A late-night talk show is a genre of talk show popular in the United States, where the format originated. It is generally structured around humorous monologues about the day's news, guest interviews, comedy sketches and music performances. It is characterized by spontaneous conversation, and for an effect of immediacy and intimacy as if the host was speaking alone to each of the millions of audience members. Late-night talk shows are also fundamentally shaped by the personality of the host, which constitutes the "trademark" of the show.
The late-night talk show format was popularized by Johnny Carson with The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on NBC. Typically the show's host conducts interviews from behind a desk, while the guest is seated on a couch. Many late night talk shows feature a house band which generally performs cover songs for the studio audience during commercial breaks and occasionally will back up a guest artist.
Late-night talk shows are a popular format in the United States, but are not as prominent in other parts of the world. Shows that loosely resemble the format air in other countries, but generally air weekly as opposed to the nightly airings of those in the United States. They also generally air in time slots considered to be prime time in the United States.
Late-night talk shows had their genesis in early variety shows, a format that migrated to television from radio, where it had been the dominant form of light entertainment during most of the old-time radio era. The Pepsodent Show, which opened each weekly episode with host Bob Hope's rapid-fire, topical and often political observational comedy, was a particularly important predecessor to the late-night format.
Early television variety shows included The Ed Sullivan Show (originally known as Toast of the Town), which aired on CBS Sunday nights from 1948 to 1971, and Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle, which aired on NBC from 1948 to 1956. These shows aired once a week in evening time slots that would come to be known as prime time.
The first show to air in a late-night timeslot itself, Broadway Open House, aired on NBC in 1950 and ended a year later after host Jerry Lester left the show, a combination of frustration with being upstaged by his sidekick Virginia "Dagmar" Lewis, burnout from having to go through a large amount of material in a short time, and the lack of enough television sets in the United States to make television broadcasting in late nights viable. (Lester himself was a last-minute replacement host for up-and-coming 26-year-old comic Don Hornsby, whom Hope had recommended to NBC but who caught polio and died less than a week before the show began.) For the next season, the only late-night program on the networks would be NBC's Nightcap, a preview of the next day's programming hosted by Mary Kay Stearns.
The first version of The Tonight Show, Tonight Starring Steve Allen, debuted in 1954 on NBC. The show created many modern talk show staples including an opening monologue, celebrity interviews, audience participation, comedy bits, and musical performances; it also had some holdovers from the radio era, including a vocal group (Steve and Eydie, who went on to decades of success after Tonight) in addition to the house band, something that later late-night shows would abandon. By this point, the Federal Communications Commission had lifted a freeze on new television stations, which allowed new stations to appear across the country, and television set sales soon grew exponentially. As a result, unlike Broadway Open House, Tonight proved to be a resounding success.
The success of the show led Allen to receive another show, entitled The Steve Allen Show, which would compete with The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. Meanwhile, hosting duties of The Tonight Show were split between Allen and Ernie Kovacs; Kovacs had defected to NBC from his own late-night show on the then-crumbling DuMont Television Network. Both Allen and Kovacs departed from Tonight in 1957 in order to focus on Allen's Sunday night show. After the two left, the format changed to something similar to Today and was renamed Tonight! America After Dark, hosted first by Jack Lescoulie, and later by Al Collins, with interviews conducted by Hy Gardner, and a house band led by Lou Stein performing. The show was not popular, leading to many NBC affiliates dropping the show. The show returned to the original format that year and was renamed Tonight Starring Jack Paar.
The even greater success of the show during Paar's hosting resulted in many NBC affiliates deciding to clear the show. He was noted for his conversational style, relatively high-brow interview guests, feuds with other media personalities (his animosity toward print journalists Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell marked a power shift from print to television; Winchell's career never recovered from the damage), and mercurial personality. Paar famously quit the show in 1960 in a dispute over a censored joke, but was allowed to come back a month later. Paar permanently left the show in 1962, citing the reason that he could not handle the workload of The Tonight Show (at the time, the show ran 105 minutes a day, five nights a week), and he moved to his own weekly prime-time show, which would run until 1965.
After Paar's departure, hosting duties were filled by Groucho Marx, Mort Sahl, and many others. Johnny Carson took over as host of The Tonight Show in 1962 and the show was renamed The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Carson streamlined the format of the show, focusing more on entertainment personalities, tweaking the monologue to feature shorter jokes, and emphasizing sketch comedy. Ed McMahon served as Carson's announcer, while from 1962 to 1966, the band was led by Skitch Henderson, who hired, among others, Doc Severinsen. When Henderson left, Milton DeLugg took over. Severinsen assumed the position in 1967 and served as bandleader with the NBC Orchestra. The show originated from NBC Studios in New York City but, as part of Carson's shifting the show toward a more entertainment-oriented program, moved to Burbank, California in 1972.
NBC's two other rivals during the early television era, CBS and ABC, did not attempt any major forays into late-night television until the 1960s. ABC's first effort at the late-night TV race was hosted by Les Crane, which pioneered the controversial tabloid talk show format that would not become popular until two decades later. With most viewers not accustomed to the visceral conflict it entailed, Crane's show lasted only six months. Shorter still was The Las Vegas Show, a Las Vegas-based late-night show hosted by Bill Dana that was the only offering of the United Network that ever made it to air (because that network only had a handful of affiliates, it also syndicated the program to CBS, ABC and independent stations); it, along with the network, only lasted five weeks in summer 1967. Steve Allen himself returned to late night in syndication twice in this time frame, first with a show that ran from 1962 to 1964 and then with a series that ran from 1968 to 1971. ABC added the Joey Bishop Show to its late-night lineup in 1967, employing a talk show format, in an attempt to compete against the Tonight Show, which lasted until 1969. CBS went without late-night TV (the closest thing it would have to a late-night show was its popular late-prime-time variety show The Danny Kaye Show from 1963 to 1967) until 1969, when it acquired The Merv Griffin Show from syndication; Griffin returned to syndication in 1972, and CBS would not air any further late-night talk shows until 1989, instead opting for reruns, lifestyle programs and, later, imported Canadian dramas in the time slot. By the 1960s, NBC had already cornered the market for late-night television viewing and would dominate the ratings for several decades in the future.
A number of restrictions on television networks that took effect in 1971, among them a nationwide prohibition on tobacco advertising, the requirement that a portion of prime time be set aside for local stations, and rules prohibiting networks from also acting as syndicators, prompted NBC to extend its broadcast day by an additional hour with programming it hoped would recuperate some of its lost revenue. In 1973, NBC launched two new programs: a concert series, The Midnight Special, that aired Friday nights, and a low-cost talk show, The Tomorrow Show, hosted by Tom Snyder, that aired Mondays through Thursdays. Both shows aired immediately following Carson's Tonight Show at 1:00 a.m. ET. Tomorrow was different from The Tonight Show. For instance, the show originally featured no studio audience, while Snyder would conduct one-on-one interviews (Snyder's guest list was often more eclectic and would sometimes include the intellectuals and cultural and artistic figures that Carson had long since abandoned) with a cigarette in hand. Carson's new contract in 1980 allowed him to cut the length of his show from 90 minutes to 60 minutes, and for a short time, Tomorrow was moved to an earlier timeslot, to fill the time gap left by Carson's move. NBC felt that Snyder's more conversational style would not bring in enough viewership in the earlier time slot, forcibly changed the show's format to resemble Carson's, and added gossip reporter Rona Barrett as a co-host. The two did not get along and had an acrimonious relationship on and off the air. The agreement gave Carson's production company ownership of the timeslot following Tonight, which, a year later, Carson Productions and NBC used to create Late Night with David Letterman. When NBC offered Snyder the time slot after Letterman, he refused it, having always been resentful of the forced change in format, and NBC News Overnight, a newscast, took the slot instead, some months after Tomorrow's final broadcast in 1982.
During his tenure as host of The Tonight Show, Carson became known as The King of Late Night. While numerous hosts (Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett being the best-known) attempted to compete with Carson, none was ever successful in drawing more viewers than Carson did on Tonight, not even ABC's short-lived revival of Paar's show in 1973 using the name Jack Paar Tonite (though Paar blamed erratic scheduling and his own unwillingness to succeed at the expense of Cavett, his friend and former writer). Much like Paar, Carson became tired of fulfilling the workload of 525 minutes a week, so The Tonight Show was shortened to 90 minutes and again to 60 minutes in 1980 with 15 weeks of vacation a year. Because of a lack of competition, Carson was free to take time off (by 1980, he was only hosting three new shows a week) and have guest hosts on the show on a weekly basis, and for weeks at a time when Carson was on vacation, including Joey Bishop (a former competitor of his), Joan Rivers, David Letterman, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, David Brenner and Jerry Lewis.
In his final years, Carson produced new shows only three nights a week with guest hosts and "Best of Carson" reruns the other two nights. From 1983 to 1986, Rivers and Brenner served as Carson's permanent guest hosts. Many in 1986, including top executives at NBC, thought it was possible that Johnny Carson would retire after reaching his 25th anniversary on October 1, 1987, as it was such a logical cut-off point. In the spring of 1986, a confidential memo, between top NBC executives listing about ten possible replacements in the event of Carson's retirement the next year, was leaked. When Rivers saw it, she was shocked to see that she was nowhere on the list despite the fact that she had been The Tonight Show's permanent guest host since 1983. In 1986, Joan Rivers joined the brand-new Fox network, where she would host her own late-night talk show, The Late Show, which competed directly against The Tonight Show. Clint Holmes served as Rivers' announcer while Mark Hudson served as band leader. Carson was incensed that Rivers did not consult him beforehand and never spoke to her again.
Brenner also left Tonight in 1986, although he did so amicably, to launch a syndicated 30-minute late-night talk show called Nightlife, which was canceled after one season.
Garry Shandling, who had been a frequent guest host in the early 1980s, served as permanent guest host, alternating with Jay Leno, from 1986 to 1987, when he left to focus on his cable show, leaving Leno to be Carson's sole guest host.
In June 1987, the very successful Late Night with David Letterman on NBC expanded from four to five nights per week, displacing the four-year-old Friday Night Videos to the timeslot following it. FNV, which had several subsequent format changes, ran until 2002.
Carson did not retire in 1987, instead continuing as host until 1992 with Leno as sole permanent guest host. Rivers was fired from The Late Show in 1987 after abysmal ratings and a battle with network executives, leading to her being replaced by Arsenio Hall. Hall performed extremely well among viewers in the 18-49 demographic; however, Fox had already greenlit The Wilton North Report to replace The Late Show, leading to Hall hosting his own late-night talk show in syndication after The Late Show was canceled in 1988. The Late Show continued with several unknown hosts until its cancellation. Hall's syndicated show, The Arsenio Hall Show, began in syndication in 1988, becoming more popular among younger viewers than Carson. The last network attempt at a Carson competitor, CBS's The Pat Sajak Show, lasted less than 16 months, debuting in 1989 and being canceled in 1990. ABC opted not to compete against Carson with a late-night talk show; in 1980, it produced a pilot of a Richard Dawson-hosted show called Bizarre (it instead went to series on Showtime with John Byner as host) and, for two years, carried the weekly sketch comedy series Fridays. ABC instead counterprogrammed Carson with a successful news magazine entitled Nightline, beginning in 1980.
Beginning on August 22, 1988, NBC concluded its main programming for the day with a half-hour entry, Later, hosted by NBC sportscaster Bob Costas and airing at 1:35 a.m. Eastern, after Letterman, Mondays through Thursdays. It originated from 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York and bore a strong resemblance to an earlier NBC late-night favorite, Tom Snyder's Tomorrow, due to its lack of the typical late-night trappings in favor of a low-key but intense concentration upon Costas interviewing a single guest. Costas hosted the program until 1994.
Carson retired as host of The Tonight Show in 1992 following his 30th anniversary as host. This garnered major media attention and speculation on who would replace Carson. The two candidates were David Letterman (host of Late Night since 1982) and Jay Leno (Carson's regular guest host since 1987). Leno was eventually chosen, leading to Letterman leaving the network to launch a direct competitor late-night talk show, the Late Show with David Letterman on CBS in 1993. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno debuted in 1992. Letterman was replaced by newcomer Conan O'Brien as host of Late Night. Arsenio Hall's show lost numerous affiliates after Letterman's debut and his show was canceled one year later. Fox returned to late-night television in September 1993 with The Chevy Chase Show. However, due to sagging ratings, disastrous reviews and Chase's embitterment at not being allowed to do the show according to his preferences, the show was canceled the following month. On NBC's Later, Bob Costas gave way to the host of the cable show Talk Soup, Greg Kinnear, whose tenure was accompanied by a move to Burbank and toward a more conventional, audience-and-celebrity-driven format. Kinnear parlayed that experience into a movie career and stayed only two years; he was succeeded by a plethora of fill-in hosts for the next four years. Even MTV entered the late-night contest when it debuted The Jon Stewart Show, hosted by Jon Stewart, which ran until 1995. Letterman initially won the late-night ratings battle but fell behind Leno in 1995; Leno generally remained in first place until first leaving Tonight in 2009. To combat NBC's Late Night, David Letterman (ironically, its former host) created The Late Late Show to follow Letterman at 12:37 a.m.; the first host was the one who helmed The Tomorrow Show in the 1970s and 1980s, Tom Snyder, who hosted the show using the same format as Tomorrow until his departure in 1999. Yet again, ironically, Snyder was Letterman's predecessor on NBC (see above). The Late Late Show's second host, Craig Kilborn, followed a more conventional (albeit low-budget) late-night format. He had previously served as host of The Daily Show, a late-night satirical news program on Comedy Central, and upon Kilborn's departure, Jon Stewart replaced him on that cable program. Perhaps one of the most unusual late-night hosts to come out of this boom was basketball player and later entrepreneur Magic Johnson, whose syndicated The Magic Hour was a major flop and effectively ended any future efforts from anyone else at a syndicated late-night talk show at that point in time.
ABC finally re-entered the late-night first-run comedy fray, after an absence of 15 years, in 1997 by placing Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher (which had aired on Comedy Central from 1993 to 1996) into its lineup after Nightline. Unlike traditional late-night talk shows, Politically Incorrect was a half hour in length and (following a brief host monologue) featured a panel of four guests debating topical issues while Maher moderated in a comedic fashion.
With the new millennium in 2000, NBC's Later finally got another permanent host after various figures had taken the chair for several years, in the form of a VH1 personality, Cynthia Garrett, who broke the proverbial "glass ceiling" by becoming the first African-American female late-night host. Unfortunately, Garrett only lasted a year before NBC canceled the 12-and-a-half-year-old Later in favor of reruns of the critically-acclaimed cult Canadian-produced sketch comedy series, SCTV, itself a former NBC late-night program that aired Fridays between 1981 and 1983. That action, a temporary measure, was necessitated by the prolonged development of, and negotiations with a host of, a slated replacement show (see below).
Many late-night talk shows went off the air in the days following the September 11 attacks of 2001, while their networks aired round-the-clock news coverage. Letterman was the first to return on September 17, addressing the situation in an opening monologue. The show was not presented in its normal jovial manner, and featured Dan Rather, Regis Philbin, and a musical performance from Tori Amos. Politically Incorrect also resumed on September 17 and immediately drew controversy due to remarks Maher and a guest (Dinesh D'Souza) made concerning the "coward" label given to the terrorists by President George W. Bush. The Tonight Show returned the following night, featuring John McCain and a performance from Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
After NBC's placeholding run of SCTV at 1:35 a.m. came to an end after a year, the network debuted Last Call with Carson Daly in its place in January 2002; Daly was a former MTV VJ. Four months later, it expanded to five nights a week (from Later's four), and unlike the other shows on the air at the time, only a half-year's worth of first-run programs were recorded each season. In 2009, Daly dropped the traditional celebrity-driven in-studio template in favor of something of a travelogue that carried the viewer to various pop-culture attractions throughout the U.S., along with interviews. Daly survived a brush with cancelation in 2010 and continued the program for nine more years.
Politically Incorrect was canceled due to low ratings in the summer of 2002, after which Maher joined HBO and began hosting the similarly-formatted weekly series Real Time. ABC then tapped Comedy Central personality Jimmy Kimmel to host a more traditional late-night program, Jimmy Kimmel Live!. From its beginning in 2003 until early 2013, the show aired following Nightline on ABC's late-night lineup. With Nightline past its prime in audience size due to the proliferation of cable news, and ABC believing in stronger ratings potential in the timeslot, Jimmy Kimmel Live! was moved to 11:35 p.m. ET/PT on January 8, 2013--placing it in line with its competitors, Letterman and Jimmy Fallon.
On October 17, 2005, Comedy Central premiered a spin-off of The Daily Show hosted by regular cast member Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report. The show was structured as a parody of personality-based cable news programs, featuring Colbert portrayed as a narcissistic conservative pundit reminiscent of Fox News hosts such as Bill O'Reilly and Tucker Carlson, among others.
Jake Sasseville entered the late-night arena after a self-syndication campaign got him clearance on several ABC affiliates by local general managers in 2008. The Edge with Jake Sasseville aired after Jimmy Kimmel Live! in some markets, reaching a total of 35 million homes, despite the network's concerns. The show went off the air in 2010. Another syndicated show that earned significant clearance in the late 2000s was Comics Unleashed, a panel comedy show that lasted only one season but was seen in reruns for several years afterward.
Scottish native Craig Ferguson succeeded Kilborn as host of The Late Late Show in 2005, renaming it The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. TBS entered the late-night scene in 2009 when it debuted Lopez Tonight, hosted by comedian George Lopez. On September 27, 2004, the 50th anniversary of The Tonight Shows debut, NBC announced that Jay Leno would be succeeded by Conan O'Brien, in 2009. Leno explained that he did not want to cause a repeat of the hard feelings and controversy that occurred when he was picked for the show over David Letterman following Carson's retirement in 1992. O'Brien's final Late Night episode was taped on February 20, 2009. Saturday Night Live alum Jimmy Fallon took over as host of Late Night on March 2, 2009.
The popularity of late-night shows in the United States has been cited as a key factor in Americans not getting a requisite seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Since 2015, late-night talk shows have competed for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety Talk Series; prior to then, the genre competed against general variety shows for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety Series.
It was announced on July 21, 2008 that Jay Leno would host his final episode of The Tonight Show on May 29, 2009 with Conan O'Brien and James Taylor as his guests. O'Brien took over hosting duties the following Monday, June 1, 2009. On December 9, 2008, it was announced that Jay Leno would be hosting a new nightly primetime show in September 2009, which aired at 10p.m. ET. The Jay Leno Show, totally separate from the O'Brien Tonight, ended after a very short run on February 9, 2010, due to low ratings, which, combined with NBC's poor primetime performance then, affected viewership adversely of its lead-out late newscasts on many NBC stations. Television critics, among others, have cited the episode as one of the most disastrous experiments in American TV history.
On January 7, 2010, multiple media outlets reported that The Jay Leno Show would be moved from the 10p.m. Eastern time slot to 11:35 p.m. and The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien would be moved from 11:35 p.m. to 12:05 a.m. effective March 1, 2010, the first time in its history that the show would begin after midnight in the Eastern Time Zone. On January 12, 2010, O'Brien publicly announced in an open letter that he intended to leave NBC if it moved The Tonight Show to any timeslot after midnight in order to accommodate The Jay Leno Show at 11:35 p.m. ET. He felt it would damage the show's legacy, as it had always started after the late local news since it began in 1954. After several days of negotiations, O'Brien reached a settlement with NBC that allowed him to leave The Tonight Show on January 22, 2010, ending his affiliation with NBC after 22 years. Leno began his second tenure as host of The Tonight Show on March 1, 2010, after the 2010 Winter Olympics, but only after major controversy. Leno's second Tonight iteration was taped at NBC's Studio 11 in Burbank, the former home of The Jay Leno Show, with a modified version of that show's set. After leaving NBC, O'Brien began hosting his new late night talk show, Conan, on TBS on November 8, 2010, after the non-compete clause in his NBC contract had lapsed.
In March 2013, news broke that NBC was expected to part ways with Leno for good after his contract expired in 2014, clearing the way for Fallon (whose tenure at Late Night had found success with a young, culturally savvy audience that was very desirable to advertisers) to take over The Tonight Show beginning that year, which also marked the 60th anniversary of the franchise. NBC confirmed the change on April 3, 2013. Under Fallon, the show returned to New York City, where the show originated from its 1954 debut until 1972; NBC no longer owns the former company-owned studios in Burbank where Carson and Leno's programs originated (O'Brien's Tonight Show taped at nearby Universal Studios). On May 13, 2013, it was announced that Fallon's former SNL castmate Seth Meyers would assume the duties of Late Night once Fallon moved to The Tonight Show. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon debuted during NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics in Russia on February 17, 2014, while Late Night with Seth Meyers debuted one week later.
2014 and 2015 saw a realignment to CBS's late night lineup: in April 2014, Craig Ferguson announced that he would leave The Late Late Show at the end of the year. On September 8, 2014, British actor and comedian James Corden was announced as the new host of The Late Late Show. His incarnation of the program is modelled more upon British chat shows such as The Graham Norton Show, de-emphasizing the monologue and relying on multiple guests present throughout the show, rather than interviewed individually. Meanwhile, in May 2015, David Letterman retired from Late Show, ending a 33-year career on late-night TV, and was succeeded the following September by Stephen Colbert--who departed from Comedy Central and The Colbert Report to host the program. On August 6, 2015, Jon Stewart also retired from The Daily Show (being succeeded by fellow cast member and South African comedian Trevor Noah), joining The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as an executive producer and occasional contributor.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert achieved critical and ratings successes for its satire of the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and the presidency of Donald Trump; following the 2018-19 television season, it was the highest-rated late-night talk show overall for the third season in a row, and narrowly beat The Tonight Show in key demographic (18-to-49-year-old) viewership for the first time since 1994-95.
On February 12, 2019, NBC announced that Last Call with Carson Daly would conclude after its 2000th and final episode. Daly had already reduced his role on the program, due to his commitments to the Today Show and other projects. On September 16, 2019, NBC premiered A Little Late with Lilly Singh--a new talk show hosted by Indian-Canadian YouTuber Lilly Singh. She became the first openly bisexual person and the first person of Indian descent to host a U.S. late-night talk show.
All of the late-night shows were forced to eliminate their studio audiences in March 2020 as a result of measures intended to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States; for most of that spring, shows were either hosted from the hosts' homes, or (in the case of Jimmy Kimmel Live! and A Little Late) they suspended production altogether, before returning to mostly empty studios in the summer.