ratings. NBC wanted a younger host of The Tonight Show host. So Leno was moved to a different time slot. O’Brien not only was funny, but he had a devoted audience and strong support among his peers in the entertainment industry. Nevertheless, NBC decided to move Leno back to the coveted 11:30 PM time slot, and bought out Conan O’Brien’s contract for $45 million.
On March 1, 2010 Leno moved from his time slot in Siberia (his ten o’clock show) back into his old time slot with ease. Though appreciative of Leno’s superlative ratings, NBC executives again became obsessed by the idea that younger viewers needed someone different.
Exit Jay Leno (again), and enter Jimmy Fallon. The kid from Saugerties, New York who wanted to stay up late to watch Johnny Carson is immensely talented. He sings, he dances, he impersonates, he does stand-up and… well… he just about does everything. But with NBC executives lurking in the not-too-deep background, he’ll break a lot of hearts if they ever decide to pull him. Realistically, although Steve Allen had predicted that The Tonight Show will continue forever, the infamous powers-that-be no longer reside with late-night television audiences. Long live Jimmy!