Johnny Carson, known as the King of Late Night, set the precedent for “The Tonight Show’s” casual and easygoing tone. In his record 30-year stint on the air, he influenced much of today’s late night lineup, namely David Letterman, Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon. NBC’s rich late-night history has led to Jimmy Fallon’s exciting takeover of “The Tonight Show” and Seth Meyers’ inheritance of “Late Night” later this month, but controversy continues over how these comedians are chosen.
“Tonight with Steve Allen,” a precursor to “The Tonight Show,” introduced the now common staples of late night television — the monologue, celebrity interviews, audience participation and comedy sketches. When Jack Paar took over the show in 1957, he changed the name to “The Tonight Show” and followed Allen’s format. After Paar, Carson’s transition into the show lacked the fanfare and fuss that marked the future takeovers of the show, but Carson certainly left big shoes to fill.
The network’s first late-night controversy occurred in 1992, on the question of Carson’s replacement. Many people favored Letterman, the host of NBC’s “Late Night,” to replace Carson, but the network tapped frequent “Tonight Show” guest-host Jay Leno instead.
In 2004, the 50th anniversary of “The Tonight Show’s” debut, NBC announced that Conan O’Brien, who had replaced Letterman on “Late Night,” would succeed Leno in hosting “The Tonight Show.” “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” premiered in June 2009 and lasted for a brief six-month stint before the network made plans to move O’Brien’s time slot half an hour later to accommodate “The Jay Leno Show.” Instead of allowing NBC to push back “The Tonight Show,” O’Brien moved to TBS, and Leno resumed his hosting duties.
With Jimmy Fallon taking over “The Tonight Show” and Seth Meyers taking over “Late Night,” there seems to be a pattern involving “SNL’s” Weekend Update anchors transitioning into more serious roles on nighttime television. To some, this pattern poses an assumed succession problem. Furthermore, it seems like Lorne Michaels has a monopoly on “Saturday Night Live,” “Late Night” and “The Tonight Show” — all of which he produces. Michaels has a track record for discovering big comedic stars, but perhaps his picks are meant for even greater endeavors.
Kathy Dimaya is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.