TVWeek Honors Jay Leno: ‘Tonight Show’s’ 50th Anniversary

Sep 27, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Night Becomes Electric

Allen Apologized for the First Show’s Length, but Each Host Has Made Staying Up Late Worthwhile

By Chuck Ross

It started on this date-Sept. 27-50 years ago.

It’s 11:30 at night in Manhattan. The camera zooms in on the marquee of the Hudson Theatre at 241 W. 44th Street. The theater opened in 1903 with the play “Cousin Kate,” featuring Ethel Barrymore, and had subsequently seen the Broadway debuts of such plays as George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman” and the hit comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace.” At one point CBS bought it to use as a radio studio, and in 1950 NBC purchased it to use for the latest hot new medium, television.

As the camera focuses on the theater marquee, an announcer booms out, “Live, from New York City, the National Broadcasting Co. presents `Tonight,’ starring Steve Allen.” Cut to Mr. Allen inside the studio, sitting onstage in front of a piano. He’s not facing the piano-he’s facing the camera (and the audience in the theater).

“This is `Tonight,”‘ Mr. Allen begins. “I can’t think of too much to tell you about it except I want to give you the bad news first. This program is going to go on forever. Boy, you think you’re tired now-wait until one o’clock rolls around (the audience laughs). It’s a long show-it goes from 11:30 here in the East ’til one in the morning. We especially selected this theater-it’s a New York theater called the Hudson-and we selected it because I think it sleeps about 800 people (more laughter).”

Little did Mr. Allen know how prophetic his opening joke would be: “The Tonight Show” has endured for 50 years as one of television’s most popular programs, and looks like it probably will go on forever.

Remarkably, the program has had three primary hosts after Mr. Allen’s relatively short run-all of them, as has been pointed out many times-from the Midwest. First, there was Jack Paar. Then came the long reign of Johnny Carson. And for the past 12 years, it’s been all Jay Leno.

Besides commemorating 50 years of “The Tonight Show,” this special report celebrates Mr. Leno as TelevisionWeek’s TV Entertainer of the Year. It’s been quite a year for him. During the May sweeps he drew his largest audience in five years in the 18 to 49 target demo. During the sweeps “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” averaged 6.3 million viewers and a 2.5 rating in adults 18 to 49. CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman” averaged 4.4 million viewers and a 1.7 rating in the 18 to 49 demo. Mr. Leno’s show has now won 32 sweeps months in a row. And in April Mr. Leno announced a new deal with NBC that will keep him on the show until 2009.

An Appetite for Late-Night

“Jay’s greatest strength is the monologue. It sets the zeitgeist for America,” said writer Bill Zehme, author of “Intimate Strangers: Comic Profiles and Indiscretions of the Very Famous.” Mr. Leno has described Mr. Zehme as an “old friend,” and Mr. Zehme scored a coup by landing an interview with Mr. Carson for Esquire in its June 2002 issue.

“Jay is sort of a greater populist than Carson was because he’s aggressive about it,” Mr. Zehme said. “And Jay’s really rewritten the rules for late-night TV. Johnny ran a quiet, elegant program, which was right for those times. But Jay recognized that times have changed, and he’s transformed the show into one that’s big and loud and bombastic that fits today. Carson was really conversation-oriented. Jay’s not really a conversationalist in that sense. Carson was the master of sly comedy. Jay gives America big, boffo laughs. And it works. Stars today aren’t groomed to be eloquent like they were when Paar or Carson were doing the show.”

Like many smart shows on NBC in the early 1950s, “The Tonight Show” was the brainchild of the network’s programming guru, the late Sylvester “Pat” Weaver-actress Sigourney Weaver’s dad. Mr. Weaver also thought up the “Today” show. According to Mr. Weaver’s autobiography, “Best Seat in the House,” his first public mention of “The Tonight Show” came in an affiliates meeting speech he gave in September 1949.

“Summing up what at that time were nothing but my hopes, I said, `We have plans for a strip late at night, shot on an ad-lib basis as in the early radio days. The producer and cast will rehearse numbers that need rehearsing, then say good evening to the cameraman and go on the air. We’ll run for an hour with fun and songs and jollity and features and unrehearsed gimmicks. The idea will be that after 10 or 11 at night, a lot of people will still want to see something funny.”‘

Less than a year later Mr. Weaver proved there was indeed an appetite for late-night TV when he premiered a show called “Broadway Open House,” also beamed live from the Hudson Theatre. Basically an ad-libbed variety show, it was an early ratings success before crashing and burning 15 months later.

Mr. Weaver said he had considered only two people to be the initial host of “The Tonight Show”: Steve Allen, whom he had first seen perform on Mr. Allen’s popular radio show in Los Angeles; and Fred Allen (no relation to Steve), one of radio’s biggest stars, whom Mr. Weaver admitted was “too big for the job.” And Steve Allen had had a year-plus rehearsal, so to speak, for the new network show by hosting a local late-night show on WNBC-TV in New York.

Just a few weeks before the start of the “Tonight” show, NBC started running trade-paper ads to interest advertisers in the new program. “And now, with `Tonight’ starring Steve Allen (debut: September 27), the advertiser’s day is complete!” said one such ad. It described Mr. Allen as “the brainy, zany, big-time salesman, master of the unfrantic antic, who’s as likely to shave, take off his socks, or milk a cow as he is to spin out a tune …”

So with Steve Allen hosting, “Tonight!” as the show was then called, became a hit. Two years and four months later Mr. Allen was gone, leaving to devote himself to a Sunday prime-time show he had begun hosting.

For the following six months the show was retitled “Tonight! America After Dark,” with a new format. Mr. Weaver had left NBC, and the show bombed. With affiliates bailing from the new “Tonight” show in droves, NBC desperately searched for the next Steve Allen.

At the time NBC called Jack Paar to host “The Tonight Show,” Mr. Paar had not been seen regularly on TV in over a year. As he said in his memoir, “I Kid You Not”-which would become his signature line on the show- “I had run out of networks. I had been served at breakfast time on CBS, lunch time on ABC and dinner time on NBC. … Having been fired from movies, radio and television, it looked as though I had run out of mediums.”

But fate intervened. Powerful syndicated columnist Earl Wilson suggested to some of his friends at NBC that the out-of-work Mr. Paar was the perfect choice to save the debacle that “The Tonight Show” had become after Mr. Allen’s departure.

Mr. Paar took over the show July 29, 1957. A week before his debut he told the New York Herald Tribune how he was going to save the time period for NBC: “By talking,” he said. “For a whole hour and a half?” the reporter asked. “Well, not quite,” Mr. Paar said. “Of course, there’ll be singing and that sort of thing. But you see, I’m not a great actor or a comedian who can make you laugh by putting on funny hats. I’m basically a talker. I’m an offbeat kind of guy. My talent is in my whole approach to life. When I talk to people I seem so na%EF;ve and uninformed! And that’s not an act. I’m not afraid to admit what I don’t know. My best humor stems from interviews with people, so there’s going to be a lot of that on the `Tonight’ show.”

Later Mr. Paar wrote about his first “Tonight” show: “Our debut was a disaster, and the reviews were terrible, but the show soon caught on.” In spades. With its new volatile host, the “Tonight” show-soon renamed “The Jack Paar Show”-was again a hit. Just four months shy of his fifth anniversary hosting the show, Mr. Paar departed.

Next up: Johnny Carson. By 1962 Mr. Carson had been on TV a number of years. Back in 1955 he hosted a self-named variety show. New York T
imes TV critic Jack Gould didn’t like the show much, but he recognized that Mr. Carson had something special. “He is a humorist of the quiet unhurried school and he has a most engaging smile and personality,” Mr. Gould wrote in his July 8, 1955, review of Mr. Carson’s CBS variety show. “With help, he could go places. … What Mr. Carson does have is a singular youthful charm and an impish twinkle in the eye. He seems like the proverbial nice guy down the block. … CBS might be well advised to give Mr. Carson more inspired directorial guidance and a brisker script. He would seem worth the investment, if only because he is such a warm and pleasant individual on the home screen.”

Carson Takes the Job

Clearly, Mr. Gould knew of what he wrote. Seven years later NBC approached Mr. Carson while he was hosting an ABC quiz show called “Who Do You Trust?” After initially turning down NBC’s offer to succeed Mr. Paar, Mr. Carson said yes.

Two weeks before Mr. Carson’s Oct. 1, 1962, debut as host of “The Tonight Show,” TV Guide published its annual fall preview edition. It had this to say about Mr. Carson’s takeover of the show: “The content will be the same-guests who will sing, dance, tell jokes and just talk. But the style will be different. Carson is more incisive, sharper, quicker than Paar. But will the ladies love him?”

Mr. Carson saw the show through 30 years.

Though it seems like only a few years since Mr. Carson stepped down from the show and Mr. Leno took over after a well-documented battle with David Letterman for the host spot, it was actually 12 years ago this past May.

So, on the 50th anniversary of “The Tonight Show,” TelevisionWeek lifts its glass to toast a program whose vibrancy continues to amaze and whose host we are proud to salute as our TV Entertainer of the Year.