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“Tonight,” NBC, Sept. 27, 1954: The co-creator and producer of the granddaddy of all late-night TV shows was a Pittsburgher — former theatrical agent Jules Green. But people in Western Pennsylvania didn’t see the program’s debut.
Neither Pittsburgh’s WDTV-TV (2) nor Johnstown’s WJAC-TV (6) carried the show, running old movies in that time slot instead. (Pittsburgh’s other commercial station, WENS-TV 16, signed off at 11 p.m.)
Getting clearance across the nation was just one of “Tonight”‘s early problems. Another was that NBC allowed affiliates to join or drop the 90-minute program every 15 minutes.
That left 32-year-old host Steve Allen “hopelessly saying hello to the newcomers and goodbye to the others” throughout the first hour, in the words of John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune, one of the nation’s most prominent TV critics.
Technical glitches and other bloopers also marred the early broadcasts. (In one memorable incident, a remote broadcast was interrupted while a police officer gave NBC’s mobile unit a ticket.)
But Allen’s quick, self-deprecating wit saved the day. “If Allen can be that funny when things get fouled up, I hope they never get them straightened out,” Crosby said.
The New York Times — though critical of the many commercials that interrupted “Tonight” (shades of things to come!) — called Allen “the master of the ad-lib” and said the show’s many stunts added up to “a high degree of comedy.”
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“The Dick Cavett Show,” ABC, Dec. 29, 1969: Former “Tonight Show” gag writer Dick Cavett, 33, mounted what’s often considered the most valiant — if unsuccessful — attempt at unseating Johnny Carson from his throne as “King of Late Night.”
Cavett, veteran of two previous failed talk shows on ABC (then the weakest American TV network), replaced Joey Bishop (and sidekick Regis Philbin) at 11:30 p.m.
“The Dick Cavett Show” made it to Pittsburgh, but once again, getting network clearances was a problem. The show aired here on WPGH-TV (53), not ABC affiliate WTAE-TV (4), which had given up on competing with “Tonight” and was carrying a late movie in the slot.
“The Cavett outing had much of the ‘zing’ about it that used to make the Jack Paar show worth staying up for,” raved Win Fanning of the Post-Gazette, praising Cavett’s decision to book Woody Allen, opera singer Beverly Sills, Jacqueline Wexler (president of New York’s Hunter College) and actor Robert Shaw on his first show.
“It also achieved something with Paar seldom achieved, a spirited conversation with actually shed a bit of light on an interesting subject — in this case, the generation gap,” Fanning wrote, calling it “the best New Year’s present the insomniac set has received in a many a season.”
(Watch Dick Cavett’s monologue from the night of June 25, 1970)
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“Late Night with David Letterman,” NBC, Feb. 2, 1982: Our (half) vast “MMNF” research staff didn’t have access to the Press, but we looked through the P-G for February 1982. If critic Fanning reviewed the debut of “Late Night with David Letterman,” we couldn’t find it.
Of course, the show didn’t air in Pittsburgh — only viewers who could receive WTOV-TV (9) or WJAC-TV (6) could see it. Instead, WPXI-TV carried re-runs of “Big Valley” and “Petticoat Junction”! (Correction — We incorrectly thought that WPXI-TV did carry “Late Night” in 1982. Readers set us straight. See the comments.)
The situation would repeat 11 years later, when Letterman moved to CBS and 11:30 p.m., KDKA-TV aired the show at midnight for several months, saying it was “contractually obligated” to carry “Inside Edition” at Letterman’s appointed hour.
Tony Schwartz of the New York Times labeled the new show “uneven” but had nothing but praise for its titular host, a 35-year-old comedian and former TV weatherman who had bombed two years earlier while anchoring a 90-minute morning show on NBC.
Letterman “has a gift for getting great mileage out of apparently trivial situations,” Schwartz wrote, praising “the loopy informality that makes him so whimsically and unpredictably appealing.”
“Worth the wait,” said Robert A. McLean of the Boston Globe. “(It’s) safe to say that the series is going to sit well with a lot of inveterate night people, folks who have been predawn TV fans since the halcyon days of Steve Allen … Viewers will see more than a little of the vintage Steverino in Letterman, especially in his willingness to take a chance with material, to wing it with spontaneity, to be innovative.”
(See an excerpt from the first episode of “Late Night With David Letterman”)
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* Correction, Not Perfection — See comments. I screwed up, big time. “Late Night With David Letterman” wasn’t seen in Pittsburgh on Channel 11 during its first year!
On Friday, Jimmy Fallon wrapped up his first week as the new host of NBC’s “Late Night,” the franchise launched in 1982 by David Letterman and recently vacated by Conan O’Brien.
The 1993 debut of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” in Letterman’s old time slot was memorably awful. O’Brien — then a TV writer and producer who had little previous on-camera experience — looked nervous and awkward during his first weeks.
In later years, O’Brien himself made fun of his first few seasons. During a special celebrating his 10th anniversary as “Late Night” host, guest Mr. T gave O’Brien a gift to congratulate him for seven years on the air.
“T, I’ve been on for 10 years,” O’Brien said.
“I know that, fool,” Mr. T said, “but you only been funny for seven!”
Of course, O’Brien grew into the role. Fallon looked wooden last week and his jokes thudded to the ground, but Aaron Barnhart of the Kansas City Star thinks NBC will allow him to grow, too.
We decided to take a look back at the debuts of a few other famous late-night TV hosts and see what the reviewers said. (We’re ignoring the notorious bombs, like Fox’s two legendary turkeys, “The Chevy Chase Show” and “The Wilton-North Report.”)
More after the jump …