A History of Late Night TV

By Louie Wieseman

Late night talk shows have been popular since the 1940s with their inception being the Ed Sullivan Show in 1948 (previously known as Toast of the Town). Today, more than twenty late night shows span across multiple network and cable channels. The late night talk show remains a prevalent staple in homes across the country.

These shows have been a hub for interviews that feature celebrities advertising their shows and upcoming movies, music artists playing their chart topping hits, and even comedians to get their name out there. With Stephen Colbert taking over for David Letterman, it’s time to take a look at the current and past late night talk shows.


The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon

    The Tonight Show franchise has been around for sixty years, but the actual Tonight Show name has been around for just fifty seven years. In 1954, Steve Allen hosted Tonight Starring Steve Allen. Ernie Kovacs eventually joined with a part time hosting position.

After their departure in 1957, Jack Lescoulie and Al ‘Jazzbo’ Collins hosted and the show was renamed Tonight! America After Dark. NBC canceled the show when it declined in ratings and had Jack Paar take over hosting duties. The show was renamed Tonight Starring Jack Paar in 1957. Paar’s time came to an end after disagreements with censorship on the show with NBC in 1960. A new slew of hosts tried and failed over the next few years before Johnny Carson took over in 1962.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson lasted thirty years. Carson claims one of the most legendary late night talk show careers of all time, compared to esteemed Ed Sullivan. After his monstrous career, Jay Leno took over in 1992. In 2009, Leno left The Tonight Show for The Jay Leno Show, but due to low ratings he was placed back at The Tonight Show. This caused a controversy as then-current host Conan O’Brien was essentially kicked out. Leno hosted the franchise until he retired. Current host Jimmy Fallon took over in February 2014.

Late Night with Seth Meyers

    Starting back in 1982, the Late Night franchise came out of The Tomorrow Show, hosted by Tom Snyder. Snyder was trained as a news anchor rather than a comedian. His show featured no audience, but featured many intimate interviews with comedians, actors, and politicians.

The original Late Night host was David Letterman. ran from 1982 to 1993 on NBC, but after hosting a dispute with NBC, Letterman left NBC for CBS. Letterman’s successor, Conan O’Brian, hosted for the longest period in Late Nite history with more than 2,700 episodes.

When Conan, amid controversy, left Late Night in 2009 to host the Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon took over as host and in 2014. Seth Meyers, like Falon from Saturday Night Live, took over as host in February 2014.

Last Call with Carson Daly

    One of the more unique late night shows, Last Call with Carson Daly, stars Carson Daly in a filmed segment show. Once a traditional talk show, the current program features Daly traveling with a small film crew and interviewing various actors, actresses, comedians, music artists, and more about their upcoming projects.

He has also gone around the city of New York for a glimpse into obscure places and history of the city. The show started back in 2002 and was created to fill the 1:35 AM time slot. In 2013, Daly left Last Call to be a social media correspondent at the Today Show.


Late Show with David Letterman

    CBS poorly attempted late night talk shows before Letterman’s first appearance. The Pat Sajak Show and CBS Late Night didn’t get quite the ratings that CBS wanted. Letterman left NBC and signed a contract with CBS to host the Late Show with David Letterman in early 1993.

CBS purchased the Ed Sullivan Theater to accommodate Letterman’s new show. After an outstanding twenty years on CBS and thirty years on television, Letterman announced his retirement on April 3, 2014, and his last show will be in 2015. Stephen Colbert, from the popular Comedy Central series The Colbert Report, is slated to host next.

Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson

    The Late Late Show  started up a few years after David Letterman’s debut. Craig Kilborn took over the show in 1999 after leaving The Daily Show on Comedy Central. The show ran for six years before he opted out of his contract. After a few guest hosts, Craig Ferguson was chosen to host the show in 2005. He currently holds the longest Late Late Show tenure at nine years and more than 1,800 episodes.


Jimmy Kimmel Live!

    Jimmy Kimmel Live! is one of ABC’s two late night talk shows. Live! replaced Bill Maher’s controversial show Politically Incorrect. Jimmy Kimmel, former co-host of Comedy Central’s Win Ben Stein’s Money and The Man Show, was picked by ABC to host his own late night talk show in 2003 and has been hosting since. He currently hosts the longest running talk show on ABC beating out Politically Correct (1997-2002) and The Dick Cavett Show (1969-1975).


    Instead of comedy style of late night, Nightline is a more serious news show. Created in 1980 and starring Ted Koppel, the show dealt the Iranian hostage crisis just four days after the shows inauguration. Koppel hosted the show from 1980 to 2005 until Marin Bashir, Terry Moran, and Cynthia McFadden took over. Bashir left in 2010 and Bill Weir was added as an anchor. Moran left in 2013 and McFadden in 2014, leaving new anchors Dan Harris, Dan Abrams, and Juju Chang to host in 2014.

Comedy Central

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

    Comedy Central was only five years old when The Daily Show first aired in 1996 with Craig Kilborn hosting. The focus was mostly on celebrity culture at the time. Kilborn left in 1998 to host The Late Late Show on ABC. Since Jon Stewart began hosting in 1999, the show shifted to be more politically centered. The show won two Peabody Awards and has dominated the Prime time Emmys, winning eighteen and sweeping the Outstanding Variety Series award for ten years until its sister show, The Colbert Report, won.

The Colbert Report

    Stephen Colbert stars as the faux host Stephen Colbert as a parody FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly. The Colbert Report is a spin-off of the same character Colbert played on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Colbert, the self-announced highly politically conservative, hosts and the show is run similarly to The Daily Show. Colbert’s antics garner younger viewers attracted by his sarcastic and turnaround political views. Colbert (the real person and not the character) is slated to host Late Show after David Letterman’s retirement. On April 10th, Colbert commented on his show about Letterman’s retirement saying, “I do not envy whoever they put in that chair.” It was quickly followed by a smirk and an enormous applause from the audience.



    After the Tonight Show incident on NBC, Conan O’Brien took his show on the road with The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour. During this time, TBS worked with O’Brien to get a show on their station.

He took over George Lopez’s show Lopez Tonight and moved Lopez to midnight, essentially doing what NBC did to Conan. Thankfully, Lopez was okay with the move. Conan first came on air in November 2010 and has been very popular among younger viewers since.

The Pete Holmes Show

    Pete Holmes is a comedian famous for his appearances on various VH1 shows like Best Week Ever, stand-up specials on Comedy Central, and his podcast You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes. In 2013, Conan O’Brien’s producing company, Conaco, helped Holmes create a new show amidst Lopez Tonight’s cancellation. The Pete Holmes Show first aired in October in 2013. The show lacks of big-name celebrity guests, but features more personal monologues.

Various Networks

Chelsea Lately on E!

    Chelsea Handler got her acting start appearing on various television shows before landing a show on E!, featuring content centered on pop culture and current events. She hosts various guests and small celebrity interviews. Her show first came on the air in 2007 and is ending in 2015.

Charlie Rose on PBS

    In 1991, Charlie Rose created an interview show on PBS titled after himself. He is the producer, executive editor, and host. The show features interviews with politicians, authors, and other leaders along with actors/actresses, athletes, and many other people.

Inside Comedy on Showtime

   Started in 2012, Inside Comedy was created by comic David Steinberg and produced by Steve Carell and aired on Showtime. The show features Steinberg’s interviews with many famous and prominent comedians.