The Story of Late Night: New CNN Series Delves Into the Evolution of the Genre, From ‘The Tonight Show’ to Today

Late Night

Johnny Carson, pictured above in 1979 on 'The Tonight Show' — which he hosted from 1962-1992 — is universally acknowledged as the "King of Late Night." Photo: Bettmann / Contributor / GettyImages

In the past few decades the late-night TV landscape has gone through more changes than David Letterman’s facial hair.

For one thing, it’s less white (the landscape, not Letterman’s enormous, post-retirement beard) less male, much more internationally diverse and, frankly, crowded. 

In two generations, late night has gone from being a diversion from the day’s headlines to being fuelled by them. Much of it is not even watched late at night anymore, but rather consumed in 60-second bites the next morning on Twitter and Instagram. And chronicling it all has been former New York Times columnist Bill Carter. He wrote the 1994 book on Letterman and Jay Leno’s battle for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show crown, The Late Shift, and authored a second bestseller — The War for Late Night — in 2010, about the controversial transition of the franchise from Leno to Conan O’Brien and, ultimately, back to Leno again.  





This decades-long history of reporting on the personalities and conflicts across the late-night landscape led to Carter’s latest position as executive producer of the new seven-part CNN series The Story of Late Night, which is co-produced by Toronto-based Cream Productions and premieres on May 2.

Over the past two years, Carter has conducted interviews with a who’s who of current late-night hosts and personalities, including Jimmy Fallon (The Tonight Show), Fallon’s Tonight Show executive producer (and Canuck SNL founder) Lorne Michaels, Jimmy Kimmel (Jimmy Kimmel Live!), Conan O’Brien (Conan), James Corden (The Late Late Show), Seth Meyers (Late Night), and Toronto-born Samantha Bee (Full Frontal). He also spoke with personalities of late night past, from Letterman’s former bandleader, and Thunder Bay, Ont.-native, Paul Shaffer to previous Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson.

“We had pretty good success in lining up a lot of the bigger names,” says Carter.

There are two, however, that he didn’t get: Letterman and Leno.

“Dave,” says Carter, “just doesn’t give a damn anymore about talking about stuff like that.”

Leno, meanwhile, said yes but changed his mind. “Jay, for reasons I still can’t understand, decided at the last minute he wouldn’t do it because Dave didn’t want to do it.”  


Late Night Origins


The Story of Late Night begins in the 1950s with Steve Allen and Jack Paar establishing the Tonight Show in New York. 

The urbane Allen created the desk, couch, band blueprint and more tricks that others eventually plundered. As Bill Maher once said, “Everybody who ever has done a talk show should pay a royalty to Steve Allen.”

Paar, who once famously walked off the job, was a highly emotional host. Said frequent guest Bob Newhart: “You couldn’t afford to miss it, because you never knew what was going to happen.” 

It was Johnny Carson, however, who made The Tonight Show, as the slogan went, “The late-night place to be.” While there were pretenders to the throne, such as Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop and Dick Cavett, Carson was clearly the “King of Late Night” from 1962 to 1992.

“Not only was he a really gifted comic,” says Carter of Carson, “but his personality was just exactly right for the job.”

Carson’s naughty charm played well off his steadfast announcer, Ed McMahon, and his bandleader, Doc Severinsen. 

And in addition to being the “King of Late Night,” Carson was also a king- or queen-maker, possessing the ability to make instant stars out of guest comedians via a simple wink “Okay” sign or an invite to join him at the desk. Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Drew Carey, Ellen DeGeneres, Roseanne Barr and Jim Carrey all scored with their early Tonight Show shots.

As well, Carson always tried to put comedy first. He steered clear of hot topics such as the War in Vietnam, Watergate and, except on rare occasions (including the week in 1968 when he turned his show over to Harry Belafonte), racial unrest.

His Tonight tenure spanned seven presidents, including Nixon and Reagan, but you’d have to be a mind reader like Carnac the Magnificent to know Carson’s own political affiliation. 

He knew not to just play to New York and L.A. but also to the central time zone (where the show aired an hour earlier). Carson was, as Carter points out, from Nebraska. “He understood the middle of the country.” 

Then there’s comedian Joan Rivers, who for years had served as Tonight Show guest host in Carson’s absence. In 1987 she launched a rival late night show on Fox without informing Carson. As a result, he never spoke to her again. Rivers’ daughter, Melissa, tells her mom’s side of the story in the documentary series. 


A Generational Shift


Carson retired at age 67 in 1992, which gave way for the now storied passing over of Letterman — who many expected would succeed Carson as Tonight Show host — by NBC in favour of Leno, sending Letterman to CBS to launch the rival Late Show, complete with signature bits like his Top Ten lists and Stupid Pet Tricks, in 1993. 

Still, by the time of Carson’s retirement, late night was ready for a generational change. The clearest indication was the ascent of Arsenio Hall in syndication. It wasn’t just the 30-plus years in age difference between Carson and Hall. Arsenio was also the first African-American to succeed as a late-night host and his series woke up the genre with a fist-pumping party atmosphere.

Hall’s influence soared after he had presidential candidate Bill Clinton on to play the sax in 1992. The move helped vault Clinton into the White House and, soon after, political candidates began lining up to be late-night talk show guests.


While Arsenio opened the door to diversity, it would be another two decades before others followed. Mexican-American comedian George Lopez, who hosted Lopez Tonight (2009 – 2011) on TBS, has always maintained that he owed his late-night opportunity to Hall.

In 1993, 30-year-old Simpsons and Saturday Night Live writer Conan O’Brien was pegged by Lorne Michaels to energize the late-night scene at 12:35 a.m., becoming Letterman’s successor as the host of Late Night. Today, O’Brien — after his brief stint as Tonight Show host that ended with the controversial transition back to Leno behind the desk after only seven months — is still in the game with Conan at TBS.

Meanwhile, Comedy Central launched The Daily Show in 1996 with Craig Kilborn as host, but it wasn’t until Jon Stewart took over in 1999 that the series became must-see for many late-night fans. The New York-based news satire introduced a large cast of “senior correspondents,” many of whom went on to become the next generation of late-night comedy hosts. The most successful was Stephen Colbert, first with his right-wing parody series The Colbert Report (2005 – 2014) and then onto his current gig, as David Letterman’s Late Show successor.

At this point it was clear that late night was becoming sharper and more political. Give some credit to Bill Maher, whose Politically Incorrect, which began on Comedy Central in 1993, brought more pundits into the talk show mix; while not technically in late night, he continues to influence the genre on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.

Then came the outsiders. For ten years beginning in 2005, Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson brought a cheeky irreverence to a very American genre via The Late Late Show, while a British invasion occurred years later with John Oliver launching Last Week Tonight on HBO in 2014 and James Corden took over for Ferguson a year later.

By the Donald Trump era, not goofing on a political figure could cost you ratings. Jimmy Fallon, for example, looked untouchable on The Tonight Show until he playfully mussed Trump’s hair during an interview — a humanizing gesture critics argued help put the real estate tycoon in the White House. As a result, Fallon’s audience share fell behind that of Stephen Colbert, who scorched Trump nightly on CBS.



Contrast that with the rise of Jimmy Kimmel Live!. The host practically became the conscience of America as his pleas for health care and gun control became bolder; Kimmel’s concern for his newborn son Billy’s “pre-existing condition” — a heart defect that would not be covered by health insurance — touched a nerve with many Americans.

But such serious tones had become commonplace in late night even before that. For example, a more mature Letterman —changed after surviving quintuple bypass surgery in 2000 — was one of the television personalities America turned to first when he returned to the air after the 9/11 attacks, especially given his show’s New York base at the Ed Sullivan Theatre. The episode became an instant late-night classic, with The New York Daily News proclaiming it, “one of the purest, most honest and important moments in TV history” and Jimmy Fallon citing it as an inspiration to continue doing The Tonight Show remotely amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Late Night in the 21st Century 


The turn of the century saw more gender and racial diversity enter the late-night mix, including Chelsea Handler (starting in 2007 with E!’s Chelsea Lately), Wanda Sykes (Fox’s The Wanda Sykes Show, which began airing weekends in 2009), and Bee, who launched Full Frontal on TBS in 2015. And in 2019, another Canadian, Lilly Singh — who cut her teeth as a comedy sensation on social media — became the first person of Indian descent to host an American broadcast network late-night talk show with A Little Late with Lilly Singh.

As well, former Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj, an Indian-American Muslim comedian and writer, won a Peabody award with his Netflix series Patriot Act. And Desus & Mero, starring Jamaican-American comedian Desus Nice and Dominican-American comedian The Kid Mero, brings the pair’s Bronx-based podcast hijinks and sneaker walls to late night, first on Viceland and now on Showtime. And former Late Night with Seth Meyers writer and featured player Amber Ruffin — who is the first Black woman to write for a late-night TV series — brings cutting-edge comedy to her own series The Amber Ruffin Show, now streaming on Peacock.

Then, this year, just as everything got truly diverse, Fox News pushed back in late night with right wing commentator/comedian Greg Gutfeld as host of Gutfeld!


Late Night Goes Digital


Meanwhile, as entertainment moves further into the digital space, even retired talk show hosts got back into the act. Letterman, 74, is embarking on a third Netflix season in conversation with the likes of Michelle Obama and Jay-Z on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction while famed car collector Jay Leno, 70, has been showing off his rides since 2014 on the CNBC web series Jay Leno’s Garage. And both former late-night hosts have appeared alongside Jerry Seinfeld, 66, on the comedian’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee — which is basically a late-night talk show on wheels.

Even some current hosts have begun migrating onto online platforms. Conan O’Brien, 58, whose Conan show is getting marginalized in the crowded late-night field, found a new, and more intimate, voice on his weekly Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend interview podcast — perhaps a nod to his digital “Team Coco” fan base, who helped revitalize his TV career following his Tonight Show fallout.

As for the increased social media exposure, some hosts are more pleased about it than others. The Jimmy Kimmel Live! green room contained a declaration marking the millions of YouTube hits achieved for sketches shared online. When I congratulated Kimmel for this a few years ago, however, he pointed out that competing with himself for viewers has had the odd effect of cannibalizing his TV audience.

What Kimmel did acknowledge is that the multi-platform exposure has meant that more viewers than ever are watching late-night television. It is a big reason why Fallon invites guests to engage in such online-friendly activities as lip-synch battles or helping to “slow-jam the news.” By 2019, Fallon’s Tonight Show was the first late night show to achieve 20 million YouTube subscribers. And in a game called “Best, Worst, First” that Fallon played just last week with Jane Fonda, 83, the screen legend revealed her best kiss ever, as well as the terrifying story of the time she found a real live bear in her bedroom. 

Meanwhile, social media exposure for James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” segments — featuring the host in a car singing along with Elton John, Lady Gaga, Barbra Streisand and a slew of other A-list musical talents — has spawned its own YouTube channel playlist. One edition of the segment, featuring Adele, has received more than 235 million views, while a special edition featuring Paul McCartney — in which the host and the former Beatle tour Liverpool before playing a surprise gig for unsuspecting pub patrons — is among the most entertaining of the series.   


As far wrapping all of this up in The Story of Late Night, it turns out that much of the documentary series was shot pre-COVID and was supposed to air earlier. Carter, however, noted that CNN found it impossible to schedule it given the daily news hits that never seemed to stop throughout 2020 and into this January.

Audiences were glued to all the American election coverage and fallout, including then-President Trump’s COVID diagnosis and brief hospitalization weeks before Americans went to the polls. Then there was the subsequent insurrection at the Capital and a second impeachment hearing. As such, CNN waited until the former president was finally out of office before scheduling their late-night documentary series, which now seems like the perfect chaser for the daily news cycle.

Kind of strange, then, that just as the genre has never been more rooted in the news of the day, The Story of Late Night arrives to help us escape the headlines.