Late night T.V. has changed significantly since it first started decades ago. Many of the shows have gone on to have several different hosts over the years. Of Course, the hosts are important to keeping the show focused and moving it along through it’s time slot, however, it is arguable that the life blood of the show is the famous people that are interviewed and talking about their recent projects. These guests entertain and appeal to their fans who, in turn, tune in to watch them on the shows.
The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
The king of late night inherited The Tonight Show in its previous incarnation from host Jack Paar, and then parlayed it into the recognizable late night format we know today. Carson’s tenure began live on the air from studio 6B in Rockefeller Center on October 1, 1962. He was introduced by Groucho Marx and had an impressive roster of guests, including Joan Crawford, Mel Brooks, Tony Bennett, and bandleader Rudy Vallée. The musical guests were a folk trio called The Phoenix Singers. (In those days, the shows ran for a whopping hour and 45 minutes a night; today, they’re typically a mere hour long.)
Virtually all of the recordings of The Tonight Show from before 1970 are lost because of NBC’s old practice of destroying or reusing their tapes, but you can hear audio of the first three minutes of Carson’s first show above.
In May 1972, Carson moved the show from New York to Burbank, California, where it stayed until his last show on May 22, 1992. Guests on his first west coast program were actress Shelley Winters and then-First Lady of California, Nancy Reagan.
Late Night with David Letterman
In a bid to keep viewers—including that coveted younger demographic—tuned in after The Tonight Show, NBC created Late Night with David Letterman, which aired its first show on February 1, 1982 with guests Bill Murray and Mr. Wizard. Checkout Murray’s typically wacky first appearance above.
The Late Show with David Letterman
When Carson retired in 1992, Letterman and Jay Leno vied for the spot behind The Tonight Show desk. Leno won what has since been dubbed as the first war for late night, but Letterman didn’t come out a loser: He jumped to CBS for a new show to air at 11:35 p.m. Though Letterman retired on May 20th (making way for Colbert), his reign began on August 30, 1993 with cameos from Tom Brokaw and Paul Newman. Fittingly, the first guest was Bill Murray, while the musical guest was Billy Joel. You can see the monologue here.
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
In early 2014, Leno retired (for the second time), making way for Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. But when he took over from Johnny Carson in 1992, his first guest was Billy Crystal. When Leno finally signed off (for the second and presumably final time), Crystal joined him as his last guest as well.
The Jay Leno Show
Shortly after Conan O’Brien took over The Tonight Show, Leno reneged on his promise to retire. So NBC created a primetime program for him called The Jay Leno Show, which aired at 10 p.m. The short-lived experiment began on September 14, 2009 with guest Jerry Seinfeld. An Entertainment Weekly cover story named it “TV’s Biggest Bomb Ever.”
Late Night with Conan O’Brien
O’Brien was a lowly writer for The Simpsons when he was plucked from obscurity to take over Late Night from David Letterman on September 13, 1993. The early reviews were rough, but what followed became one of the most absurdly hilarious shows late night has ever seen. On his first show, O’Brien welcomed John Goodman, Drew Barrymore, and Tony Randall. Check out the typically self-deprecating first intro and monologue above.
The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien
Jay Leno first stepped down from The Tonight Show in 2009, and O’Brien’s Tonight Show debuted on June 1, 2009 with Will Ferrell as the first guest and Pearl Jam as the musical guest. Shortly thereafter, NBC ousted O’Brien and returned Leno to his Tonight Show hosting duties, which he maintained until 2014. Clips from the show have mostly disappeared, but a recap shows the type of humor that typifies O’Brien’s hosting talents.
After being reluctantly ousted from The Tonight Show, the self-described “palest host in late night history” found a home on TBS with Conan. Speculation ran wild as to who the first guest was going to be, and it ended up being somebody no one—not even the person herself—could have guessed. Out of three possible choices, fans hilariously got to vote between Jack Nicholson, the Sultan of Brunei, or a woman named Arlene Wagner, the curator of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in Leavenworth, Washington. The other guests that night were Seth Rogen, Lea Michele, and musical guest Jack White.
The Arsenio Hall Show
The first incarnation of Arsenio’s late-night show was meant to be counterprogramming to the slew of elder statesmen hosts like Carson back in the late ’80s and early ’90s—a show that catered to a younger, more diverse crowd. On January 3, 1989, Hall’s first guests were Brooke Shields, Leslie Nielsen, and musical guest Luther Vandross. You can see a clip from the show above.
On September 9, 2013, Hall returned to late night with a new version of The Arsenio Hall Show. As with his first show, his second go-around ran in syndication. On his first night back, Chris Tucker and Paula Abdul were guests, and Snoop Lion performed. But Hall’s comeback was short-lived; the show was cancelled after just one season.
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
Fallon’s first night as host of Late Night got off to a rough start: He welcomed the not-so-willing-to-talk Robert De Niro, but things quickly changed when Justin Timberlake sat down to chat. The first musical guest was Van Morrison.
Jimmy Kimmel Live!
In early 2013, Kimmel’s Live! show moved to the coveted 11:35 p.m. time slot to be in direct competition with heavy hitters like The Tonight Show, but Kimmel’s little-show-that-could originally began airing at 12:05 a.m. on January 26, 2003, where it slowly built a loyal following. That first show featured George Clooney, NFL-er Warren Sapp, Coldplay as the musical guest, and an appearance by Snoop Lion. Unfortunately, as always, Matt Damon didn’t appear because they ran out of time.
The Daily Show
The original version of The Daily Show bears little resemblance to the later incarnation, with original host Craig Kilborn offering up heavy loads of snark instead of sharp political commentary. Kilborn’s debut show didn’t include a guest, but his second show featured an interview with actress Mary Kay Place.
In 1999, when Jon Stewart took over for Kilborn—who left to host The Late Late Show on CBS—the political slant gradually began to appear. But they kicked things off with a non-political guest as the fresh-faced Stewart chatted with actor Michael J. Fox.
The Colbert Report
On October 17, 2005, the nation was served up a heavy dose of truthiness as Stephen Colbert welcomed viewers to his new show. His first guest was Stone Phillips, his impressive neck, and his very firm handshake.
The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn
After departing The Daily Show, Craig Kilborn debuted as the host of The Late Late Show on CBS on March 30, 1999. The show followed Letterman at 12:35 a.m. and stole a little bit of its lead-in’s thunder with its first guest, Bill Murray. Supermodel Heidi Klum also appeared.
The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson
In 2004, when Kilborn’s time was up on The Late Late Show, CBS tapped Scottish-American comedian Craig Ferguson to sit behind the desk. Though he had guest-hosted before, his first show as official host was on January 3, 2005 and included a sit-down with David Duchovny and actress Nicole Sullivan.
Late Night with Seth Meyers
One week after Jimmy Fallon made his Tonight Show debut, his fellow SNL alum—and former SNL head writer—Seth Meyers took over Late Night. For his first show, he interviewed Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler (another SNL alum) and Vice President Joe Biden.