The Long History of ‘The Tonight Show’ and Its Hosts

NBC/Everett Collection

The Tonight Show is currently the longest-running nighttime talk show on the air. It began on September 27, 1954, which was a whopping 69 years ago! Of course, the show has gone through some major changes through the decades but it is still at its core, a show that aims to share the news and celebrity interviews along with some laughs. In its inception, it was actually a 40-minute local TV show in New York that aired from 11:20 p.m. to midnight on WNBT.

In 1954, it debuted on NBC with Steve Allen as the host and Gene Rayburn as his announcer. For several decades, the show struggled a bit to find its groove and the hosts came and went quickly. After Allen, Ernie Kovacs took over with Jack Lescoulie replacing him just a year later. Al “Jazzbo” Collins took over briefly and Jack Paar replaced him, hosting for about four years. It wasn’t until Johnny Carson became the host that the show really hit its stride. He hosted the show with Ed McMahon as the announcer from 1962 until 1992.

THE TONIGHT SHOW, from left: Steve Allen (host), Gene Rayburn (announcer), on set, November 10, 1956.

Everett Collection

From left: Steve Allen (host), Gene Rayburn (announcer), on set, November 10, 1956


In addition to being the longest-running talk show, it is the third-longest-running show on NBC after Today and Meet the Press. Fans can currently watch live at the iconic Studio 6B at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center in New York and it was the same studio used during Jack Paar’s run as host and Carson’s first 10 years. After Carson retired, Jay Leno took over and holds the record for having hosted the greatest number of total televised episodes. After Leno came Conan O’Brien and the current host is Jimmy Fallon, who has been hosting since 2014.

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO, Jay Leno, 1998. 1992-2009.

NBC/Everett Collection

With each host and time period came different recurring segments. If you’ve been a longtime viewer of the show, perhaps you remember Carnac the Magnificent as a recurring character played by Carson or Headlines, which pokes fun at real-life headlines sent in by viewers to Leno. These kinds of sketches have been blowing up on social media in recent years, due to their ability to go viral with just a clip from the show. Fallon loves to include guests in these segments, like The Wheel of Musical Impressions where guests can sing songs impersonating other celebrities.

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON, host Jimmy Fallon, (aired Feb. 17, 2014).

Lloyd Bishop/NBC/Everett Collection

Now tell us, who is your favorite Tonight Show host? Which one couldn’t you stand? Any fun memories from watching the show over the years? Carson is perhaps the most iconic host of the show but over the years, all of the hosts certainly had their own pros and cons. Despite some drama and accusations about a toxic workplace against Fallon, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon will return next week since the writer’s strike has now ended.

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