Looking Back at the Very First Tonight Show

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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.

So we’re off to a rather inauspicious start, which isn’t helped at all by Steve Allen’s description of what viewers can expect from The Tonight Show. “We’re a mild little program. Not a spectacular. Kind of monotonous.” Our host spends a lot of time explaining to the audience what the show is and why it isn’t going that smoothly. There are frequent cutaways in which some stations go to commercial, while Steve keeps talking. Each time this happens, he fills the time by explaining what’s going on and then as soon as the affiliates come back he tells a joke along the lines “if you are just coming back to us, Count Basey’s band just came in and did the minute waltz in fourteen seconds.”

At midnight, the Midwestern Time Zones join in and the whole show starts all over again. The theme song plays again, the same remote Cadillac tries (and fails) to get it’s shot again, and Steve goes back to his piano, this time by jumping through a large sheet of paper reading “Sept. 28, 1954.” Now that everyone that’s going to join the show are on board, the show’s pace quickens somewhat. There’s a sketch for football season, in which Allen dresses in pads and a leather helmet as “Bullhead Allen” and gives his impression of how a traditional football interview goes. Gene Rayburn cuts in with some news updates; Steve does some live commercials for a Broil-Quick oven and demonstrates how the Polariod camera works.

Of course, what would the Tonight Show be without guests? The first is Wally Cox, who, instead of having a chair next to Steve, he is forced to take a seat behind the desk due to the clearly cramped space in the Hudson Theatre. Then Wally goes over the the center stage, does a (long) monologue about his childhood experiences with a bully named Doofo. Not long after that, Willie Mays joins the program via remote broadcast, having just won the pennant for the New York Giants.

But is it still funny? Well, if I’m being fair, I’m not sure that this particular episode was even funny back then. I’m sure people probably liked Wally Cox’s routine and some of Steve Allen’s quips are still pretty solid, but quite frankly, the bulk of the first Tonight Show is made up of nice-enough songs and quite a bit of floundering, as Allen struggles to fill the time while explaining to the audience what exactly they’re watching and why it keeps starting and stopping. The kinks have not yet been worked out.

The night ends with Steve returning to the center stage, wrapping things up. He acknowledges here that maybe this wasn’t the smoothest ride, saying, “Well, I believe that does it. It was a long struggle, ma, but we won it.” And though the battle of the Tonight Show has taken many different meanings over the years, it is a testament to the sturdy framework laid in its formative beginning, that this late-night war is still being waged today.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

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