Question: This one seems like it should be easy, but my boss is so sure he's right. Wasn't Johnny Carson the first host of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson? After all, it was named for him. Tell me I'm right and this jerk owes me a bottle of bourbon. Thanks. — Sam L.
Televisionary: Well, Sam, this question leads to a couple more. Did Carson serve as the first master of ceremonies on the show you named? Technically, yes, since it wasn't called that until he began hosting. But the legendary gabber and comedian, as great as he was, certainly did not create The Tonight Show. That was the late Steve Allen, who was the first host of the late-night fixture when it debuted on NBC way back in 1954. (The other question is whether or not you should call your boss a jerk in a widely read column, but only you and he can answer that, friend.)
The Tonight Show has gone through various permutations since it first aired. In the Allen years, it was a combination of music and comedy (Allen spent a good deal of time at the piano) plus man-in-the-street interplay and the like. Allen left in 1957, and for a few weeks Tonight: America After Dark was a sort of magazine show hosted by Jack Lescoulie. That was about as entertaining as it sounds. After only a few weeks, Jack Paar took over and the show became The Jack Paar Tonight Show, which featured more of a conversational bent, with a healthy dose of Paar's political views and strong opinions. Paar left the show in 1962.
Carson took over in the fall of that year, beginning what would be a 30-year reign that eventually moved his show from New York to Los Angeles. His was an appealing blend of talk and comedy and he pretty much set the standard for late-night shows. Not only that, but he also helped further the careers of guest-hosts like Jay Leno, Joan Rivers (who hurt her relationship with Carson when she tried her hand at her own late-night gabfest) and David Letterman.
Anyone who thinks it's easy to just sit behind a desk and chat with guests is selling Carson short. Rivers couldn't make it work. Nor could Alan Thicke, Chevy Chase, Pat Sajak or Arsenio Hall, all of whose shows failed (though Hall did enjoy a successful niche run for a while). It takes a special talent to move from stand-up and skits to pulling interesting conversation and bits from a variety of guests.
Leno has his detractors, certainly, though I think critics are a little too hard on the guy. Letterman is often funny (when he's not letting some of his real bitterness seep out — and sometimes when he is), but for my money Conan O'Brien is the heir apparent to the late-night throne. For a guy who no one ever heard of when his show was launched, the guy's managed to roll a refreshing brand of weirdness into quite an entertaining and often hilarious show.
Now give your boss a nice bottle of Blanton's and stop sassing him — we're in an economic downturn here, and you may well need that check.