A long-running late night program, the Tonight Show was the first, and for decades the most-watched, network talk program on television. Since 1954 NBC has aired a number of versions of the show which has, as of the mid-1990s, seen four principle hosts and one consistent format except for a brief diversion in its early days. What started out as a music, comedy and talk program first hosted by Steve Allen became, for a time, a magazine-type program, broadcasting news and entertainment segments from various correspondents located in different cities nationally. That short-lived format, however, lacked the appeal of a comedy-interview show revolving around one dynamic host.
Allen also continued something else he had begun on The Tonight Show, on The Steve Allen Show, discovering new talent. Andy Williams, Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence got their starts on The Tonight Show. And on the new show, Allen's man in the street interview segments launched the careers of comedians Bill Dana, Pat Harrington, Louis Nye, Tom Poston and Don Knotts. Dana played the timid Hispanic Jose' Jiminez, and Harrington the suave Italian golfer Guido Panzino.
From mid-1957 until the present, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno have all three followed Allen's lead and hosted a show of celebrity interviews, humor and music, each host leading his show with signature style. Late night talk in the first three decades of television was dominated by the Tonight Show, and for the majority of that time by Johnny Carson. However, during the 1980s and early 1990s the late-night landscape began to change as more talk shows took to the air. Change was accelerated by the appeal of David Letterman and a combination of other factors, including inexpensive production, audience interest in celebrity and entertainment gossip, and an overall increased reliance on the talk show as forum for information and debate about the important as well as unimportant issues of the day. The late-night talk genre expanded as network competitors and comrades sought the kind of success that was originally the province of the Tonight Show.
Each of the Tonight Show principal hosts brought his own unique talent and title to the program. All of the shows featured an opening monologue, a sidekick or co-host, in-house musicians and cadre of guest hosts. Steve Allen's Tonight! featured his musical talents and penchant for unique comedy. He was well known for performing his own musical numbers on the piano and for humorous antics such as on-the-street improvisations and bantering with the audience, both of which were forerunners to the kinds of comedy stunts that became a staple much later on Late Night with David Letterman, also on NBC. In 1957 Allen left Tonight! to concentrate on another variety show he hosted on Sunday evenings. Allen's version of the show was immediately followed by the unsuccessful magazine format, Tonight: America After Dark, which lasted only a few weeks. That show was led by Jack Lescoulie, but he was never the central figure Allen had been. Essentially, Lescoulie introduced the segments and correspondents around the nation.
THE TONIGHT SHOW
September 1954-January 1957
Ernie Kovacs (1956-1957)
Pat Marshall (1954-1955)
Pat Kirby (1955-1957)
Hy Averback (1955)
Skitch Henderson and His Orchestra
Peter Handley (1956-1957)
Maureen Arthur (1956-1957)
Bill Wendell (1956-1957)
Barbara Loden (1956-1957)
LeRoy Holmes and Orchestra (1956-1957)