Thursday, February 20, 2014

On The Air: The Tonight Show (1954)

With all the hype surrounding The Tonight Show returning to New York this week, with one of New York's own, Jimmy Fallon, taking over as host, some folks might not realize that the series is marking its 60th anniversary on NBC this year.

Tonight started as a local late night show, emceed by entertainer Steve Allen, who took the show national in 1954. Future game show icon Gene Rayburn was the announcer, with Skitch Henderson directing the band. The success was such that Allen was, in effect, spun off into a primetime series, airing on Sundays, in 1956, prompting NBC to hire Ernie Kovacs to be, in essence, Allen's backup. Kovacs would host two nights a week, to compensate for Allen's Sunday show. Bill Wendell, a long time NBC studio announcer who would cap his career by working with David Letterman in the 80's, was Kovacs' announcer.

In January 1957, at the behest of network suits, Allen left Tonight to concentrate on his Sunday show. Kovacs was dismissed altogether, which proved to be a mistake. NBC opted to convert Tonight into a late night clone of its morning show, Today, amending the title to Tonight! America After Dark, anchored by Jack Lescoulie, and, later, Al "Jazzbo" Collins. This didn't last very long, as affiliates dropped the show. Those same affiliates returned when Jack Paar was hired in the fall to take over. Tonight has retained the traditional talk-variety format ever since.

Paar had infamously walked out on the show in February 1960, leaving announcer Hugh Downs to carry the show that night, but returned a month later, upset that the network had censored a joke about a tourist seeking a bathroom. Paar left for good in 1962, and was ultimately replaced by the man who has become the definitive host, Johnny Carson. However, Carson was under contract to ABC at the time that Paar departed, working on Who Do You Trust?, and thus NBC was forced to wait six months before Carson could begin, even though he had filled in for Paar at one point.

Carson lasted 30 years, and created memorable characters such as Floyd R. Turbo, Aunt Blabby, and, of course, the incomparable Carnac, The Magnificent, who was forever immortalized on record, not by Carson, but by impressionist Rich Little, on Little's 1981 album, "The First Family Rides Again". There were, of course, the legendary skits, including Ed Ames' infamous tomahawk demonstration, and the various animals that accompanied Joan Embry of the San Diego Zoo and took a real liking to Carson. Literally.

We all know what's happened since. Jay Leno ended up with two tenures (1992-2009, 2010-4), after an ill-fated primetime show bombed, forcing NBC to send Conan O'Brien packing. It was the darkest period in the series' history, and you'd understand the media trepidation when Leno decided again to depart, passing the torch to Jimmy Fallon, who, you might say, has risen through the ranks.

Fallon's ascension to Tonight also means that Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels has officially taken over NBC's late night slate, as he also took over Late Night, now hosted by another SNL graduate, Seth Meyers, whose tenure starts next week, when Fallon began his run there. It's expected that Fallon, who brought along the Roots as his house band, will continue some of his popular features, such as "Slow Jam The News". I wonder if he'll bring his toddler co-star from those Capital One ads for a guest shot......!

We'll leave you with a classic Carnac skit from May 1974:

I've never seen a full episode, just a few random segments here & there, starting with the latter part of the Carson era, and haven't seen any Fallon episodes yet. Carnac, though, is a personal favorite, leaving me laughing for hours. In all fairness, I cannot rate the show.


magicdog said...

Carson was truly one of a kind. He stepped into the right show at the right time.

I know a fellow who knew Carson back in the 70s & 80s and he said he was the complete opposite of the man you saw at the desk each night. He was rather shy and soft spoken who eschewed attention. I found this interesting considering how entertaining he was for so many years.

I loved the skits - half the fun was seeing Johnny doing one of his many characters. I wasn't often awake to see the show during broadcat - I often saw a truncated version shown in syndication in the 80s ("Best Of Carson").

hobbyfan said...

Carson's Comedy Classics, to use another title, aired in syndication. The Best of Carson, as memory serves, was NBC's Sunday night rerun edition of Tonight.