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. 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.
When Carson retired Jay Leno was appointed the next principal host of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Leno, a well-known stand-up comedian, brought to the show his own writers and comic style, showcasing it in his opening monologues and banter with guests.
Changes in Leno's show reflected other major changes in television since its earlier days. By the late 1980s late-night talk had become slightly less a white male domain. Joan Rivers hosted her own talk show for a short time, and popular black comedian Arsenio Hall had his own show which enjoyed a wide following, attracting mostly a young black audience, a segment previously ignored in late night talk. The first leader of Jay Leno's late night studio band was the accomplished black jazz musician Branford Marsalis. The second band leader and Leno sidekick was Kevin Eubanks, also black. A big change for The Tonight Show during Leno's tenure was its first serious competition.
Starting in the mid- to late-1980s, television talk shows, both daytime and late-night, multiplied in number. The in-studio talk program was inexpensive to produce and audiences were increasingly drawn to the sensationalism and celebrity showcased each day and night on television. Some late-night talk shows--including those hosted by Joan Rivers, Chevy Chase and Pat Sajak on the FOX network--came and went quickly. Arsenio Hall's show was on the air for several years before cancellation. Especially successful in late night was the up-and-coming David Letterman. Late Night with David Letterman started out on NBC, airing immediately after The Tonight Show from 1982 until 1993. Passed over for the host position on The Tonight Show when Leno was chosen for the post, Letterman moved to CBS where his new show ran in direct competition with Leno.
For the first time The Tonight Show shared the late-night spotlight. The two host/comedians, Leno and Letterman, were polished performers with large audiences. They became, as Carson had been, the gauge by which mainstream entertainment and politics were measured. On both programs comedy was delivered--and guests and issues of day treated--the same way, as gossip and light entertainment. After four decades The Tonight Show was still outlining and defining, even when not at the forefront of, the essence of contemporary televised culture.
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