By the time you read this, I'll be back from Comic-Con International, probably readying a multi-week report to commence, next week or
the week after. But at the time I should be writing this, I'll be at the con, moderating more panels than Jack Kirby drew in his entire
career. So this week, you get a collage of messages that I posted on Ye Olde Internet. Our subject is trivia about The Tonight
It's true [as someone in a newsgroup pointed out] that The Tonight Show, which is now an hour, used to be ninety minutes
long. What some don't know is that, up until the first show of 1967, it was an hour and forty-five minutes long...but not everywhere.
This anomaly was because, in almost every city, it has always followed a local late-night newscast which starts at 11:00. (For
the sake of clarity, the following explanation will presume Eastern and Pacific time zones. For Central and Mountain, deduct an hour where
When the program first debuted, some of those news broadcasts were 15 minutes long and some were half an hour. Ergo,
Tonight started at 11:15 in some cities, 11:30 in others, but ended everywhere at 1 AM.
At 11:15, they'd have the full opening and the host — Steve Allen, followed by Jack Paar, followed by Johnny Carson — would
come out and start the proceedings. Around 11:28, they'd go to a commercial. Then, at 11:30, they'd do a second opening, with the
announcer billboarding all the guests and another intro of the host...who would then start some new bit or bring out a guest, with little or no
mention of the first quarter-hour.
This way, stations with 15-minute newscasts could carry the whole show, and those with half-hour news programs could join the show in
progress. This was the way it was for a long time.
Then, in '66, Carson noticed that more and more stations had gone to 30 minutes of news. Increasingly, the first 15 minutes were
not being broadcast in most of the country, especially in major cities. Since that segment included his monologue, and his monologue entailed a
lot of work, it was maddening. He asked NBC to get all their stations aligned to 11:30.
When a number of affiliates balked, Mr. Carson began to contract a recurring case of Fifteen Minute Flu. Just before 11:15, he'd
announce he had taken ill, assuring all that he'd be fine by 11:30. They had no choice but to have the announcer, Ed McMahon, host the first
15, usually in tandem with bandleader Skitch Henderson. Just before half-past-the-hour, Johnny would have a miraculous recovery and would
assume his rightful place, commencing with the monologue.
The first time they did this, he came out and said, "Hey, you started without me!"
After a few weeks of this, NBC gave in and allowed Ed and Skitch to host the first 15 without Johnny having to feign sickness. In
the meantime, they went to work, convincing the last few local stations with the shorter news shows to expand. Finally, at the beginning of
'67, everyone got into line and thereafter, Tonight started at 11:30 and ran 'til one in the morning.
In 1980, Johnny — who was then unsettling NBC with talk of retirement — got the show trimmed to 60 minutes. With the
kind of sensitivity to audiences that kept him on the air for almost thirty years, Johnny had decided that viewers were developing shorter attention
spans. At the time, 90 minutes was a pretty standard length for talk shows but, before long, that changed. Today, a talk show runs an
In May of '91, so that local stations could sell a few more commercials before handing off to the network, NBC began delaying the start
of The Tonight Show. It was still an hour, as it is today, starting at 11:35. Carson might have made a huge stink about the later
start but he had other things on his mind. Later that month, he announced he would retire in May of '92.
[In response to a response to the above:]
You're right. There was something between the time Steve Allen hosted The Tonight Show and the time Jack Paar took it
over. It was an enormous flop of a show called Tonight! America After Dark.
We should back up a bit. Steve Allen hosted Tonight five nights a week, then added in an hour prime-time show. This
put him on TV for fifteen minutes shy of ten hours a week. It's hard to imagine anyone being on TV that much but, back then, a few
performers —like Allen, Garry Moore, Arthur Godfrey and Jack Paar — occasionally managed it. [Note: This was written before
ABC went to its recent format of "All Regis, All the Time."]
The grind began to get to Steve and his crew, and NBC was more interested in him pouring his energy into that Sunday night hour.
Late night TV was not then as lucrative a form of revenue as it would become under Mr. Carson. So Allen cut back and Ernie Kovacs began to host
Tonight two nights a week.
When Steverino decided to give up the late night show altogether, there was talk of the gig going full-time to Kovacs. There was
also, however, talk at NBC that maybe no one in particular should host.
TV was still relatively new, but networks were beginning to learn that it was possible for a performer to become overexposed; for the
public to, plain and simple, get sick of someone. Milton Berle's show — once, by far, the most popular thing on the tube — was just
then burning out. The thinking was that if Uncle Miltie could wear out of his welcome, America could tire of anyone.
So some NBC exec opined that it was impossible for any performer, no matter how talented, to do The Tonight Show for very
long. Rather than replace hosts every three or four years, they decided to come up with a format that (a) featured a multitude of hosts and (b)
rested on the shoulders of no one individual.
Thus was born Tonight! America After Dark. For years, I'd heard it was one of the all-time dreadful shows but
couldn't form my own opinion. All known kinescopes were either lost or locked away like the ebola virus. Finally, a few years ago, a pal
showed me a couple of grainy, full o' splices bootlegs —
— and you know what? They were right. Awful.
The show was marginally anchored by Jack Lescoulie, who had previously worked the other end of the broadcast day, hosting The Today
Show. On T!A.A.D., he introduced various correspondents — mostly newspaper columnists like Irv Kupcinet and Earl Wilson
— who did little mini-interviews with various guests in even more various locales.
The premise was, more or less, what was going on across America after dark...so you'd get two minutes in this nightclub, three minutes
in this restaurant, a short news commentary, etc. Major interviews were serialized: Hy Gardner would ask someone a question and get a
response. Then, fifteen minutes later, they'd cut back to Gardner to ask the same guest another question...
Like I said: Awful.
Tonight! America After Dark lasted seven months, sending more and more of the nation to bed early with each passing
week. Finally, out of desperation, NBC went searching for one, full-time host.
Ernie Kovacs was the first thought, but he was off shooting a movie called Operation Mad Ball, and was committed to another film
after that. About half the people then in show business would later take credit for nominating Jack Paar as the new host.
At first, NBC was still hesitant to bet on one guy interviewing people. When Paar signed aboard, the prevailing idea was to carve
the time period into thirds and have Jack host a different game show in each segment. When it became apparent that three game shows could not
be perfected in time, the only answer seemed to be to try a talk show and pray.
Paar's first few weeks (now lost) were reportedly awful. His producers booked odd, freakish guests in whom the host had little
interest. They had also signed character actor Franklin Pangborn as Paar's sidekick. Pangborn had been very funny in movies like The
Bank Dick and George Washington Slept Here but, sans script, he was just a nervous, uninteresting little man.
In today's TV industry, where a show must generally prove its worth from Day One, Paar would have been cancelled before his second
station-break. But NBC stayed with him until the bugs were driven out. Pangborn was replaced by announcer Hugh Downs, and the show
cultivated a list of witty, urbane conversationalists to guest: Alexander King, Peter Ustinov, Oscar Levant, Bea Lillie, George S. Kaufman and many
Some statistics might help this discussion. Steve Allen hosted what we now know as The Tonight Show as a local, New York
broadcast from June, 1953 until September, 1954 when the show went on the network. He left it at the end of January, 1957. So he did 15
months local and 28 months network...for a total of 43 months.
Tonight! America After Dark lasted 7 months, then Paar hosted for four years and eight months...or 56 months. (By the way:
The show underwent a few name changes during both the Allen and Paar years. It was actually called The Jack Paar Show for some of Paar's
Johnny Carson was chosen to follow Paar but he was then under contract to ABC for a daytime game show. With a wisdom that in
hindsight seems amazing, NBC elected to wait for Carson, rather than to go with their second choice...so the show made due with guest hosts for
almost six months. They did, however, hedge their bets by signing that second choice — a kid named Merv Griffin — to do an
afternoon show, commencing the same day Carson took over Tonight. Had Johnny faltered, his replacement was already in the bullpen,
That, of course, wasn't necessary. It's amusing to think of the execs who, following Steve Allen's exit, fretted that no one
could host The Tonight Show for more than a few years. What would they have made of Carson's stint, which lasted from October 2, 1962
until May 22, 1992 — or a few months short of three decades?
Jay Leno has now hosted for close to 100 months...or about as long as Allen and Paar combined. This statistic should be
asterisked with the fact that his show is an hour, whereas they did the hour-and-forty-five minute broadcasts. On the other hand, Jay takes
fewer nights off than anyone who was ever hosted The Tonight Show...and he guest-hosted over 300 times before getting the
[In response to yet another message:]
I'm too young to have watched the Jack Paar Tonight Show. I have some memories of the once-a-week prime-time show he did
with much the same format from '62 to '65. I recall it as being very entertaining and filled with droll and clever guests. Then again, I
was 10-13 years old then and at that age, anyone subtler than Professor Irwin Corey seemed droll and clever.
Soupy Sales was a big favorite of mine and when he hosted Tonight during the months 'twixt Paar and Carson, I was allowed to
stay up late and see him. He worked without pies or puppets, which was a tad disappointing.
When Carson started, my allegiance was over on Channel 5, which aired Steve Allen's syndicated talk show from 1962 to 1964. I
couldn't watch it on nights preceding a school day but, when I was able to stay up late, I loved it. It was wild and utterly spontaneous.
Leno and Letterman probably have more prepared for any given hour than Allen had for a whole week of 90-minute shows. When he went off, his
syndication company tried offering stations, as a replacement, a talk show hosted by a San Diego TV personality named Regis Philbin. It didn't
After Steve Allen, I started watching Carson and never stopped. Actually, at times, I didn't watch...I listened.
Still unable to stay up late most nights, I grew frustrated when Johnny would speak of something that had happened on a show I'd
missed, and it sounded wonderful. No one had invented the VCR yet so I assembled a contraption that would have done Rube Goldberg proud.
It involved taking my audio tape recorder — a clunky Webcor reel-to-reel model, soon replaced by a clunkier Sony — and
hooking it to an FM radio that could receive TV sound. Then I connected that to a timer and I had a device that, every night while I lay
sleeping, would turn itself on at 11:29, record Channel 4 for 92 minutes, then turn off. The next day, I was able listen to the audio of the
previous night's Tonight Show.
This was great, up to a point. The point was when something wholly visual would occur and the audience would howl with laughter
at...??? Often, I could only guess. Still, it was better than nothing.
After graduating high school in '69, I was able to begin staying up late more often — any time I didn't have an early-morn class
at U.C.L.A., which was way too often. But then there was another use for my invention: From 1969 to 1972, Dick Cavett hosted a very fine show
on ABC opposite Carson.
Nights when I couldn't stay up 'til 1 AM, I had to pick which to tape. I liked Carson better as a comedian but Cavett more often
had guests I wanted to hear. Decisions, decisions. Whenever I could stay up late, I'd usually watch Carson and audio-tape Cavett, since
the latter's show was less dependent on the host doing reactions to camera, attempting physical stunts or donning costumes.
I wish I'd saved some of those tapes. Better still, I wish someone would start The Talk Show Channel and run whatever old shows
of Carson and Cavett (and others) have survived. Johnny controls many years of Tonight Show tapes and keeps looking for ways to market
them. Unfortunately, they're usually edited down to just the comedy sketches or stand-up spots which are okay, but hardly the most interesting
If nothing else, I'd love to see the old monologues. I'm not sure you could find a better chronicle of those years.