The late night comedy talk show format is an institution nearly as old as television itself, one of the few that remain from those heady early days of visual media in every home. A brightened-up version of that same style is used for all sorts of daytime shows as well, but there’s some enduring charm about comedians set loose during the waning hours of the day, or more dangerously, the wee hours of the morning. For the most part, it can be a grind, but there’s always that sense that anything can happen when writers get slaphappy or guests go far off script – all of which takes a strong personality to emcee the proceedings and bring it all together. Here are ten of the most legendary late night hosts ever to grace the small screen.
1. Steve Allen
You have to start with the man who started it all. In 1953, this intellectual musical-comedy showman joined NBC and started “Tonight,” a 1.5 hour talk-variety show with future “Match Game” host Gene Rayburn as his announcer which he based on a local New York show he’d been doing. Everybody doing the late night talk show schtick owes a debt to Allen and his innovations, not to mention his talent for wordplay. On the first show, he made a joke about the length of the broadcast, quipping “I want to give you the bad news first: this program is going to go on forever…” Little did he know how prescient he was – nearly 60 years later, it’s still on the air, and his declaration that it was not a spectacular, but rather monotonous is eerily apt these days.
2. Jack Paar
In 1957, Allen left “Tonight” to work on his Sunday evening variety show competing with Ed Sullivan, and in July of that year, Paar became the new host, and the tone shifted into something else until 1962. With Hugh Downs as his announcer, Paar’s show was more cerebral, as he was not really much of a showman. He was a conversationalist and a storyteller with a penchant for getting particularly emotional – he once walked off the show in mid-broadcast for about a month after a joke he told was censored. He had public feuds as well, with people like Ed Sullivan and noted muckraker Walter Winchell. Eventually, the workload was too much for Paar, and he moved to prime time, handing off the show to one of his guest hosts –a guy you may have heard of.
3. Johnny Carson
The reigning king of late night for 30 years, Carson set the standard and inspired an entire generation of comics to prove their worth to him, because if you could get a stand-up spot on his “Tonight Show” and get the rare call to come chat with him at the desk, your career was made. He defeated all comers, survived all sorts of changes in popular culture, and he’s still the model everyone else aspires to be. He could take the lead and be hilarious if need be, and he was never hesitant to lean back and play straight-man or support – whichever made his guests come off the best. His monologues were the last thing a grateful nation wanted to hear before going to sleep each night. You just can’t touch this guy.
4. Dick Cavett
This wry intellectual got his start by slipping monologue jokes to Jack Paar while working as a gofer for TIME Magazine, and Paar then brought him on board as a talent coordinator for “Tonight.” He left the show not too long into Carson’s reign to try his hand at his own show – and while his late night effort lasted only five years on ABC, but enough wild controversy and strikingly strange things happened to merit a legendary status. Be it Salvador Dali throwing an anteater into Lillian Gish’s lap, or Norman Mailer getting drunk and having it out with Gore Vidal, or Marlon Brando post-Oscar-rejection, or a Vietnam war debate with John Kerry that earned the ire of President Nixon – hell, a man even died on stage with him once. Through it all, his clever wit has served him well.
5. Tom Snyder
The time slot after “The Tonight Show” was opened up in 1973, when Snyder’s “The Tomorrow Show” began. He preferred a pared down style with no audience, band or any of the usual trappings. Instead, he would just have a guest on, sit down and have a long, in-depth conversation full of actual human moments rather than scripted banter. He was John Lennon’s last televised interview during the whole deportation debacle, and he was “Weird Al” Yankovic’s first television appearance ever – not to mention his notorious moments with both Johnny Rotten and with KISS. Eventually, the show was canceled to make way for David Letterman’s new show, but Dave always idolized him, and once he moved to CBS, he brought Snyder in as the first host of The Late Late Show in 1995. His laugh could bowl you over, and his sentiment would make you think, and he’d always tell us to “fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.”