Talk show, Variety show
Country of origin
First episode date
27 September 1954
Black and white
September 27, 1954 – January 25, 1957
Tonight Starring Steve Allen was a talk show hosted by Steve Allen. It was the first version of what eventually became known as The Tonight Show. Tonight was the first late-night talk show, as well as the first late night television series of any time to achieve long-term success. Allen's run as host of the show lasted for two and a half seasons, beginning in fall 1954 and ending with Allen's departure in January 1957.
Originally a 40-minute local program airing from 11:20 p.m. to 12 midnight on WNBT New York as The Steve Allen Show, the program was moved to the full NBC network in the Fall of 1954. The first network episode of Tonight aired on September 27, 1954, and ran for 105 minutes instead of the 60-minute duration of modern talk shows (however, the first fifteen minutes were shown on very few stations). The announcer of the show was Gene Rayburn (who would eventually become a top-game show emcee, best known for his 22 years at the helm of the Match Game) and the bandleader was Skitch Henderson. Allen's version of the show originated such talk show staples as an opening monologue, celebrity interviews, audience participation, and comedy bits in which cameras were taken outside the studio, as well as music. The success of the show led to Allen receiving a separate weekly prime time show, which aired on Sunday nights. Allen gave up the Monday and Tuesday shows, with guest hosts taking over for the summer of 1956. Beginning that fall, Ernie Kovacs (who came over from the faltering DuMont Television Network) was the regular Monday and Tuesday host for the 1956–1957 season with his own cast and regulars, including his own announcer (Bill Wendell; who would later work with David Letterman) and bandleader.
A kinescope of the very first episode survives and Allen's opening monologue has been rebroadcast many times on Tonight Show anniversary specials and in documentaries such as Television. In his opening remarks, Allen makes the prescient statement that Tonight! "is going to go on forever" (an apparent reference to the show's run time, then clocking in at 105 minutes with commercials). With several hosts over the decades, it has done just that, albeit with a much different meaning than Allen intended.
Allen and Kovacs' Departure
Allen departed Tonight in January 1957 after NBC ordered Allen to concentrate all his efforts on his Sunday night variety program, hoping to combat CBS's The Ed Sullivan Show's dominance of the Sunday night ratings. Kovacs, instead of getting the show five nights a week, was let go, and a radical format change was made (see below).
Tonight! America After Dark (1957)
Rather than continuing with the same format after Allen and Kovacs' departures from Tonight, NBC changed the show's format to a news and features show, similar to that of the network's popular morning program Today. The new show, renamed Tonight! America After Dark, was hosted first by Jack Lescoulie and then by Al "Jazzbo" Collins, with interviews conducted by Hy Gardner, and music provided by the Lou Stein Trio (later replaced by the Mort Lindsey Quartet, then the Johnny Guarnieri Quartet). This new version of the show was unsuccessful, resulting in a significant number of NBC affiliates dropping the show. The format returned to a comedy-oriented talk/variety program on July 29, 1957, with Jack Paar being brought in to host his own version of The Tonight Show.