1954: NBC's Late-Night Franchise Debuts with 'Tonight!'
To trace this NBC franchise to its beginnings, you have to go all the way back to Cafe Television, hosted by Jerry Lester. "This is a feature that has promise," noted Variety, "despite a number of rough edges." In 1950, NBC hired Lester as one of two hosts (Morey Amsterdam was the other) of Broadway Open House, a variety show that first tested the waters of network late-night TV. That same year, Steve Allen began strutting his stuff on local TV in New York, and NBC executive Sylvester "Pat" Weaver finally took notice and promoted Allen to a network position, renaming the new show Tonight! in the process. Allen's first NBC show, broadcast on September 27, 1954, launched Tonight! into orbit, and it hasn't returned since. Except for a few brief holding patterns between the show's major hosts, the history and legacy of The Tonight Show unfolds in four different major chapters. [Tonight!; Tonight, The Jack Paar Tonight Show; The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson; and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.]
Allen gets credit for establishing the blueprint for most late-night TV talk shows: his Tonight! presented an opening monologue, a faithful announcer-sidekick (in this case, Gene Rayburn), a desk and living-room arrangement of furniture for guests, room for "real people" to participate via outdoor segments and (for those with strange talents, like one wood-crunching man billed as the "human termite") guest appearances, and a mix of sketch comedy, musical performances, and casual talk. ...
Because Allen's Tonight! show was performed entirely live and so few tapes or kinescopes survived, most of the memories attached with that show are blurred with his work on subsequent talk and variety series, for which he recycled many of his most successful characters and bits—this time for posterity. Yet every incarnation of The Tonight Show since Steve Allen has borrowed from him to varying degrees, while making their own stamp on the show and on TV history. "Let me give you the bad news first," Allen had said as part of his opening remarks on that very first Tonight! episode. "This program is going to go on forever." He meant until the wee hours of the morning—but was telling the truth in more ways than one.
—Excerpted from Dictionary of Teleliteracy: Television's 500 Biggest Hits, Misses and Events