Inventing Late Night:

Steve Allen and the Original Tonight Show


Before Jay, Johnny, or Jack, there was Steve. It was Steve Allen who in 1954 created the Tonight show, a pop culture institution that has become America’s longest-running and most successful late-night program. It all seems so simple—the desk, the monologue, the announcer/sidekick, the bandleader as comic foil, the breezy chats with celebrities, the wacky stunts, the comedy sketches, the roaming cameras, the irreverent observations of passersby, the offbeat and eccentric guests, the fun with exotic animals, and the ad-lib banter with the studio audience.

Steve Allen invented this formula. He revolutionized America’s viewing and sleeping habits by establishing the grammar of late-night TV and hosting Tonight during its first three formative years. In so doing, he paved the way for Paar, Carson, and Leno. Much of what exists on late night today is derived from Allen’s early years in television. Even conventions identified with later hosts—like “Jay Walking,” “Stupid Human Tricks,” “The Tea-Time Movie with Art Fern,” and “Carnac the Magnificent”—owe their origins to the early Allen shows. As Jay Leno acknowledges, “There’s nothing new. It all started with Steve.”

Now, for the first time, the true story of how Tonight developed under Allen’s innovative leadership is told by the people who were there over fifty years ago, including members of the original production team, the first Tonight regulars, and Allen’s colleagues. In exclusive interviews, more than thirty of these entertainment legends share their insights about Allen and early television—including Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, Don Knotts, Doc Severinsen, Louis Nye, Tom Poston, Bill Dana, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Andy Williams, Tim Conway, the Smothers Brothers, Pat Harrington Jr., Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, Bobby Short, Skitch Henderson, director Dwight Hemion, writer Larry Gelbart, and Allen’s widow, Jayne Meadows. In addition, the reflections of industry giants such as Jay Leno, David Letterman, Bill Maher, Bob Costas, Ed McMahon, Dick Clark, and others confirm Allen’s extraordinary influence.

Although the late-night template Allen pioneered still flourishes today, certain unique aspects of his Tonight show sprang from his desire to expose audiences to matters of cultural and social importance. A jazz aficionado and pianist, he launched a forum for jazz artistry with an array of artists from Louis Armstrong and Count Basie to Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Driven by his social conscience, he created a groundbreaking showcase for performers of color during an era when they were seldom seen on television, and he even tackled controversial topics like organized crime and the death penalty, sometimes at great professional and personal risk. On Tonight and on his 1956–60 NBC prime-time series, Allen’s keen eye for talent gave an enormous boost to future icons like Jonathan Winters, Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Jackie Mason, Elvis Presley, and the Muppets.

Inventing Late Night is an invaluable, entertaining, and revealing behind-the-scenes look at the birth of an original American art form and its brilliant inventor, whose influence continues to make America stay awake and laugh—night after night.


Ben Alba is an author, a trial lawyer, a law professor, a musician, and a classic television buff. He teaches legal writing and co-directs the bar passage program at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, Illinois, after previously spending nineteen years as a litigation attorney with the Chicago law firm of Sneckenberg Thompson & Brody.