A Brief History of 'The Tonight Show'

A Brief History

'Tonight Show' host Jimmy Fallon
'Tonight Show' host Jimmy Fallon. Getty Images

Fast Facts About 'The Tonight Show'

Current Host: Jimmy Fallon 

Previous Hosts:

  • Jay Leno (March 2010 to February 2014)
  • Conan O'Brien - June 2009 to January 2010
  • Jay Leno – 1992 to 2009
  • Johnny Carson – 1962 to 1992
  • Jack Paar – 1957 to 1962
  • Steve Allen – 1954 to 1957

Current Band Leader: Questlove

Past Band Leaders:

Band: The Roots (The Tonight Show Band)

Current Announcer: Steve Higgins 

Past Announcers:

  • Wally Weingert
  • Andy Richter
  • John Melendez
  • Edd Hall
  • Ed McMahon
  • Hugh Downs
  • Gene Rayburn

Format: One-hour, classic host-behind-the-desk

Broadcast information: NBC, weeknights, 11:35 p.m. to 12:35 a.m. ET

Tapes: Weekdays, originating from New York City.

Premiere Date: 1954, with Steve Allen

A Brief History of the Modern 'Tonight Show'

The Tonight Show typically follows the standard six-segment, late-night talk show format. The show::

  • Opens with a topical monolog.
  • Follows with banter and a comedy bit from behind the talk show host’s desk or a sketch
  • Welcomes its first guest 
  • Transitions with a comedy sketch
  • Welcomes its second guest
  • Finishes with a musical or comedy final act

Jimmy Fallon became the sixth host of The Tonight Show on Feb. 17th, 2014. He succeeded Jay Leno, who finished his second tour on Tonight Feb. 6, 2014.

The transition from Leno to Fallon went as smooth as NBC could have hoped for. Previous host transitions did not go quite as well.

Former host Conan O'Brien took over for Jay Leno on June 1, 2009, during a carefully orchestrated transition that took place over the course of nearly five years. Leno announced his decision to retire from The Tonight Show in 2004, and O'Brien was soon named his successor.

Though there were some mildly tense moments in late 2008 and early 2009 when Leno seemed to resist the idea of leaving The Tonight Show, the transition was amicable. Probably because Leno was given a new, prime-time talk show, The Jay Leno Show, which debuted in September 2009.

By January 2010, because of Leno's flailing ratings and threats from affiliate stations that wanted to drop Leno in favor of other programming, NBC hatched a plan to return Leno to his spot at 11:30. That included moving The Tonight Show to midnight. O'Brien disagreed and was able to walk away from the show unscathed.

Leno returned as host of The Tonight Show in March 2010.

O'Brien was no stranger to filling big shoes. Besides taking over The Tonight Show from No. 1 late night host Leno, O'Brien was named David Letterman 's successor in 1993 when Letterman chose to leave NBC and Late Night for CBS and the Late Show.

The transition followed a contentious battle for the Tonight Show desk. Former host Jay Leno fought hard to get the gig after Johnny Carson announced his eventual retirement in 1992. Most thought the gig would go to Late Night host Letterman – including Letterman. Much of the soap opera-like behind-the-scenes history of the transition is told in the best-selling The Late Shift by Bill Carter.

Jay Leno's Second Retirement​​

In April 2014, Leno announced his second retirement from The Tonight Show. This after a bitter battle of words with NBC. At that same time, NBC announced that Late Night host Jimmy Fallon would take over for Leno as host in 2014.

The Tonight Show itself has a storied history, launching in its more familiar form in 1953 with Steve Allen as host. When Allen retired, the show was renamed Tonight! America After Dark and followed a format closer to The Today Show, which was quite popular at the time.

It didn’t last long, however, and in 1957, Jack Paar landed in the host role. Paar famously walked off the show in 1960 after network censors removed a segment of his program. He literally walked off, leaving his announcer, Hugh Downs, to finish the program. Paar returned a month later. His first words were: “… As I was saying before I was interrupted …”

Paar was succeeded by Johnny Carson, arguably the host who is best associated with The Tonight Show as it exists today. Carson hosted the program for nearly 30 years, creating memorable characters like Carnac the Magnificent and Art Fern. Carson also famously employed guest hosts when he went on vacation (including Joan Rivers, Bob Newhart, Jerry Lewis, and David Letterman), a tradition almost completely abandoned until a number of folks stepped up to host Late Show when Letterman underwent heart surgery.

Today, Fallon is steering The Tonight Show into the 21st century, a Generation X host for an audience of Millennials who expect their late night hosts to be involved in social media, up on digital streaming services, and creating shareable, snackable moments.