Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

From Carson to Conan: See 5 Tonight Show hosts from TV's past

Looking back at Tonight Show hosts past

1 of 5

Steve Allen (1954-1957) Lanky and bespectacled and cool in a fifties Dave Brubeck way, Allen virtually invented The Tonight Show, if not the talk-show template itself, with his breezy 90-minute broadcast from New York. Allen was a terrible interviewer and fawned shamelessly over his celebrity guests, but his obvious good time was infectious with viewers. Allen also invented the man-on-the-street and the audience-participation routines still being milked to death by David Letterman and other talk hosts today.

2 of 5

Jack Paar (1957-1962) Tightly-wound and almost too erudite for his own good, Paar was the opposite of Steve Allen and spent five years trying enlighten viewers with his enlightened mix of sophisticated humour and star chatter. Paar was a terrific interviewer, and famous people lined up for a chance to appear on the show. But the man did tend toward drama– queen tendencies: When NBC censors excised his monologue joke about a “water closet” (U.K. slang for bathroom) in 1960, Paar walked off the show in a huff and stayed away for three weeks.

3 of 5

Johnny Carson (1962-1992) Carson’s remarkable 30-year run as Tonight Show host will likely never be matched. Forever confident on-camera, Carson relied on his writers for the all-important opening monologue and very often his response to his own groaners were funnier than the good jokes. Carson never had a problem with being made to look foolish and happily went along with the skits in which he played Aunt Blabby, Art Fern and Carnac the Magnificent. It’s surreal now to watch clips of Carson in his sixties/seventies Tonight Show prime on YouTube today. Besides the funky seventies fashions and the fact that most of the guests are smoking cigarettes, Carson is just so smooth.

4 of 5

Jay Leno (1992-2009; 2010 to present) Joke-cracking Jay literally barreled his way into hosting The Tonight Show, and not just once. Most people thought Letterman would be Carson’s successor, but NBC went with the fast-talking standup, hardened by years on the comedy-club circuit and sustained by a huge team of writers to crank out that rapid-fire material. With no-think bits like Headlines and Jaywalking, easy-to-take Leno became the perfect knockoff viewing for Joe Sixpack and Sally Housedress, and his late-night audience has held firm for two decades. Back in 2009, Tonight Show ratings took a noticeable decline when Leno was forcibly retired by NBC and replaced by Conan O’Brien. When Leno returned as host several months later, the ratings went back to the exact same as before.

Story continues below advertisement

5 of 5

Conan O’Brien (2009-2010) How to explain the debacle that was O’Brien’s stint as Tonight Show host? Over a painful seven-month stretch, the gangly Irish-American comic demonstrated that what was funny on the East Coast does not always translate to TV entertainment on the West Coast. O’Brien was woefully out of his element and while a few of his new comedy entrees were clever and perhaps prescient–including “Twitter Tracker,” which involved the reading of dull celebrity tweets–they were probably too clever for people watching television around the midnight hour. NBC couldn’t get dumb ol’ Jay back quick enough and reportedly paid O’Brien $45-million (US) to go away quietly.

Report an error