When I was young, late-night talk shows always seemed like the best of parties. Is this what adults did when they got together? Traded sophisticated conversation, told jokes and sang songs?
Those are my early memories of catching glimpses of The Tonight Show, back when Johnny Carson was host. There he was, wearing a plaid jacket with wide lapels (this was the late '60s and early '70s), swinging his imaginary golf club at the end of his monologue and playing master of ceremonies to a glamorous, nightly mix of movie stars, authors, sports stars and eccentric regular folk from small towns who were champion worm eaters or did something else worth noting.
The format that Carson employed is the format that remains today: opening monologue and chitchat with the bandleader, followed maybe by a skit then the parade of guests, which usually included a musician or comedian who performed.
It’s the blueprint that Jay Leno, who succeeded Carson in 1992, has stuck with and that Conan O’Brien used during his brief, disastrous seven-month tenure in 2009-10, before Leno resumed command of The Tonight Show.
That tradition will now be handed over to Jimmy Fallon next spring. Fallon is currently the host of Late Night, which follows The Tonight Show on NBC.
New York, New York
For me, the big news was the announcement that the show is relocating to New York from Los Angeles. Fallon, who was born in Brooklyn, made his name as a cast member of Saturday Night Live, which broadcasts from NBC’s headquarters in Rockefeller Center in the heart of Manhattan, as does his current show. As part of his agreement to take over Tonight, he asked for its return to the Big Apple.
Welcome back, Tonight Show. Long time, no see.
The Tonight Show moved West in 1972, when Johnny Carson decided he would rather live in the land of palm trees and chat with Hollywood stars than battle it out on the then increasingly mean streets of New York City. With most movies and TV shows shooting in Los Angeles at the time, it was easier to book guests there. Now, with movie and TV production scattered, that’s much less the case. (And New York, these days, is ever so much safer and friendlier, not to mention that half of young Hollywood lives in Brooklyn.)
The show began on NBC way back in 1954, making it the network's longest running show. Steve Allen originally led Tonight. Jack Paar succeeded him as host in 1957. Then Johnny Carson slid into the hot seat in 1962. During those early New York years, the show was way more loosey-goosey than it is now.
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Anything Goes Atmosphere
It really was a party, one that ran for almost two hours. Until 1958, it was even broadcast live. Guests dropped by just to say hello, not necessarily because they were plugging a new movie or TV show. “Just tell the stories you want to,” Jack Paar instructed Judy Garland in an amusing and extremely spontaneous appearance on Tonight in 1962. She proceeded to make fun of one-time rival Deanna Durbin, dissing her fellow child star for having “one eyebrow right across” and singing highfalutin opera.
The same anything-goes atmosphere reigned during Carson’s early days. He repeatedly played host to favorite guests, like actress Phyllis Newman, not because she was in a Broadway show but because he found her amusing and enjoyed hearing her talk, or Truman Capote, who would toddle on to the set between books just to be his fabulous self.
That doesn’t happen on Tonight anymore. Every guest is promoting a new movie, TV show, CD or charitable cause. It may still be a talk show, but no one simply plops down in a chair and talks merely to entertain, amuse or inform.
The closest we come to that these days is when Regis Philbin drops by on David’s Letterman’s Late Show on CBS to trade insults with the host. But that’s essentially two old guys being crochety and Philbin is usually there because some other guest backed out at the last minute.
Here’s hoping that Fallon’s Tonight Show will draw on New York in all its variety. If he’s smart, he will not only book movie and TV stars, but also Broadway performers, writers, politicians and anyone else he wants to talk to and who might have something interesting to say. Maybe he can even have poets on every once in a while (and I’m not saying that just because April is Poetry Month).
If I’m staying up late to watch, I want to feel like I’m invited to a party again rather than to a hard-sell convention. You don’t have to be Elsa Maxwell, speaking of a Jack Paar regular, to know that the best parties are always the ones where you have no idea who might show up or what will happen.