KQED looks at early days of late night television

Johnny CarsonAlthough most TV genres have roots that pre-date the television era, the  late night talk show is an entertainment venue that was invented almost on the  spot in the 1950’s, having virtually no previous origin. KQED channel 9 will  examine the emergence and evolution of this significant part of television  history on Thursday night, July 8th at 10 pm when it presents the Late Night  segment of the “Pioneers of Television” series. Produced in 2008, “Pioneers of  Television” is a four part documentary that traces the early days of television,  focusing on the shows and personalities that shaped the development of the small  screen. Other chapters of “Pioneers of Television” include “Sitcoms,” “Variety,” and “Game Shows.”

“Late Night” tells the story of how after hours television went from bad  movies and test patterns to quality programming containing comedy, stimulating  discussion and vintage musical performances. Included on “Late Night” are rare  clips from the early days of such programs as the “Tonight Show” as well as  interviews from various talk show hosts, guests and producers. Among those  sharing their insights are Dick Cavett, Regis Philbin, Arsenio Hall and Merv  Griffin. Special attention should be given to an appearance by Sigourney Weaver,  who discusses her father Pat, the NBC executive credited for creating the “Tonight Show” back in 1954, thereby inventing the late night talk show.  Broadcast live, the “Tonight Show” gave viewers a level of daring and  spontaneity not found anywhere else on television.

As the first host of the “Tonight Show,” Steve Allen became America’s first  late night television star. While Allen and his successor Jack Paar gained  tremendous followings, it’s Johnny Carson who will remain, for all time, the  undisputed king of late night broadcasting. Taking over the show in 1962, Carson  developed a style that made him a bigger star than almost any of the  entertainment figures that appeared on his show. Carson’s success and the profit  NBC earned from the “Tonight Show” spawned many imitators. Joey Bishop, Dick  Cavett, Les Crane, and Merv Griffin all tried and failed to compete with Carson,  who remained at the top until his retirement in 1992. One of the special treats  offered by “Late Night” is footage from Johnny Carson’s first ever TV venture, “Carson’s Cellar,” that ran locally in the Los Angeles area from 1951 to 1953.  Although “Carson’s Cellar” was a simple little sketch comedy show with almost no  budget, the nearly 60 year old film reveals that Johnny, still in his 20’s, was  already demonstrating a mastery of the medium that would make him a  legend.