CNN’s ‘The Story of Late Night’: From white men in ties to more diverse hosts with points of view

Late night television began with a desk and a band and a suit and a tie.

That model worked well for nearly 70 years. Over the past year, however, with a pandemic forcing hosts from their studios, suits and ties and everything else have been virtually undone. Other changes have been long overdue.

The evolution is impressively chronicled in “The Story of Late Night,” premiering Sunday on CNN. The six-part documentary series, from Toronto’s Cream Productions and executive producer Bill Carter, is an entertaining pop culture history lesson. It also shows how these late-night talk shows remain, as Johnny Carson once said, “the last area of television that the medium was originally supposed to be: live, immediate entertainment.”

From 1962 to 1992, Carson was the undisputed “King of Late Night” as host of “The Tonight Show.” As Carter says, he is impossible to overlook. “He wasn’t just the biggest star in late night; he was the biggest star on television.”

Carter should know. Besides following late night for 26 years as TV columnist at the New York Times, he authored “The Late Shift” (about David Letterman and Jay Leno’s battle for “Tonight” in the ’90s) and another bestseller, “The War for Late Night.”

Carson was preceded in the ’50s by Steve Allen, the original “Tonight Show” host, and Jack Paar, who added monologues to the mix.

“The Story of Late Night” salutes them as well as all who came after: Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Letterman, Leno, Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and many others. Cavett, O’Brien and Fallon were all interviewed for the series along with more recent players Jimmy Kimmel, Chelsea Handler, Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers and James Corden.

One of the remarkable things about Carson, as Carter points out, is that despite all the changes and upheaval throughout the ’60s and ’70s — the Vietnam War, civil rights, women’s lib and Watergate — “he stayed on top of the culture for so long. Remember, he’s a World War II veteran!”

He was also a career maker for standup comedians. All it took was an “OK” sign from Carson behind the desk and a star was born.

Byron Allen, who made his “Tonight” debut at 18, says he knew heading into his set that “what I do in the next five minutes will change my life forever.”

Ray Romano recalls that going out before the studio audience was so frightening, “in your head, you’re screaming like you’re jumping out of a plane.”

“I’ve been incarcerated,” said George Lopez, who would one day host his own late-night talk show, but “I don’t think anything’s been as frightening as walking through that curtain on ‘The Tonight Show.’”

Some comedians, however, had a hard time getting past Carson’s inscrutable talent booker, Jim McCawley. Women especially seemed shut out, as veteran comic Elayne Boosler suggests. Toronto native Howie Mandel was told his act didn’t suit the show.

Mandel persisted and saw his opening when the late Joan Rivers started guest-hosting “Tonight.” He manoeuvred to get booked at L.A.’s Comedy Store the same night she was trying out new material and, despite a fever, performed well.

“You’re funny,” Rivers told him after the club gig. “Have you ever been on ‘The Tonight Show’?” Mandel replied no but that Wednesday was his birthday; Rivers offered him the best birthday present ever.

Carson was watching, was impressed and demanded Mandel return two weeks later. The comedian killed again and never looked back.

Rivers later ran afoul of Carson. As the “permanent” “Tonight” guest host, she was approached by the fledgling Fox network to go head to head against her mentor in the mid-’80s. Rivers took the job without talking to Johnny and he never spoke to her again. Carter gets one side of the story from Rivers’ daughter Melissa.

That it took so long for women to crash the Men’s Club that was late night is one tradition that took generations to overcome. So was a lack of diversity. Carson’s audience prompt, “How hot was it?” could today translate as “How white” or “How woke was it?”

In recent years, Wanda Sykes, Chelsea Handler and Canadian Samantha Bee have hosted with varying levels of success. Scarborough native Lilly Singh, the first person of Indian descent to host an American network late-night series, is heading into a third season on NBC. Meyers’ ‘Late Night’ writer/performer Amber Ruffin is winning fans on the streaming service Peacock, inspired by Carson’s only real challenger, African American Arsenio Hall.

By this century, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert at Comedy Central did what Carson never did: brought point of view. South African Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show,” Colbert today on “The Late Show” and “Desus & Mero” on Showtime took on Donald Trump and COVID-19. Jimmy Kimmel touched hearts and minds as he mixed causes such as health care and gun control with comedy.



In terms of legacies, two to suffer in the #MeToo era seem to be Leno and Letterman. While Carter still considers Letterman a legend in late night, he admits the man who outlasted Carson’s 30-year run probably would not have survived his 2009 sex scandal involving young female staffers today — even if he were thwarting a blackmail extortion attempt.

“The fact that he overcame all that now seems remarkable,” says Carter.

Leno recently apologized to the Asian-American community after inappropriate jokes aimed at Koreans. With past moments and monologue missteps now fodder for daily YouTube hits, late night talk show hosts can no longer hide behind a desk and a band and a suit and a tie.

“The Story of Late Night” begins May 2 at 9 p.m. and continues Sundays on CNN.

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV writer. Follow him on Twitter @BillBriouxTV

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