Carson made his mark with humorous bits such as “Stump the Band,” when audience members would ask the band to play obscure songs. He also did “The Edge of Wetness,” in which he would read funny and fictional soap opera plots and the camera would scan the audience for the person who best fit the role. These bits and segments soon became a must in the format of late night television.
Leno continued to do the same after taking the reigns from Carson in 1992. Leno created his own famous sketches such as “Jaywalking.” He would ask people around the Los Angeles area questions about current events, mostly receiving outrageous responses.
Leno additionally did a segment called “Headlines” every Monday. Viewers would send in newspaper clippings with either grammatical errors or highly inappropriate mistakes. Leno led the ratings for 11 consecutive years from 1995 to 2006, beating out CBS’ “Late Show” host, David Letterman.
One thing that helped Leno increase his ratings was bringing his stage closer to the audience. Carson’s stage was so far from the audience they could barely see him, which at times hurt his overall ratings.
Since his show first aired in 1993, Letterman has been the main competitor for Leno. “Letterman always has the celebrities and political figures on— he’s funny because he basically makes fun of them the whole time,” said Kevin McCall, a freshman at John Carroll University.
Letterman’s top segments include the “Top Ten List” and “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches.” During the “Top Ten List,” Letterman lists the best of each category given and the presidential speeches features three clips of speeches, two serious and meaningful and the third a gaffe from a recent or past speech.
After 17 years, Leno finally stepped down and passed the NBC late night show to Conan O’Brien. O’Brien’s “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” aired after Leno, and he was considered Leno’s replacement some years before the official announcement. O’Brien is known for his wild behavior and unique personality that consists of random outbursts in song and dance. Sophomore Drew Krainz said, “Conan is the Oprah of late night. Leno’s monologue is bogus, and Conan is a lot goofier than Leno, and I think he appeals more to our generation.” Comedian Will Ferrell joined O’Brien as the first guest on his version of “The Tonight Show,” making its debut on June 1, 2009.
Despite O’Brien taking “The Tonight Show” spot, Leno bumped down an hour slot and on Sept. 14, “The Jay Leno Show” hit the airwaves and drew 17.7 million viewers on its first night.
With this slew of late night programming and the additions of Craig Kilbourn and Jimmy Fallon’s show, the prime time hours are filled with quality programming.
Whether it’s Leno, O’Brien or Letterman, “The Tonight Show” has been a staple in television history since Johnny Carson made it big nearly 47 years ago.