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
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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.
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 original version of The Daily Show bears little resemblance to its contemporary 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.
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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.
The Dick Cavett Show
Cavett has had many talk show incarnations over the years, but he’ll always be remembered for his erudite and provocative late night show that ran on ABC from 1969 to 1975. His first guests on the premiere episode of The Dick Cavett Show were Woody Allen, opera singer Beverly Sills, President of Hunter College Jacqueline Wexler, and actor Robert Shaw.
The Late Show starring Joan Rivers
Legendary comedienne Joan Rivers was previously the permanent guest host on The Tonight Show when Carson was under the weather or unable to appear on the broadcast. Rumor has it that Rivers accepted her own show on the then-new Fox network because her name was left off a list of possible hosts to take over should Carson retire. The bad blood between the two continued until Carson’s death in 2005. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers premiered on October 9, 1986 with Cher, Pee-Wee Herman, Elton John, and David Lee Roth as guests. The show soon fizzled in the ratings and led to Rivers being fired, and soon the show was helmed by a slew of guest hosts including Arsenio Hall, who used the experience to transition into his own late night show.
Doesn’t it seem like everybody got their own show in the ’80s? The good folks at CBS decided it would be a good idea to give Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak his own late-night talk show, and on January 9, 1989, The Pat Sajak Show premiered with Chevy Chase, actress Joan Van Ark, actor Michael Gross, Roberta Flack, an interview and performance by Naomi and Wynonna Judd, MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth, and comedian Dennis Wolfberg. But quantity didn’t equal quality; the show was cancelled the next year.
Chevy Chase began his notoriously brief period as a late night talk show host on September 3, 1993. The show debuted on Fox with guests Goldie Hawn and Whoopi Goldberg. Reviews of the show were immediately horrendous and the show was swiftly cancelled just one month later.
Another half-baked, late-night endeavor was former basketball star Magic Johnson’s show The Magic Hour, which premiered in 1998. First guests included Mel Gibson, Laurence Fishburne, Cher, and musical performer Babyface. The—ahem—magic didn’t last long, and the series was cancelled after only three months on the air.
Renaissance man and host extraordinaire Carson Daly has been the skipper of Last Call with Carson Daly since 2002. Though it has recently rebranded its format away from the standard late night sit-downs pioneered by Johnny Carson, it began on January 8, 2002 as a fairly straightforward talk show that originally taped in studio 8H in Rockefeller Center—the same studio used for Saturday Night Live. Daly’s first guest was singer Alicia Keys.
Lopez Tonight debuted on TBS on November 9, 2009 in the 11p.m. time slot. Lopez’s diverse first guests were Eva Longoria, Kobe Bryant, and Ellen DeGeneres, with Carlos Santana playing “Oye Como Va.” The show was moved back to 12 a.m. after Conan came on board, and was cancelled in 2011.
When Jimmy Fallon made his move into The Tonight Show chair on February 17, 2014, he welcomed Will Smith and U2 as his first guests.
Late Night With Seth Meyers / Facebook
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.
THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH JAMES CORDEN
The Late Late Show With James Corden / Facebook
When James Corden took over The Late Late Show in March, Tom Hanks and Mila Kunis appeared as his first guests.
This story originally ran in February 2014.