Episode 7: The Litterbox of Late Night

Dear Readers, I am proud to introduce you to John Maddi, who authored this exploration into the world of Late Night television hosts.  John is a New Jersey artist, illustrator, screen printer, late night expert, and professional cat portraitist.  Over Episodes 7 and 8, John will be leading us through the history of hosts and offering insight to how late night shows as we know them today, came to be.  

In today’s age, the essence of time slots has no meaning. From home video to DVRing, digital downloads (or torrenting, shame on you), streaming, the saying “meh, I’ll just watch it the next morning on youtube”, tv schedules have evolved to a point where the lines of morning, daytime, prime time shows and so on have blurred. But it was not always like this. Before the days of the mainstream internet that we know today, there was a time when if we wanted to watch a certain tv show, we had to keep an eye on the clock. We had to subscribe to the tv guide and use a highlighter to mark our favorite show. If we wanted to record it for a later time, we had to go out and buy blank VHS tapes AND be at the TV front and center to make sure you press record at the time it starts. And most of all, there was a time back then where a handful of those shows were only watchable far passed your bedtime; shows that were hilarious and considered far too edgy to be shown at any time during the sun was up. Being 12 years old and staying up at that hour watching tv, knowing your mom would kill you cause it was school night, was like opening up a door to another world. And if you missed out on them, you better hope tomorrow’s news showed a clip of last night’s show, or else good luck ever seeing it again.

Ladies and gentleman, heeeerrrrrree’s late night television!

Late Night Origins

Much like a lot of 20th century broadcasting, late night television originated from variety shows; particularly a form of entertainment that started in radio before television became mainstream by the 40’s and 50’s. The perfect example of the not-so missing link between radio and television would be Ed Sullivan. In 1941, Ed Sullivan began his broadcasting career in radio as the host of Summer Silver Theater, a variety program on CBS. He worked his way up from there and eventually got noticed by CBS affiliates to recreate his variety show for television. It was called The Ed Sullivan Show and was filmed in CBS-TV Studio 50 on 53rd st. That studio would eventually be named the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the descendants of broadcasting stars David Letterman and now Stephen Colbert hosts his late night show.

The late night format for most shows are 1-hour long and divided into 6 parts:

1.    The Intro: Much like the beginning of most talk shows, there’s a theme song played by the show’s house band showing either a montage of scenes from the show or a graphic animation while showing tonight’s guests. Every once in a while the intro is preceded by a cold-opening skit or it can be skipped entirely depending on the tone of the episode.

2.    The Monologue: A series of topical jokes with a punchline in the end. Sometimes the host will string together a series of jokes based on one topic or the host will have his entire monologue based on one particular event. There have been times when a host used his monologue to include a skit, reveal something personal, eulogize a loved one, or have a serious discussion when a national tragedy took place.

3.    The Desk Segments: When the host transitions from standing center stage from doing his monologue into sitting at his desk, accompanied by the houseband playing to avoid awkward silence or dead air. The host either elaborates on a discussion from his monologue from prior, banter with a sidekick or band leader, tell a personal story, performa sketch by himself, with staff members or the audience, or transition to a video that may be a remote piece.

4.    The 1st Guest Interview: Most guest interviews are celebrities promoting a movie, tv show, or book. When they come on they often have a funny story of something that recently happened to them and are asked questions from the host about their current project they are promoting.

5.    The 2nd Guest Interview: Other times there will be a guest that is not promoting anything and is there because they are a good friend of the host or is just simply entertaining. Examples of this are Buddy Hackett on Johnny Carson, Howard Stern on David Letterman, and Norm Macdonald on Conan O’Brien.

6.    The Guest Band or Comedian: The show usually closes out with a guest band or comedian, usually there to gain exposure and promote an upcoming album or gig. Some bands over time become a favorite for the host and become a notable guest for the show. Examples of this are The Foo Fighters on David Letterman and The White Stripes on Conan O’Brien. Some hosts such as O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon have a background in music, and at times will play guitar along with the guest band. Many legendary comedians have made their way into stardom by starting out on talk shows. Jerry Seinfeld on Johnny Carson and Louie C.K. on Conan O’Brien are perfect examples of this.

At first sight, it seems like some television producer wrote and perfected this format down over a weekend. But if you were to go back in time to fall 1954 at NBC, you’d be surprised at how rough around the edges the format was, as well as how many hosts it took to perfect late night the way it is today.


Steve Allen

Steve Allen was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of all; a suitable fit for who would be the first host of The Tonight Show in the fall of 1954. Allen’s comedic and performance chops were the perfect tools to build what we now call the late-night talk show genre. When people first think of The Tonight Show, most people will instinctively think about Johnny Carson first (which is a good thing). But many people tend to undermine how big of a foundation Steve Allen is to this part of television. Not only did he do just about everything, but he also was the one to do it first. He was the first to interact with the audience, the first to go out and do remote pieces like talk to people on the streets and ask them silly questions. Not only was he the first to give a monologue, but he also did so while playing the piano. He performed as if he was invited to a small get-together and got bored 20 minutes into hearing about everyone’s mundane lives. So he notices a piano at the corner of his eye in the living room, sits down, and instantly becomes the life of the party.

Steve was already into the entertainment industry from birth. His parents were a vaudeville team in New York City; his father was the straight man while his mother was the comic relief. Steve’s mother would even be involved in some of his sketches on The Steve Allen Show, the precursor to The Tonight Show. She played a bumbling and inexperienced stand-in announcing some news on his show, with her fidgety mannerisms and stuttering speech adding not only greatly to her performance, but also added some irony because she was known for being one of the greatest female performers of all time.

It was from his mother where he learned the art of pure performance. Television is no place for a boring dud unless you’re a newsman or a doing a weather forecast; if you want to make it on television, you simply have to be entertaining.

Speaking of being a newscaster, here is a clip from Steve Allen’s show of him doing a sketch of a sports roundup. Notice how despite how unprofessional he is being, he has gained a lot of laughs.


These other clips show a culmination of the talents that he has to put on a show. The first clip is the very first monologue of Steve’s Tonight Show, at the time called Tonight Starring Steve Allen. Notice how even when he has no idea what he’s doing, he still manages to find a way to make it fun. The other is an early clip of Steve. If you are familiar with modern-day late night, then you will notice how improvised and off-the-cuff Allen’s performance is. This is him doing his monologue as he plays his piano.

Notice how Steve just talks to his producer Dale off-camera and then his bandmate Skitch Henderson just nonchalantly walks onto stage and starts taking over piano. Late night tv of today has become so perfected in the 6-piece format that improvisational moments are few and far between. With the way Steve Allen and his staff operate the show and the previous clip of him doing the sport roundup, one would think that these people put the show together in 30 minutes with no rehearsals. Back then there was no 6-piece format; there was just Steve Allen performing on stage and making people laugh. And that’s what made him so great.

Jack Paar


Entertainment is one of the key factors to making late night tv work. Another factor to have is the ability to have a conversation. NBC made lightning strike twice with The Tonight Show when they hired Jack Paar as their successor to Steve Allen. A man who of all people had a stuttering problem as a boy (which he conquered), Paar is a man who will not allow a single second of dead air on a talk show. He was so passionate in the art of conversation that he would be the token guy that would know a bit of everything on every topic. He would be the cool, crazy neighbor that you would run into in the hallway at 5pm and talk to you for what would seem like 10 minutes and then before you know it, it’s 11:35 at night.

Paar got into the entertainment business when the industry was still making the full transition from radio to television. He was a disc jockey in Midwestern stations such as Detroit and Indianapolis. His first noticeable impression in his career was when he was doing utility work at WGAR when Orsen Welles broadcasted War of the Worlds. Paar took it upon himself to be a hero and go on air, informing everyone “The world is not coming to an end. When have I ever lied to you?”

Though impromptu, this was the first glimpse of Jack Paar’s passion with informing and talking to a wide audience. He gained another audience when he was drafted into the military during World War II and would be assigned to the U.S.O. in the South Pacific to entertain troops. He nearly got himself in trouble impersonating high ranked officers, but at the same time got discovered by TV star Jack Benny. Impressed by his performance at the U.S.O., Jack Benny gave Paar a huge break by giving him a temporary replacement spot on Jack Benny’s show. He was such a big hit on the show that a sponsor for Benny’s program, The American Tobacco Company, wanted to give him his own show in the fall of that year on ABC. Only one problem; the sponsor wanted Paar to come up with a gimmick or comedy routine for the show. He instantly refused, wanting to distance himself from gimmicks and just wanted to be the natural conversationalist that he was. The deal was eventually terminated.

In July 1957, Jack Paar officially became the second host of The Tonight Show. It was at the time of his tenure that the show started to take the formation of the 6-piece format. The show was still 105 minutes long and there was still a 15-minute pre-monologue show before the nightly news. But unlike Steve Allen where his version of the show would yo-yo all over the place, it was Jack Paar to be the first one to have a formal monologue and extensive guest interviews. Below are clips from his interviews with Muhammed Ali and JFK.

His love for talking to people was not limited to his own show. Jack Paar was also known to be a widely loved guest due to his extensive conversations. Below are episodes of him being a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman.

Paar was notorious for being unpredictable, highly emotional, and nothing short of controversial. Jack Paar seemed like the kind of person who would easily bump heads with upper management. If he were to have a normal office job, it would not be a matter of “if”, it would be a matter of “when” he decks his manager across the face due to something he said that Paar didn’t like. In 1960, Paar made a joke regarding a woman writing to a vacation resort and inquiring about the availability of a "W.C." The woman used that term to mean "water closet" (i.e., bathroom), but the gentleman who received the letter misunderstood "W.C." to mean "wayside chapel" (i.e., church). The full text of the joke reveals multiple double entendres that are tame by today's standards, but too much for the network to bear in 1960:

“An English lady is visiting Switzerland. She asks about the location of the "W.C." The Swiss, thinking she is referring to the "Wayside Chapel", leaves her a note that said (in part) "the W.C. is situated nine miles from the room that you will occupy... It is capable of holding about 229 people and it is only open on Sunday and Thursday... It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the W.C. and it was there that she met her husband... I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you, if you wish, where you will be seen by everyone."

NBC censored the joke and resulted in Paar walking off the show. Below is a clip of the incident.


But that wasn’t his only controversy. Here is a list of other things that Paar has done on the show that made the papers:

  • He interviewed Fidel Castro on-location in Cuba, which at the time was taboo considering the Cuban missile crisis at the time.
  • He told a young and drunk Mickey Rooney to leave right in the middle of the show
  • He broadcast his show right in Berlin as the Berlin Wall was going up.
  • He openly feuded with his competitor Ed Sullivan.
  • He ended Walter Winchell’s career, which began the shift from print to television.
  •  He introduced Jayne Mansfield one night with the line “here they are, Jayne Mansfield!”, referring to her breasts.

Paar left the show a couple years later due to the fact that his emotional nature could not handle putting on an hour and a half talk show every weeknight. The epiphany of feeling this way was when he said “Everything I’ve ever had to say in my life, I’ve said twice.” His last show was March 29, 1962. Although he was no longer the host, he would have an occasional guest spot on another talk show or would have a prime-time special on NBC. Though no one can deny that he raised the bar for late night talk show standards, I would not put it past NBC if they wanted to distance themselves from someone who was a loose cannon like Paar. They probably wanted a host that appealed to a broader audience; someone more “Middle-America”. They got more than what they bargained for with Paar’s successor, when they gave the job to some shy radio broadcaster from Omaha, Nebraska. I believe his name was John.


Johnny Carson

If you were watching American television from 1962 to 1992 then you know who Johnny Carson is; because that’s how long he hosted The Tonight Show. To ask who Johnny Carson is to an American from that time is like asking who Abraham Lincoln is, and you can bet them $5 they will know. When Carson took over the show in October 1962, the show was already an established brand of eight years. But it was Johnny Carson who not only perfected the 6-piece format, but also evolved the show to become a hub for American pop culture and media. This shift in the format of the show gave him the widely known title “King of Late Night”. And if you ask anyone today that is in their 50’s or older, they will most likely tell you that he still holds that designation.

Johnny Carson grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, which is as Midwestern American as one can get. He was mostly a shy boy, but he started to overcome his shyness at the age of 12 when he realized he wanted to be an entertainer when he grew up. Carson said in an interview that he reached this epiphany when he participated in a school play. He said his line and it made the entire audience laugh, which he described as one of the greatest feelings in his life. “When you’re in front of an audience, you’re in control. When you’re not on stage and mixed in with a social group, you aren’t as in control, and it felt awkward. So I went into show business thinking I can overcome that shyness.” said Carson in the interview. The lady in the interview asked him where this shyness came from. Carson replied “I bought it in Chicago.” The audience erupted in laughter.

At age 13, Johnny Carson obtained a book written by Professor Louis Hoffman called Modern Magic. Through this, he learned how to gain greater control of an audience and be an overall better performer. “I took up magic because I saw one of those ads in the paper that said ‘be the life of the party’ and ‘learn to get girls’. And so I did, though neither one worked well.” said Carson on his show during a guest interview. His first real gig in show business was being a magician at parties, calling himself “The Great Carsoni” and would do various card tricks for $3 a show. Magic is so ingrained into Johnny’s persona that even near the end of his tenure as host of The Tonight Show, he was still performing a magic trick here and there. Below is a clip and near the 1-minute mark shows the trick.


When Carson got older, he began a broadcasting career in 1950 at WOW radio in his hometown of Omaha called The Squirrels Nest, performing a parody of a morning talk show interviewing pigeons on the political corruption they have seen while up on the roof of a local courthouse. He worked his way up into the entertainment industry and started to gain national recognition in 1955 when his idol, Jack Benny, invited Carson onto his show to do the opening and closing segments of the show. One of the signature marks of Carson’s style are long pauses with an impish expression. It was widely said that some of the mannerisms that Carson had was picked up by Jack Benny. The clip below is a sketch between Carson and Benny poking fun at this assumption.

Carson had a couple other shows as well as other guest appearances prior to becoming the host of The Tonight Show. He had a low budget sketch comedy show on CBS called Carson’s Cellar in 1951. This show was like a beta version of what we would see about a decade later as Johnny Carson’s version of The Tonight Show.


One of the key things about Carson’s Tonight Show is that he would dress up as different kinds of characters. At the 13:30 mark, you see Carson dress up as an elderly cooking lady stereotype. His monologue and interacting with people back then was unusual for him because he came off as so cheerful and loud. The Carson that most people are familiar with is a man who gives you a bit of a cold and reserved feeling, and then overtime he slowly lets you into his personal space with a joke.


This clip from The Johnny Carson Show from 1955 is an early example of his style of monologue. As he reads off his post-it notes in the monologue, notice how he has those awkward pauses and dumbfounded expressions as he is realizing the ridiculousness of what he is reading. Another thing of note is when his “secretary” comes out, she is wearing a rather promiscuous looking dress. After a bit of a pause, Carson goes “She’s a very pretty girl, actually. I’ve seen her without her glasses.” The art of the “pause” in Carson’s monologue became one of his staple features because through this gesture, he said far more than what he was conveying by saying absolutely nothing.

When Carson took over The Tonight Show in October 1962, his greatest strength on the show was the monologue. It became a late night staple because it was a time of the day when an entire family can sit down in front of the tv and bond together. Conan O’Brien said in an interview that his father, despite how busy he was, always said “Let me at least watch the monologue” when he would be working a night shift. To want to go out of your way to still watch a show despite how busy you were said a lot about the importance of Johnny Carson on tv.

Johnny’s monologue was an opportunity to condense the news into a few minutes of jokes, along with his impish long pauses and delivery to go along with it. Below is an example of the Johnny Carson Monologue.


Johnny’s humor would always be a foundation of what he talks about, whether it’s the news or whatever is on his mind. Below is an example of the hidden naughtiness of his humor in a monologue joke.

Not every comedian or host is perfect. Below are examples of the monologue bombing. None of the jokes were working. However, Johnny was able to play off his strengths and get through it using his impromptu comments in between jokes. He would even use the staff and audience around him to play off of.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was the place on tv where pop culture was at your fingertips. If something big happened in the world, you would be curious to know what Johnny has to say about it. If a new hit movie or book came out, you knew that the star of that movie or author of that book would make their way to being a guest on Carson. Guest interviews would be another big strength for Johnny. He knew how to play off guests; knowing when to step in and save them and when to step out and let them do their thing.


Below is a clip of Tiny Tim’s wedding on Carson’s Tonight Show. It is widely known as the most watched late night tv episode in the history of the medium. It was watched by over 40 million viewers; 85% of all television viewers.

Carson also played off his strengths with guests by playing practical jokes with them at times. This is Johnny along with Steve Allen playing a practical joke on Paar as well as another clip of Johnny playing one on David Letterman.

As a side effect to Carson’s practical joke nature, he also had a way of knowing when to put someone in their place as well. Uri Geller was a psychic that started gaining popularity in the 70’s when he claimed he was able to bend spoons. Due to his growing popularity, he naturally made his way as a guest on The Tonight Show. What Uri did not know was that he was booked as a guest because Johnny knew he was a hack. With his background in magic, Johnny felt insulted by this guy thinking his “powers” were real. Below is a clip of his appearance, with Johnny catching him catching Uri with his pants down as he fails with his act.

Carson took the performance level of the show to a new level when he would act as characters in sketches. Steve Allen would perform characters in sketches as well during his tenure, but his approach was very loose and amateur. He would often break character and laugh mid-sketch. But on certain episodes when he would come on wearing a cape and holding a sealed envelope, he was no longer Carson; he was Carnac the Magnificent.

This is Tea Time Movie with Art Fern, another character and sketch that he plays. 

It wasn’t until Carson that the show also had a sidekick: Ed McMahon. Unlike most sidekicks however, Ed was capable of being just as funny, if not, funnier than Carson. Unfortunately, his role was not to be the funniest so he had to bite his tongue. But there would be times when his humor would slip through the cracks. Below is a clip of Ed McMahon drunk on the show.

On May 1, 1972, Carson and his production teamed moved The Tonight Show to Burbank California. It was at that point where star power and pop culture truly began to shine through and have the show be the media hub that it became legendary for. But not only did he bring on stars that were already established, but he also brought on people struggling to get into the entertainment business. The last piece of the 6-piece format of the show is when there is either a musical guest or a comedian. Carson always had the privilege of having lots of stand-up comedians do an act on their show. If that person was good, Carson had the power to make that person a star overnight. Below are clips of celebrities who got their break on the show.

Johnny Carson retired from The Tonight Show 1992, ending a 30-year tenure as host and redefining the entire show. In an interview at the height of his popularity, someone asked him about how controversial Jack Paar was and why Johnny didn’t make his show controversial. Johnny replied saying that it’s easy to be controversial and have two people on with differentiating views. It’s much harder to make people laugh. That sentence I believe is what makes Carson the legend that he is.

Thank you, that’s our article for this month, unfortunately we are out of time. Tune in next month for a continuation of late night legends as we examine the following generations of hosts such as David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, and more.



   Late Night TV,1940’s

· Steve Allen Bio

·  Steve Allen Bio 2


· Steve Allen Tonight Show,

· Jack Paar IMDB

· Jack Paar Radio Show

· TV Acres Censorship and Scandal

· Jack Paar Youtube,

·  Jack Paar, Controversey

· Like Television Classic TV, Johnny Carson The Tonight Show  

· Johnny Carson Youtube Channel

· Johnny Carson, PBS American Masters,  




All original artwork in Episode 7 ©John Maddi 2016