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The Tonight Show is NBC's long-running late-night talk and variety show, currently hosted by Jay Leno in Burbank, CA (near Los Angeles). The hour-long show premiered September 27, 1954 in a 90-minute format hosted by Steve Allen. The show features at least two guests each night, usually including a comedian or musical guest.
Now in its 51st year (though its roots date back to a local New York program called Broadway Open House in the early 1950s), The Tonight Show is the second longest-running entertainment program in US television history (after the soap opera Guiding Light).
While NBC executive Pat Weaver is credited as Tonight's creator (he created its morning companion, The Today Show), Allen had already created much of the structure of Tonight with his local New York late-night show, which premiered in 1953 on what is now WNBC-TV.
Johnny Carson had a thirty-year run as the host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Tonight became the first U.S. TV show to broadcast with MTS stereo sound in 1984. On April 26, 1999, Tonight started broadcasting in 1080i HDTV, becoming the first U.S. nightly talk show shot in HD. The show is shot in 16:9 aspect ratio with a 4:3 center-cut for standard definition TV viewers.
Steve Allen Introducing the Very First Tonight
A kinescope exists of the very first broadcast of The Tonight Show (then called simply, Tonight), and Steve Allen welcomed viewers with the warning, "This show is going to last forever." He has yet to be proven wrong.
Tonight Starring Steve Allen
Tonight Starring Jack Paar
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
During the later Steve Allen years, regular audience member Ms. Miller became such an integral part, she was forced to join AFTRA the television/radio performers union. Allen's original announcer was Gene Rayburn, who went on to greater fame as host of Match Game.
Music is provided by The Tonight Show Band, led since 1995 by Kevin Eubanks (no relation to Bob Eubanks of The Newlywed Game fame), who replaced Leno's original musical director, Branford Marsalis. In 2004, the long-time announcer Edd Hall was replaced by John Melendez, who started out on The "Howard Stern Show".
Skitch Henderson was the band leader during the Steve Allen and early Carson years, followed briefly by Milton DeLugg. Jose Melis led the band for Jack Paar. For most of Johnny Carson's run on the show, The Tonight Show Band was led by Doc Severinsen and the show's announcer was Ed McMahon. By the end of the Carson years, Severinsen had become the primary substitute announcer when McMahon was absent. When Severinsen was absent or filling in for McMahon, Tommy Newsom would lead the band.
The show's full name is currently The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. During the Carson years, it was known as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
On September 27, 2004, the 50th anniversary of the show's premiere, NBC announced that Jay Leno will be succeeded by Conan O'Brien in 2009. Leno explained that he did not want to see a repeat of the hard feelings and controversy that occurred when he was given the show following Carson's retirement instead of David Letterman.
The death of Carson on January 23, 2005, made Jay Leno the last surviving host of The Tonight Show.
Steve Allen with guest, Zsa Zsa Gabor on Tonight
Jack Paar with guest, Jonathan Winters on Tonight
Recurring gags (Jay Leno)
- Headlines (either Monday or Tuesday): Humorous print items sent in by viewers.
- Jaywalking: Jay Leno and a camera crew ask people questions in a public area, often Hollywood; it is meant to highlight humorous or ridiculous responses.
- Ask the Fruitcake Lady: Marie Rudisill, an outspoken older woman, responds to questions about relationships, sex and family. She was originally on the show to promote her cookbook about fruitcake.
The Tonight Show has been scheduled at various times throughout its history on NBC. All times shown are Eastern.
- September 1954-January 1957: Monday-Friday 11:30 P.M.-1:00 A.M.
- January 1957-December 1966: Monday-Friday 11:15 P.M.-1:00 A.M.
- January 1967-September 1975: Saturday or Sunday 11:30 P.M.-1:00 A.M. (reruns)
- January 1967-September 1980: Monday-Friday 11:30 P.M.-1:00 A.M.
- September 1980-August 1991: Monday-Friday 11:30 P.M.-12:30 A.M.
- September 1991-present: Monday-Friday 11:35 P.M.-12:35 A.M. (though the show may end at 12:45 A.M., on some affiliates)