In the early days of television, 11pm meant test patterns on your screen. Nothing came on after prime time. But NBC wanted to take full advantage of the medium by airing programs at late hours as well. If it weren’t for the success of the network’s two biggest stars, Milton Berle and Sid Caesar, they may not have been feeling bold enough to shake up their routine, but they were on a winning streak of exposing comedic talent and they wanted to expand their roster.
The very first late night show was called Broadway Open House and it premiered in 1950. It consisted of sketches that were mostly pedestrian and went through a number of hosts before landing on toothy-grinned nightclub favorite Jerry Lester (pictured above), who had previously worked on Cavalcade of Stars before getting fired for his unruly behavior.
Lester was like a monkey jumping on furniture and joking around with the audience and NBC liked him, but five nights a week was such a huge workload for the first-time late night host that hosting duties were divided between Lester and Morey Amsterdam (Otherwise known as Buddy Sorrell from The Dick Van Dyke Show).
The show was a success, but that may have had less to do with its entertainment value and more to do with its novelty as the first late night TV show in history.
Some comedy stars of the era got their first television exposure on the show and NBC had discovered a late night audience that had been untapped and was here to stay for decades to come, but Jerry Lester’s ego did him in when he made demands NBC wouldn’t agree to, such as having his own show in prime time.
Next up was Steve Allen (pictured above), a radio favorite with a casual confidence and a gift for improvisation. Viewers liked him so much he remained the host of what is now called The Tonight Show from 1954 to 1957.
NBC had also offered Allen an hour-long variety show on Sunday to compete with Ed Sullivan over on CBS. Allen liked prime time more than late night and decided to focus on The Steve Allen Show, leaving the Tonight Show job up for grabs once again.
During some of Steve Allen’s hiatuses on The Tonight Show, his seat would be filled by such guest hosts as Ernie Kovacs, Dick Van Dyke and Betty White, but Jack Paar (pictured above) was so good that he became the permanent guest host and, when Steve Allen left, the permanent host of The Tonight Show in 1957.
Jack Paar was the first person to turn The Tonight Show into a talk show, which was a brilliant move by Paar since it played to his strengths. Instead of doing funny things like Steve Allen, Paar would say funny things, and he wasn’t afraid to be a real person and show his true feelings on the air (an aspect of his personality that eventually got him in trouble – read on).
He made stars out of guests Jonathan Winters, Nichols & May and the Smothers Brothers and he was the most successful talk show host in history. He was even the first talk show host to open his show with a topical monologue, something that has become a Tonight Show staple.
Despite his popularity, Paar only hosted The Tonight Show for five years, and it had to do with an incident involving his monologue in 1960. NBC had cut Paar’s monologue when it made a reference to the British slang term for a bathroom, “W.C.” Obviously Paar was upset about NBC cutting the piece without telling him, especially when rumors spread that what Paar said was dirtier than it actually was. NBC apologized to Paar but still refused to air the monologue uncut, which led to Paar rambling emotionally in place of his monologue on the next episode and quitting on the air.
The media circus that followed made his return a month later all the more popular when he recieved a long ovation on his first show back before uttering, “As I was saying before I was interrupted…”
Predictably, Paar didn’t last much longer on The Tonight Show, and NBC was planning to give Paar’s job to his guest host Johnny Carson (pictured above). Carson would surpass Paar in popularity, but Paar was the one who laid down the foundation for what The Tonight Show would become and remain being to this day.