By Krin Gabbard
If you remember a time when there was no Tonight Show, then you probably remember a time when there was no American television industry. In 1954, NBC took Steve Allen’s local New York TV show, broadcast it nationally five days a week, and called it Tonight. The show did not become an institution until Johnny Carson became its host exactly fifty years ago in October 2012. But it all began with Steve Allen, whose breed is now extinct. He was a true television intellectual, capable of writing pop tunes like “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” and jazz tunes with inimitable titles like “The Gravy Waltz.” He wasn’t a bad jazz pianist either. Lenny Bruce, who made several appearances on Allen’s show, said that Allen was one of the most “hip” comedians as well as one of the most “moral.”
After watching Allen build Tonight for three years, NBC decided to move him to early Sunday evenings in hopes that he could compete with Ed Sullivan. I was too young to watch Allen on Tonight, but I once watched the kinescope of an amazing episode in which Allen took live TV cameras down the steps of the jazz club Birdland, where the Count Basie band was in full cry.
I vividly remember those rare occasions when my parents let me stay up and watch Jack Paar, that great feline of a man who purred Americans through the last minutes of their evenings between 1957 until 1962. If you want to know how far we’ve come since the early 1960s, consider the joke that the NBC censors would not let Paar deliver on air. It was based on the confusion between two meanings of the term WC, “water closet” and “wayside chapel.” That was all there was to it, but Paar, who always seemed so affable, actually walked off the show for several days in protest.
Johnny Carson, who took over in 1962, has always been an enigma. Like many stand-up comedians of his generation, Carson emerged from a vaudeville aesthetic. In spite of a dapper demeanor that suggested refinement and wit, his humor was mostly of the pie-in-the-face variety. Nevertheless, he prided himself on bringing the occasional public intellectual or politician onto the show. Of course, anyone with anything serious to say was confined to the last minutes of the program. As an adolescent, I was extremely impressed one night during the waning moments of the show when the anthropologist Ashley Montagu told Carson that the American family was an institution devoted primarily to fostering the neuroses of its members.
At some point during his second decade as host, Carson became sick of The Tonight Show. He surely would have quit had not NBC kept on raising his salary and giving him more and more time off. He was undoubtedly the first host of any TV program to have “permanent” guest-hosts. One of the reasons Carson spent less and less time actually appearing on his show was his contempt for his audience. (His disdain for second-banana Ed McMahon was palpable.) Carson would tell a joke that he knew wasn’t very good — he surely held his joke-writers in contempt as well — and then take on a look of veiled disappointment when the audience laughed heartily. Perhaps because he imagined himself above it all, Carson was known to many as “The Prince.” And it may have been that edge that made him so intriguing and so watchable for all those years.
With Jay Leno, now in his twentieth year as host of The Tonight Show, NBC has gone straight down the middle with a dependably safe comedian who carries just the right amount of working-class charm. Leno now regularly wins the ratings war with David Letterman, the only television host to build up a serious, long-term challenge to The Tonight Show’s hegemony. (Remember the shows hosted by David Brenner, Alan Thicke, and Les Crane? I can recall them, but very vaguely.) Nevertheless, I do not know anyone who watches Leno. Conservatives can watch the hysterics on Fox News, lefties have rebroadcasts of The Rachel Maddow Show, and ironists have Steven Colbert. And those are just a few of the choices available to people who do not have DVRs. The Tonight Show will surely go on presenting conventional humor and high-profile guests. But the time when it, or any other television program, could occupy the central role in American life that Carson’s Tonight Show once sustained, has definitively come and gone.
Krin Gabbard is Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies and Professor of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Stony Brook University. In addition to four single-authored books, he has published three edited books and a large collection of articles. He has served on the Executive Council of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and has lectured nationally and internationally on cinema and related subjects.
Developed cooperatively with scholars and librarians worldwide, Oxford Bibliographies offers exclusive, authoritative research guides. Combining the best features of an annotated bibliography and a high-level encyclopedia, this cutting-edge resource guides researchers to the best available scholarship across a wide variety of subjects.