Arts & Life

A Look Back At 'Tonight Show'

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Conan O'Brien takes over Monday The Tonight Show on NBC; a look back at the opening nights of the show's previous four hosts: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno.


Tonight, Conan O'Brien takes over from Jay Leno as host of "The Tonight Show." The show premiered on NBC in 1954. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, and back then, the show was just called "Tonight." Here's how Steve Allen opened his first show.

(Soundbite of TV program, "Tonight")

Mr. STEVE ALLEN (Host, "Tonight"): I want to give you the bad news first. This program is going to go on forever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: Boy, you think you're tired now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: Wait 'till you see 1 o'clock roll around. It's a long show, and we especially selected this particular theater. This is a New York theater called the Hudson, and we especially selected this for this very late show because this theater's - oh, I think it sleeps about 800 people.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Jack Paar took the reins from Allen in 1957, and he gave the show a more conversational feel.

(Soundbite of TV program, "Tonight")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JACK PAAR (Host, "Tonight"): Hi, how are you? If you just joined us, it's our opening night, and we've been rehearsing for almost, oh, 14, 15 minutes here.

BLOCK: Paar was known for being a hothead. He walked out of a taping after NBC cut one of his jokes, and he left "The Tonight Show" soon after. And in October of 1962, Johnny Carson took the stage.

(Soundbite of TV program, "The Tonight Show")

Mr. JOHNNY CARSON (Host, "The Tonight Show"): This is kind of an emotional thing for me because I've known about this show for a long time. Tonight, a lot of people, a lot of my friends are watching all over the country, and I only have one feeling as I stand here knowing that so many people are watching: I want my nana.

SIEGEL: The search for Carson's replacement became the subject of much controversy. Jay Leno and David Letterman were both aiming to succeed the late-night legend. Eventually, Leno won out, Letterman moved to CBS, and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" premiered in 1992.

(Soundbite of TV program, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno")

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"): I can't think of a better way to kick off the show than with my first guest. Boy, he's an old friend of mine. Please welcome Billy Crystal.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. LENO: Hi, Billy.

Mr. BILLY CRYSTAL (Comedian): I have to tell you something, Jay.

Mr. LENO: Yes, what is it now?

Mr. CRYSTAL: No, no, I mean this. The buildup for this, you know, has been tremendous, and I just want to say I'm going to miss you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Well, tonight, Conan gets his turn. Who are his A-list guests? The actor and comedian Will Ferrell and Pearl Jam. The archival tape you heard came from Meadowlane Enterprises, Universal Media, The Carson Entertainment Group and NBC.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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