If you’ve ever stayed up late flipping channels past midnight, then you’re familiar with the eclectic mix of late night comedy talk shows that have been a fixture of the entertainment landscape since the 1960s. From ‘The Tonight Show’ to ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live,’ taking a look back on the long history of these beloved late night talk shows reveals the evolution of television comedy as well as a glimpse of the cultural landscape of the past few decades. In this article, we’ll explore the rich history of late night talk shows and how they’ve impacted popular culture.
1. Origins of Late Night Talk Shows
Late night talk shows have an incredibly rich history, one almost as old as television itself. These seminal programs have become an inextricable part of popular culture, and their influence on modern entertainment is impossible to overstate.
From the original comic hosts of the 1950s to the iconic personalities and sketch comedy of the 1970s, let’s explore the major milestones in the history of late night talk shows:
- The Original Late Night Hosts – While the concept of a nightly late night show had been used in radio, it was in the 1950s that the concept truly emerged in television. Initially, late night talk shows were largely confined to interviews, though their typically lightheaded comic hosts were well-known celebrities, like Jack Paar and Steve Allen.
- The Torch Passes – As the 1960s emerged, so did newer generations of late night hosts, like Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin. Their shows were talk-centric, with a style that contrasted their predecessors with its more serious and intellectual tone. These programs also started to include musical guests, creating a format now popular throughout the industry.
- Sketch Comedy Revolution – In the 1970s, the format of late night talk shows changed drastically. Programs like “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” took on an even lighter tone, including sketch comedy and celebrity guests. Carson’s format endured for decades, with his successors taking up the torch and continuing his legacy for the next generation.
- The Beginnings of the Modern Age – In the late 1980s and the 1990s the tone of late night shows began to evolve. Hosts like David Letterman’s and Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show” set the precedent for the most successful shows of late. Talk show hosts now freely include their own conversations, jokes and skits into the mix, creating new avenues of comedy and entertainment.
Since the 1950s, the format for late night talk shows has evolved drastically, while never completely losing sight of their original purpose. Now, hosted by contemporary celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, these programs continue to be wildly popular, reaching millions of viewers every night.
2. Relevance of Comedic Hosts
The presence of a comedic host has a lasting reason for being in a show. From Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon, these hosts are the main draw since the 1990s. Not only do they entertain, but they also invite interesting guests that bring in diverse audiences, give the show relevancy, and freshen up stories. The following is a step-by-step look at the benefits of a comedic late night talk show host.
- Longevity and Robust Conversations – Having a personable, comedic host creates a bond with viewers over time, ensuring greater longevity for the show. Additionally, comedic hosts are well-versed in responding quickly with authenticity, allowing for tapped conversations to flow easily. The conversations are not scripted, injecting warmth and chemistry into the show.
- Invites Notable Guests – Inviting diverse, news-worthy guests creates an engaged audience. A comedic atmosphere can also be a draw for diverse guests that may not be as comfortable with other types of interviews. Experiences and conversations become more natural and organic, allowing the guest to share information in the most positive light.
- Refreshes Topic Relevancy - Hosts improvise and reactions can keep stories fresh. This cleverly brings in the latest topic without straining the guest or adding any uneasiness to the conversation. This approach is a great way to invite audiences to hear about current events without using a too serious approach.
Comedic hosts in late night talk shows have become a staple in pop culture. Their importance in keeping the show relevant, entertaining, and fun are undeniable. They invite famous and diverse guests, which in turn adds vitality to the show and creates a special bond with the audience.
3. Behind the Scenes of a Late Night Show
The story of the late night talk show is a long and winding one. From their early beginnings as live radio programs decades ago, to the spectacularly staged color television shows of the mid-1960s that they’ve become today, the stories behind the success of late night television programs is truly captivating.
- A Writers’ Room – Beyond the production staff and crew lies the writers of the show. The jokes, sketches, interviews, and banter used in the program are all carefully crafted by these brilliant comedic writers.
- The Monologue – Succinctly summing up the day’s events in a few wise-cracking sentences has become a staple of the late night show. From elaborated jokes to delivered criticism, the monologues have become a hallmark of the show since their inception.
- Celebrity Guests – Another now-central segment of the typical late night program are the celebrity guests. Musicians, actors, directors, and delegates have all come to guest star on the show, adding their own unique flavor of banter.
- Production Value – Delivering an ever-increasing quality of production value, the late night show aims to present itself in a spectacle of color, grandeur, and laughter. Making use of the most recent technological advances, today’s shows are no longer sitting behind the desk. They’re out on the streets, interacting with their audience, and delivering an unparalleled experience.
Without a doubt, the history of late night television talk shows has been an intriguing one, and these elements of the program have come together to create the late night industry that we’ve come to know and love today.
4. Impact of Talk Shows on Pop Culture
Late night talk shows have been a staple of pop culture for decades, and the format continues to evolve and excite audiences. From Johnny Carson to Stephen Colbert, these shows have featured plenty of comedy, celebrity appearances, and thoughtful monologues. Let’s take a look at the rich history of late night talk:
- Classic Talk Shows of the 1960s and 70s: The 1960s and 70s introduced viewers to iconic figures like Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Joe Franklin. These hosts brought style and grace to the small screen night after night. Johnny Carson went on to become a household name with his unique brand of irreverent comedy and banter.
- The Arsenio Hall Revolution: Arsenio Hall’s success in the late 80s ushered in a new wave of talk show hosts. This “party vibe” shifted away from the polished image of Carson-esque shows and added an element of fun and excitement.
- Political Talk Shows of the 1990s: Late night talk became increasingly political in the 1990s with the arrival of shows like The Late Show with David Letterman, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. These shows, among others, combined entertainment with political commentary and led to a wider discussion of current events among viewers.
- Modern Late Night Shows: Today’s talk shows take the classic format and build on it. From Conan O’Brien to Stephen Colbert, these shows come with ambitious segments, innovative comedic bits, and more. Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” has even expanded into a variety of locations, showcasing music and comedy performances in a variety of locations.
Though times have changed, late night talk continues to provide viewers with a unique blend of comedy and entertainment while also discussing some of the more serious issues in our world. From Carson to Fallon, these shows have made an indelible mark on our culture.
5. Advancing Late Night Talk Shows for the Future
Late night talk shows have been a part of our cultural landscape since the 1950s. It’s amazing to think the variety of talks shows that have come and gone over the years and their influence on our popular culture. Whether the guests are introducing a new movie or performing a song, it’s always a great delight to watch the show and experience the energy the host brings to the stage.
Late-night talk shows have consistently evolved over the last few decades — from The Tonight Show and The Late Show to Jimmy Kimmel Live and Late Night with Seth Meyers. As the culture changes, so do the shows that entertain us in the late night slot. Let’s take a look at the innovation some of these shows have brought:
- Guest appearance: Celebrities, musicians, and athletes have begun to show up on late night talk shows, either to perform their latest singles or to share their latest show or movie. This has allowed for the host to make more of a connection with the guest.
- Digital content: Digital content has found its way into the late night talk show format. With the advent of streaming technology, presenters have had access to a never-ending supply of online content to feature on their show.
- New formats: We’ve seen the evolution of the “genre” of late night talk shows, with more experimental formats such as The Eric Andre Show or Chelsea Lately shooting to popularity.
- Segment integration: Segments have been a key element in late night chat shows, providing light-hearted content between the main components of the show. Improv comedy, games, and celebrity interviews are some of the most common segments.
The future of late-night talk shows is undoubtedly an exciting one. As technology constantly pushes the boundaries of innovation and entertainment, so too do these shows. With a rich history to draw from, late night talk shows have the opportunity to entertain us in new and exciting ways for years to come.
It is clear that late night talk shows have a long, rich history in terms of both its content and its evolution. It has been a reflection of the culture and events of its time, but it has also been a source of comedy, entertainment, and education in its own right for generations. Whether you are an avid viewer of late night shows, a casual observer, or even a skeptic of the genre, it’s worth exploring the rich history of late night talk shows to further appreciate both its current successes and its distinguished past.