A Brief History of the Battles for Late-Night TV Supremacy

If you’ve felt a sense of déjà vu in TV news lately, you’re not alone. The television blogs and trades are once again dominated by rumors, gossip, and inside information on NBC’s attempts to oust Tonight Show host Jay Leno for the younger, funnier, and more youth-friendly host of Late Night. The names are different, but the story’s the same — the only suspense is whether it’ll play out differently this time around. Then again, the post-local news slot on the Peacock Network has always been a contentious place; even a quick glance at the history of The Tonight Show reveals decades of battles, back-stabbings, and would-be usurpers. Join us after the jump for a brief rundown of the show’s many heavyweight bouts.

Jack Paar vs. NBC

The fight: The first host of Tonight, Steve Allen, had the job for three relatively drama-free years, during which he set the template for what the show would become: a comedy/talk program, albeit more of a variety show than its later iterations. Allen went part-time in 1956 (sharing duties with Ernie Kovacs) due to his prime-time show, which he went to full-time in 1957. The network tried to switch to a news program (Tonight! America After Dark); when that tanked, they brought in Paar, an erudite conversationalist who transformed Tonight into more of a traditional “talk show.” Paar held the job for five years, but midway through his run, he locked into a censorship battle with the network. In February of 1960, the network cut out a joke about a “water closet” from Paar’s opening monologue; the following evening, he talked about the incident in his monologue, fumed “there must be a better way of making a living,” and walked off the stage, 18 minutes into the 105-minute program. Paar’s announcer (and future Today host) Hugh Downs took over for the rest of the broadcast. Paar spent a month away from the show.

The victor: Paar, whose return was greeted with cheers from viewers both in the New York studio and in homes.