Monday, September 27, 2004

Fifty Years of Tonight on NBC

Tonight it will have been fifty years since Tonight has been on NBC. Two men were largely responsible for this late night institution. One was the legendary Sylvester "Pat" Weaver. Weaver was the head of NBC programming in the late Forties and early Fifties. He was also arguably the most innovative network executive in the history of television. He invented the "special (called the "spectacular" in the early Fifties)." He developed Today (aka The Today Show). He developed the "participation advertising," in which many different advertisers might buy time on any one show (during the Fifties, shows were usually sponsored by one company). Weaver also invented late night television.

Pat Weaver was convinced that programming at 10:00 PM CST could draw viewers. To this end, Broadway Open House debuted in 1950. Broadway Open House had a show with a vaudeville/burlesque format (rather common in the Fifties). On Mondays and Fridays it was hosted by Morey Amsterdam (later of The Dick Van Dyke Show) and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays it was hosted by Jerry Lester. Broadway Open House saw the first of its cast changes when Morey Amsterdam left a few months into its run; it would not be the last. Jerry Lester took over hosting chores full time, only to eventually obtain a co-host in the form of Dagmar, a statuesque blonde who had started as a bit player on the show. Lester resented Dagmar's growing popularity and a feud erupted between them. Lester left the show and the show left the air not long afterwards. In all, Broadway Open House only lasted two years.

Despite Broadway Open House's failure, Weaver had not given up on his idea of late night programming. This brings us to the other man responsible for Tonight. On WNBT, NBC's flagship station in New York City, there was a late night show hosted by announcer Steve Allen. The show had the format that has more or less been that of The Tonight Show for the past fifty years. It featured sketch comedy, interviews and games with audience members, interviews with guests, and musical performances. Weaver thought that if the show was successful in New York City, it might be successful nationwide. Tonight debuted on NBC on September 27, 1954.

Allen remained with Tonight until 1956, after which NBC transformed Tonight into Tonight! America After Dark. While Steve Allen's Tonight was a comedy/variety/talk show, Tonight! America After Dark was essentially a night time version of Today. Critics hated it. Viewers stayed away. After 7 months, (January 1957 to July 1957), NBC was forced to return Tonight to its original format. They found a new host in Jack Paar, a televsion veteran who had one time had co-hosted The Morning Show on CBS. While Allen's strong point was sketch comedy, Paar's strong point was interviewing and it was Paar who brought interviews to the show's forefront. It was also Paar who introduced the monologue, with which each show was begun, to The Tonight Show. Paar was a smash hit, so much so that the show was eventually renamed The Jack Paar Show. Paar was possessed of a dry wit and he was overly emotional. He was also positively brilliant. Jack Paar left the show in 1962.

Paar was replaced by Johnny Carson. Carson had been a writer for Red Skelton and had even stood in for Skelton on his show when Skelton had been injured. He had hosted several game shows at CBS and ABC and substituted for Jack Paar on The Morning Show. In some respects, Johnny Carson was a combination of both Steve Allen and Jack Paar. Like Allen, he was cool headed and good at sketch comedy. Like Paar, he was an excellent interviewer. Johnny Carson proved to be the most successful host in Tonight Show history. He hosted the show from 1962 to his retirement in 1992. Since that time, Tonight has been hosted by Jay Leno.

Both Steve Allen and Jack Paar hosted Tonight before I was even born. Fortunately, through the miracles of kineoscope and film, I have been able to see clips from their shows. I have also seen Allen and Paar on many other shows through the years. I always loved Steve Allen. He always seemed well spoken, erudite, and very funny. He impressed me as a renaissance man, as capable of writing a book and acting in a comedy sketch. As to Jack Paar, I think he must have been postively brilliant. From the clips of his shows and his guest appearances on various late night shows over the years, he seems to me to have been witty, informed, and possessed of a dry, but sharp, wit. Of course, once I was able to stay up past 10:30 PM CST, I was able to wach Johnny Carson host Tonight. In many respects, Carson reminds me of my favourite comedian of all time, Jack Benny. Carson was self deprecating and possessed of a biting wit. He could create laugther with a mere look. I think Paar may have been a better host than Carson, but Carson was definitely a great host. As to Jay Leno, I think he has improved a good deal after a somewhat rocky start on the show. I don't know that he will ever be quite as good as his predecessors, but then I think Leno would agree that those are some really big shoes to fill.

At any rate, Tongiht is the longest running late night show of all time. It is a record that I doubt will ever be matched. Having been on for half a century now, I think it is impossible that it will ever be cancelled. If a host on the show proved less than popular, NBC would simply replace him. After four hosts (not counting Jack Lescoulie and Al Collins from Tonight! America After Dark and the various substitutes), it seems that the man behind the desk may not be as important as the institution of Tonight itself.

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