Steve Allen was one of the earliest late night show hosts. The formula for success in this time slot was still not yet known, but Steve was the guy to noodle around until he found it. An amazingly talented guy, he was a gifted musician/songwriter and a zany comedian who could improvise and ad lib with the best of them. Steve was the first to host The Tonight Show on NBC (1954 - 1957) and later hosted his own variety show. His collection of regulars included Louie Nye, Tom Poston, Don Knotts and others whose antics often cracked Steve up as much as the audience, Steve Allen opened the door for late night television through which some very talented successors would pass.
In July of 1957, Jack Paar took over as new host of The Tonight Show. Paar brought the show back to its in-studio interview format. More a conversationalist than comedian, audiences were drawn to Paar's show because of the interesting guests he brought on, from entertainers to politicians, and for the controversy that occasionally erupted there. Paar did not shy away from politics or confrontation, and often became emotionally involved with his subject matter and guests. He had a few stormy run-ins, both on camera and off, and finally left the show following a controversy in 1962. The thing about Jack was that you never knew whether you would be watching a hilarious improvisational sketch with Jonathan Winters or a serious interview with Henry Kissinger. Unpredictable is the one word I would choose to describe his show.
In October, 1962 Johnny Carson took over as host of The Tonight Show. Carson was more emotionally detached and less political than Paar. He, like Allen, was a comic. Named the king of late night, Carson hosted the show for thirty years, from 1962 to 1992. During that time the show moved from New York City to Burbank, California. Carson was known for his glib sense of humor and his middle-American appeal, and quickly recognized his increasing popularity as well as the strain of doing comedy and talk five nights a week. One of Johnny's secrets was the ability to get out of the way and allow his guests to have the spotlight. Johnny Carson owned late night TV, and I think if this was a list of one, Johnny would be it.
Late Night with David Letterman was a nightly hour-long comedy and talk show that came on NBC after Johnny Carson's show went off for the night. When Johnny retired in 1993, NBC gave The Tonight Show to comedian Jay Leno, a frequent fill-in host for Johnny. Letterman, who thought he should be Carson's replacement, was angry and decided to take an offer from CBS for a late night talk show to compete with Leno. Up until this time, all the major television networks tried to create talk shows to compete with the success of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, but all failed. Letterman, with his quirky sense of humor, was the first to give The Tonight Show a run for its money.
ABC was one of the networks who was frustrated in its attempts to get a foothold in late night TV. One of its better efforts was The Dick Cavett show (1969-1975). Cavett, funny but more cerebral than other late night hosts took the time slot over from Joey Bishop and used a unique approach to compete. He was more receptive to controversial non-show business guests like authors, politicians, and other personalities outside the entertainment field. He also did in-depth interviews with people like Groucho Marx, who opened up to Cavett to provide interesting insights into their careers. The wider variety of guests, combined with Cavett's literate and intelligent approach to comedy, kept the show running for several years despite the brutal competition.
My last show is probably not on any other list of "best" late night shows. Fernwood Tonight, with host Garth Gimbel (Martin Mull) and his announcer/sidekick Jerry Hubbard (Fred Willard), was the most off-the wall show ever to appear in late night. The show was set in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio, and satirized real talk shows as well as airing the sort of odd ball fare one might expect from locally-produced, small-town, television. A piano-playing gentlemen in an iron lung; a consumer advocate who says things like: "See this egg-shell? Bet you thought it was just for painting with fag colors at Easter time"; and a Vietnamese author who comes on to tout his new book, "Yankee Doodle Gook" were all part of the insanity on a show whose objective was to offend everyone, regardless of race, religion or creed. It was an acquired taste to be sure.
I know many would put Jay Leno on this list, and he has done a remarkable job in filling Johnny Carson's large shoes, but just I couldn't turn my back on Fernwood. Sue me.