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'The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon' | Brief Snapshot

Learn a little bit about 'The Tonight Show' and its recent history


'The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon' | Brief Snapshot
Theo Wargo / Staff / Getty Images

Fast Facts

Title: The Tonight Show

Current Host: Jimmy Fallon 

Previous Hosts:

Current Band Leader: Questlove

Past Band Leaders:

Band: The Roots (The Tonight Show Band)

Current Announcer: Steve Higgins 

Past Announcers:

  • Wally Weingert
  • Andy Richter
  • John Melendez
  • Edd Hall
  • Ed McMahon
  • Hugh Downs
  • Gene Rayburn

Format: One-hour, classic host-behind-the-desk

Broadcast information: NBC, weeknights, 11:35 p.m. to 12:35 a.m. ET

Tapes: Weekdays, originating from New York City.

Premiere Date: 1954, with Steve Allen


The Tonight Show typically follows what is consider the standard six-segment, late-night talk show format:

  • Open with a topical monologue.
  • Follow with banter and a comedy bit from behind the talk show host’s desk or a sketch
  • First guest interview
  • Comedy sketch
  • Second guest
  • Musical or comedic final act

Jimmy Fallon becomes the sixth host of The Tonight Show on Feb. 17th, 2014. He succeeds Jay Leno, who finished his second tour on Tonight Feb. 6, 2014.

Former host Conan O'Brien took over for Jay Leno on June 1, 2009, during a carefully orchestrated transition that took place over the course of nearly five years. Leno announced his decision to retire from The Tonight Show in 2004, and O'Brien was soon named his successor.

Though there was some mildly tense moments in late 2008 and early 2009 when Leno seemed to resist the idea of leaving The Tonight Show, the transition was amicable. Probably because Leno was given a new, prime time talk show, The Jay Leno Show, which debuted in September 2009.

By January 2010, because of Leno's flailing ratings and affiliate stations threatening to drop Leno in favor of other programming, NBC hatched a plan to return Leno to his spot at 11:30. That included moving The Tonight Show to midnight. O'Brien disagreed and was able to walk away from the show unscathed.

Leno returned as host of The Tonight Show in March 2010.

O'Brien was no stranger to filling big shoes. Besides taking over The Tonight Show from No. 1 late night host Leno, O'Brien was named David Letterman 's successor in 1993 when Letterman chose to leave NBC and Late Night for CBS and the Late Show.

The transition followed a contentious battle for the Tonight Show desk. Former host Jay Leno fought hard to get the gig after Johnny Carson announced his eventual retirement in 1992. Most thought the gig would go to Late Night host Letterman – including Letterman. Much of the soap opera-like behind-the-scenes history of the transition is told in the best-selling The Late Shift by Bill Carter.

Second retirement

In April 2014, Leno announced his second retirement from The Tonight Show. This after a bitter battle of words with NBC. At that same time, NBC announced that Late Night host Jimmy Fallon would take over for Leno as host in 2014.

The Tonight Show itself has a storied history, launching in its more familiar form in 1953 with Steve Allen as host. When Allen retired, the show was renamed Tonight! America After Dark and followed a format closer to The Today Show, which was quite popular at the time.

It didn’t last long, however, and in 1957, Jack Paar landed in the host role. Paar famously walked off the show in 1960 after network censors removed a segment of his program. He literally walked off, leaving his announcer, Hugh Downs, to finish the program. Paar returned a month later. His first words were: “… As I was saying before I was interrupted …”

Paar was succeeded by Johnny Carson, arguably the host who is best associated with The Tonight Show as it exists today. Carson hosted the program for nearly 30 years, creating memorable characters like Carnac the Magnificent and Art Fern. Carson also famously employed guest hosts when he went on vacation (including Joan Rivers, Bob Newhart, Jerry Lewis and David Letterman), a tradition almost completely abandoned until a number of folks stepped up to host Late Show when Letterman underwent heart surgery.

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