Becomes an American Institution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Tonight Show, evolving from an idea by television programming pioneer Pat Weaver, became a late-night American institution under the successive tenures of Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson. It came to define a genre in which it had many competitors and imitators, few of whom could claim to match the success of the original.

Summary of Event

The Tonight Show had its genesis with the mercurial Pat Weaver, a programming genius for the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company;late-night programming[late night programming] (NBC). In the late 1940’s, Weaver expressed his faith in the entertainment and profit potential of live, late-night television entertainment. To test the premise, Weaver introduced Broadway Open House, Broadway Open House (television program) with nightclub comic Jerry Lester Lester, Jerry and gag-writer Morey Amsterdam Amsterdam, Morey alternating as hosts. With its melange of vaudeville routines and musical diversions, the sixty-minute Broadway Open House was an immediate success and proof of late-night television’s starmaking powers. Lester, Amsterdam, bandleader Milton DeLugg, and buxom blond Dagmar Dagmar catapulted to fame. Tonight Show, The (television program) Television;late-night programs[late night programs] [kw]Tonight Show Becomes an American Institution, The (Sept. 27, 1954) [kw]American Institution, The Tonight Show Becomes an (Sept. 27, 1954) [kw]Institution, The Tonight Show Becomes an American (Sept. 27, 1954) Tonight Show, The (television program) Television;late-night programs[late night programs] [g]North America;Sept. 27, 1954: The Tonight Show Becomes an American Institution[04620] [g]United States;Sept. 27, 1954: The Tonight Show Becomes an American Institution[04620] [c]Radio and television;Sept. 27, 1954: The Tonight Show Becomes an American Institution[04620] Weaver, Pat Allen, Steve Paar, Jack Carson, Johnny McMahon, Ed Severinsen, Doc Leno, Jay

With success, though, came friction. Lester, who had discovered Dagmar, grew restive over her increasing popularity. Inflated by his own newfound celebrity, Lester also made untenable salary and scheduling demands. Eventually, the clash of egos sapped the show’s vitality, and on August 24, 1951, network television’s first regularly scheduled late-night variety show gasped its last breath. Nevertheless, the show’s fifteen-month run proved Weaver’s concept a money-maker.

Weaver decided that his next late-night venture should be more relaxed than the antic slapstick of Lester and Amsterdam. With the appearance of The Steve Allen Show, Steve Allen Show, The (television program) a production of WNBT-TV, NBC’s owned-and-operated New York station, in June, 1953, Weaver found a standard-bearer for his revised concept. Securing the support of NBC’s affiliates, Weaver promoted Allen’s local show to the network. Tonight!, with an expanded 105-minute time slot, debuted on September 27, 1954, and was seen as far away as Omaha, then the westernmost terminus of NBC’s coaxial cable Television;coaxial cable .

Allen, a veteran of early television, was a convivial, witty, and multitalented performer who established the essential parameters of the show’s enduring format: the opening monologue, segments involving the studio audience such as “Stump the Band,” a spartan set with a desk and chair for the host and a couch for guests, comedy skits, a brassy band to punctuate segues, a group of regulars, and a compelling mix of human interest and low-key comedy arising from Allen’s spirited interactions with an ever-varying roster of guests.

In contrast to Jack Paar’s and Johnny Carson’s shows, Allen’s Tonight! was permeated by music. Allen, an accomplished pianist and composer, featured singers Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, and Andy Williams. His unabashed enthusiasm for jazz led to appearances by such musical legends as tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

In June, 1956, NBC put Allen into a big-budget variety hour opposite Ed Sullivan Sullivan, Ed , the ratings blockbuster of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Though The Steve Allen Show seldom topped Sullivan, the genial host created enough havoc to warrant NBC’s continued support. To ease the pressure of Allen’s back-breaking schedule, Ernie Kovacs Kovacs, Ernie was brought in to host Tonight! on Mondays and Tuesdays. Allen soon dropped his late-night commitment to concentrate on his epic battle with Sullivan. On January 25, 1957, Allen gaveled his last Tonight! The series’ first epoch had come to a close.

Without the inspired guidance of Weaver, who in 1955 had been shunted from the NBC presidency in favor of Robert Sarnoff, NBC introduced Tonight: America After Dark on January 28, 1957. Featuring correspondents Bob Considine and Earl Wilson in New York and Irv Kupsinet in Chicago, the ersatz mix of news and entertainment was a flop. Faced with plummeting ratings, affiliates dropped out in favor of more lucrative local programming. At NBC, the search for a new host who could revive the format—and success—of Allen’s Tonight! began in earnest.

On July 29, 1957, NBC introduced Tonight, without the exclamation mark of the Allen era. At the helm was the bright yet idiosyncratic Jack Paar. A conversationalist who could tell a joke rather than an out-and-out comic, the brash and petulant Paar, in spite of his protestations, seemed to thrive on controversy. There were feuds with Ed Sullivan (now an NBC tradition), Dorothy Kilgallen, Walter Winchell, and even Steve Allen. Galvanized by the new host’s mercurial temperament, a growing legion of Paar fans pushed Tonight back to the top of the late-night ratings. NBC, pleased with Paar’s doubling of affiliates and the show’s soaring advertising rates, redubbed the series as The Jack Paar Tonight Show.

Paar’s supporting cast was also appealing. There was sidekick-announcer Hugh Downs and bandleader Jose Melis. There was daffy Dody Goodman, “weather girl” Tedi Thurman, and Bil and Cora Baird’s puppets. Semiregulars included French chanteuse Genevieve, British raconteur Alexander King, and Washington hostess Elsa Maxwell, as well as entertainers Zsa Zsa Gabor, Peggy Cass, and Cliff (Charley Weaver) Arquette. The main attraction, though, was the host.

Paar’s appeal was multidimensional. There was his thin-skinned tempestuousness, which Newsweek aptly described as “Russian roulette with commercials.” Also, there was Paar’s willingness to share even his most private moments. When he revealed to the country that his daughter Randy had gotten her first bra, he cried. It was a “performance” capitalizing on television’s affinity for intimacy and Paar’s own gut-wrenching confessions. Paar, though, seemed anxious, and as early as 1958 contemplated retirement.

On February 11, 1960, after NBC censors had cut a“water closet” joke without consulting Paar, the obviously vexed host announced his displeasure with the network’s action and made a teary farewell to his nonplussed nation. Paar soon returned after entreaties from NBC’s brass, but two years later again announced his retirement when NBC refused to reduce Tonight’s 105-minute length. Paar told the press, “I don’t want more money, I just want less time.” On March 29, 1962, Paar, at the apex of his popularity, sobbed three times and said good night, thus leaving America to ponder his replacement.

The Tonight Show’s third era began with Carson’s debut on October 1, 1962. Carson brought with him the redoubtable Ed McMahon. On the premiere, as Skitch Henderson’s band blared Paul Anka’s freshly penned “Johnny’s Theme” and McMahon boomed “Heeeerrre’s Johnny,” Carson offered his first late-night monologue and bantered with Rudy Vallee, Groucho Marx, Joan Crawford, Mel Brooks, and Tony Bennett. Reviews were positive, and the show’s already good ratings, a significant part of Paar’s heritage, began a steady climb to even loftier heights.


While building on the framework bequeathed by Steve Allen and Jack Paar, The Tonight Show has become inextricably linked to Johnny Carson by dint of his amazingly protean three-decade tenure. By finding a distinct and instantly recognizable “voice” within the show’s basic concept, Carson successfully won the hearts and, sometimes, even the minds of the American public.

In show business, timing, as it is often said, is everything. At one level, Carson was a fortunate beneficiary of larger forces swirling about him. First, he began on The Tonight Show just as the wiring of America’s television system was being completed. By 1962, the coaxial cable girded the continental United States. With the successful launching of cable systems and broadcast satellites, Carson had a technologically derived advantage enabling him to enter virtually every home in America, an edge not enjoyed by his predecessors.

Unlike either Allen or Paar, who viewed Tonight as a stepping-stone to bigger things, Carson had the prescience to realize that he had found a special niche as “King of the Night.” There were forays into primetime to host Academy Award shows and specials, but late-night was where he felt most comfortable. In protecting his turf, Carson took pleasure in knocking off such would-be competitors as Joey Bishop and Dick Cavett as well as abortive comeback attempts by Allen and Paar.

Timing was also a trump card of Carson’s comedic style. Whether he was doing a Jack Benny double-take or delivering a double entendre with wide-eyed innocence, Carson’s pacing was always a marvel. Even in the show’s campy skits, Carson’s self-reflexive reactions to his hokey material put the bits over. As in the monologues, Carson created the impression of being at one with his audience, an aspect enhanced by his “gee whiz” midwestern background and seemingly easygoing demeanor.

Carson, in spite of fame and fortune, successfully took on the mantle of “everyman,” a quality embellished by his casual demeanor. When Carson spoke, people listened. They also believed, demonstrating a kind of trust that, for example, created unintended chaos when, in 1973, an offhand mention of a possible toilet-paper shortage created a consumer run on the product. Similarly, Carson, like Will Rogers, served as an effective deflator of American foibles and political pomposity. Though he always sought a middle-of-the-road, nonconfrontational posture, his seemingly benign remarks had devastating consequences for such figures as Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Dan Quayle.

Tonight’s impact can be further gauged in Carson’s decision to move the show from New York to Burbank in 1972, a tacit recognition that America’s cultural center was shifting westward. The move further blurred the line separating entertainment and unabashed hucksterism. As Carson himself noted, his show had become a virtual nonstop promotional parade where the main item of business was the spotlighting of guests pitching their latest films, shows, records, books, and ideas. The show was both an influence and a mirror in setting the agenda of topics for public and private discussion, and it was a forerunner of such news and promotional mixes as Entertainment Tonight and MTV.

Carson, though a feared show-business figure, was perhaps most appreciated by talented newcomers looking for a break—which, from the outset of Carson’s tenure, came to mean a spot on The Tonight Show. The “halo effect” emitted by Carson extended to announcer-sidekick Ed McMahon, America’s most indefatigable pitchman, and trumpeter Doc Severinsen, the virtuosic leader of Carson’s Tonight Show Orchestra from 1967. Other late-night talk shows have come and gone, but it is The Tonight Show that will always remain the granddaddy of them all, having served as a veritable beacon of American popular culture, a barometer reflecting, and sometimes even galvanizing, the tidal shifts in America’s cultural, social, and political affairs. Tonight Show, The (television program) Television;late-night programs[late night programs]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alba, Ben. Inventing Late Night: Steve Allen and the Original “Tonight Show.” Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2005. Details Allen’s contribution to creating late-night television: Surveys the state of late night before The Tonight Show, as well as explaining the behind-the-scenes workings of the show and Allen’s effect upon the television landscape. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Steve. The Funny Men. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956. Includes Allen’s penetrating chapters on “A Few Thoughts on TV Humor” and “A Few More Thoughts on TV Humor,” as well as sections devoted to such funny men as Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, and Red Buttons.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cox, Stephen. Here’s Johnny: Thirty Years of America’s Favorite Late-Night Entertainment. New York: Harmony Books, 1992. A useful if roughly assembled scrapbook focusing on Carson’s stewardship of The Tonight Show. Though marred by an overly adulatory tone, there are memorable photos of Carson at work, and “guest chapters” by Neil Shister, Joe Rhodes, and John Lofflin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Cordova, Frederick. Johnny Came Lately: An Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. A whimsical yet informative autobiography by The Tonight Show’s executive producer, with numerous and witty references to Carson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galanoy, Terry. Tonight! Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. A brisk and highly informative chronicle of America’s most popular late-night show, with particularly good coverage of Allen’s and Paar’s tenures. Galanoy’s incisive criticisms add perspective. Includes photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leamer, Laurence. King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson. New York: William Morrow, 1989. A well-written account of the stormy interfaces between Carson’s professional persona and private life. Includes candid coverage of Carson’s often aloof relations with wives, sons, former lawyer Henry Bushkin, and associates Ed McMahon, Doc Severinsen, and Fred de Cordova.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNeil, Alex. “The Tonight Show.” In Total Television: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. 2d ed. New York: Viking Penguin, 1984. McNeil’s vast and valuable compendium of American television includes a concise and informative entry on The Tonight Show, as well as its predecessors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Metz, Robert. The Tonight Show. Chicago: Playboy Press, 1977. A carefully researched yet lively account of The Tonight Show and its principal personalities. Based on extensive interviews with Tonight Show writers, directors, and stars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paar, Jack. P.S. Jack Paar. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983. Paar’s warm and witty reminiscences include revealing chapters entitled “The Tonight Show” and “Plumbing Can Make You Famous,” the latter about the infamous joke that led to Paar’s clash with NBC’s censors and his subsequent walkout.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rico, Diana. Kovacsland: A Biography of Ernie Kovacs. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. A scrupulously researched biography of the iconoclastic comic, with detailed coverage of Kovacs’s uncomfortable, yet often scintillating, tenure as the show’s part-time host in 1956 and 1957.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Ronald L. Johnny Carson: An Unauthorized Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. A lively account of the interconnections between Carson’s personal and public lives.

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