On the evening of September 27, 1954, Steve Allen sat at his piano for his opening monologue and quipped, “this show is gonna go on… forever.” At the time he was referring to that actual episode (he was on the air from 11:15 to 1 AM), but his words have turned out to be quite prophetic as his show, NBC’s Tonight Show still lumbers on today. A surprising number of late night show conventions that are still used today, like the opening monologue, being played to the desk, celebrity interviews, all started right here. Of course, that makes sense, since Steve had a lot of time to fill…
Taking The Tonight Show national was the idea of NBC’s president, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver (Sigourney’s dad!) and was launched with two companion shows: The Today Show, and a midday show called Home. Each of these shows were the first of their kind, and quite frankly, were all expected to fail. Before this point, no one thought people would want to watch television before work, or before they went to sleep. Initially the Tonight Show, before it was called that, was just a local late night show that Steve Allen hosted on New York City NBC station for forty minutes after the news. In fact, the first fifteen minutes of the first Tonight Show were only shown in New York during that time. This portion of the show had it’s own local sponsor (Knickerbocker Beer) and it’s own pace. Instead of a traditional string of jokes that the modern viewer might expect, Steve banters for a moment, then sings a song as his bandleader plays on the piano. Then, he brings out another performer and they play another song.
The idea of playing two songs in the first ten minutes of the Tonight Show might really stand out to someone who has read The War for Late Night, Bill Carter’s book about the Conan/Leno fiasco. In it he talks about the pressure Conan was under to book fewer musical guests since the tastes of the audiences varied so widely and band performances would often tend to lose viewers. Fifty years earlier, something like forty percent of the Tonight Show was music.
Finally, at midnight, The Tonight Show proper kicks in with its first national broadcast. But of course, since we’re talking about live television, the show can’t even get through the opening titles without a problem. As it’s explained to the audience later, the opening titles were to be shown on a scrolling marquee in the middle of Time Square. Unfortunately, the mobile Cadllac that was supposed to get this shot ran into trouble, and the cameraman clearly had no idea what he was supposed to be looking at.