A short history of the late-night talk show set

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Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

The Story of Late Night,” a brand new CNN Authentic Sequence on the historical past of the enduring style, airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Hearken to the companion podcast, “Behind the Desk: The Story of Late Night time,” here.

For greater than six many years, American late evening discuss present hosts have sat behind giant picket desks, with friends in cushioned chairs or couches to their proper. Behind them, the wall could also be painted to imitate an open vista; round them, a brightly lit studio set is made extra inviting via heat wooden tones, mugs on a desk or — in Johnny Carson’s case — a few well-placed home crops.

As a lot because the applications themselves are a part of Individuals’ nightly rituals, the late evening discuss present set has turn into an iconic — and predictable — fixture in tv, in the present day inhabited by comics together with Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, following within the lineage of Jay Leno and David Letterman, and additional again, Carson, Steve Allen and Dick Cavett.

Johnny Carson (pictured with Dolly Parton) remains televisions longest-running late night talk show host, spending four decades behind the desk for "The Tonight Show."

Johnny Carson (pictured with Dolly Parton) stays televisions longest-running late evening discuss present host, spending 4 many years behind the desk for “The Tonight Present.” Credit score: Alice S. Corridor/NBC/Getty Photos

“It is humorous how late evening units haven’t modified a lot since they began,” mentioned Robert Thompson, a media scholar and professor of tv and well-liked tradition at Syracuse College, in a video interview. “It is an try to point out some semblance of our concept of an American front room. However an American front room the place one of many individuals, the proprietor of the lounge, sits behind a desk.”

When it was first launched round 1949, late evening was a distinct beast than the already acquainted leisure of night selection like “The Ed Sullivan Present” or daytime discuss present programming like “The Immediately Present.” The late present idea had a really low bar for achievement, because the CNN unique sequence “The Story of Late Night time,” particulars. Previous to the debut of the then-novel, post-11pm programming, the nightly information would give strategy to a take a look at sample, after which static — a overseas visible in the present day, in an period when there may be all the time one thing to stream.

Watch a short historical past of late evening discuss exhibits

“Late evening started as a strategy to kill time,” host Conan O’Brien, who just announced the tip of his long-running program on TBS, mentioned within the docuseries. “It was the networks realizing… ‘let’s kick the soccer just a little additional down the street and see what occurs at 11:30.'”

Immediately, late evening discuss exhibits have branched out past community tv, and have begun to incorporate extra girls and hosts of coloration, together with new exhibits helmed by Seth Meyers’ author Amber Ruffin and well-liked YouTuber Lilly Singh.

But the desk setup largely stays, and it is notable when a number tries to cast off the system — like when Invoice Maher sat amongst his friends on the ’90s present “Politically Incorrect.” Final yr, Samantha Bee defined the explanation her weekly present “Full Frontal” is deskless in an interview for the Tv Academy Basis, saying the normal method made her really feel “tremendous confined.”
Comedian Steve Allen first introduced the talk show desk during the often experimental 1950s show "Tonight Starring Steve Allen" -- the first iteration of "The Tonight Show."

Comic Steve Allen first launched the discuss present desk through the typically experimental Nineteen Fifties present “Tonight Starring Steve Allen” — the primary iteration of “The Tonight Present.” Credit score: NBC/Getty Photos

Nonetheless, the spirit of the Nineteen Fifties and ’60s period of set design has largely persevered.

“Each time you see a late evening present, it looks as if all people begins with the identical system,” mentioned Keith Raywood, a manufacturing designer who has constructed units for O’Brien and Fallon, in a video interview. “They only costume it in a different way.”

Designed for energy dynamics

The pioneer of the late evening discuss present was really a girl, the actress Faye Emerson, who hosted interviews and gave her personal political commentary in 1949 on “The Faye Emerson Present,” typically from a sofa in a front room. However then girls had been relegated to the realm of daytime tv, the place advertisers may attraction to stay-at-home wives, media historian Maureen Mauk defined in “The Story of Late Night time.”

“The lads began to take over (late evening), and the ladies had been actually by no means to return, in a variety of methods,” Mauk mentioned. (The subsequent feminine host to nab a nighttime discuss present was Joan Rivers in 1986, however Fox cancelled “The Late Present Starring Joan Rivers” the next yr. A decade later, Cynthia Garrett turned the primary community late evening Black feminine host, however her NBC present “Later” was axed after a single season.)

Joan Rivers was often a guest host for Carson on "The Tonight Show," as pictured here with Oprah Winfrey, but wound up competing against him with her own short-lived Fox show.

Joan Rivers was typically a visitor host for Carson on “The Tonight Present,” as pictured right here with Oprah Winfrey, however wound up competing towards him along with her personal short-lived Fox present. Credit score: Paul Drinkwater/NBC/Getty Photos

Comic Steve Allen first launched the desk throughout his wacky and experimental programming that was the primary iteration of “The Tonight Present” — which included him dipping into vats of jello and fortunately pie-smashing his friends. In accordance with “The Story of Late Night time,” Allen’s successor, Jack Paar, added the content material format we’re nonetheless accustomed to in the present day: a monologue, interview and efficiency.

However it was Johnny Carson, host of “The Tonight Present” for over 4 many years, whose affable, family-friendly appeal turned synonymous with late evening. And his long-running present additionally cemented the hierarchy implicit within the format of the set.

"The desk is occasionally breached," said Thompson. During the first taping of the "Late Show with David Letterman," Bill Murray spray painted Letterman's desk.

“The desk is sometimes breached,” mentioned Thompson. Throughout the first taping of the “Late Present with David Letterman,” Invoice Murray spray painted Letterman’s desk. Credit score: Alan Singer/CBS/Getty Photos

“It is much less democratic, much less egalitarian, if somebody is sitting behind a desk in an elevated place, and his friends are usually not equal in stature by way of how they’re being seated,” Raywood mentioned.

Thompson factors out the setup “leaves the friends to be absolutely uncovered.” Cavett, whose discuss present slots included late evening, most well-liked to take a seat extra casually on snug chairs along with his friends, placing them on equal floor.

Arsenio Hall (here with Eddie Murphy) shook up late night as the first Black host -- and notably did away the desk format.

Arsenio Corridor (right here with Eddie Murphy) shook up late evening as the primary Black host — and notably did away the desk format. Credit score: Ron Galella, Ltd./Getty Photos

However one magnetic character aimed for an much more private means of partaking along with his friends. Arsenio Corridor, who in 1989 turned the primary Black host to helm a late evening discuss present, sat near his friends, who had been on a sofa, and leaned in with rapt consideration.

“We see him in his entirety,” Thompson mentioned of Corridor. “He would lean into his interviews…which gave it a way of intimacy.”

Carson, then again, “had an emotional distance to him,” Thompson mentioned. “The concept of him leaning in in that pleasant, acquainted means that Arsenio did would have been unthinkable. And I believe it is one of many causes (“The Arsenio Corridor Present”) actually had some voltage and a few vitality — as a result of it seemed much less like what we had seen so many occasions again and again.”

Remodeling the system

Among the most artistic takes on discuss present units have come out of the parodies, which have turn into as ubiquitous as late evening itself.

The unique spoof, Norman Lear’s “Fernwood 2 Night time” from 1977, and its grandchild, Zach Galifianakis’s “Between Two Ferns,” which premiered in 2008, immediately referenced the ever-present greenery on Carson’s set. President Obama was famously tapped for Galifianakis’s Humorous or Die sequence, which passed off on a easy black set with two towering inexperienced ferns. Throughout his interview, Obama deadpanned to the comic: “Once I heard that individuals really watch this present, I used to be really fairly shocked.”

Eric Andre and Semere Etmet at  "The Eric Andre Show Live!" The sketch comedy series parodies public-access talk shows with a wild dose of surrealism.

Eric Andre and Semere Etmet at “The Eric Andre Present Reside!” The sketch comedy sequence parodies public-access discuss exhibits with a wild dose of surrealism. Credit score: Michael Tullberg/Getty Photos

In the meantime, “The Eric Andre Present,” the absurdist Grownup Swim present that debuted in 2012 and repeatedly destroys its set, heightened the entire strangeness that Steve Allen had established within the Wild West of late evening, and that Letterman continued early in his profession.

“Older late evening tv had an actual sense of that iconoclastic,” Thompson mentioned.

However Thompson has famous how even kitsch and subversion has turn into cliché. It is solely not too long ago that one other substantial shift in late evening set design has occurred, he mentioned, because of the continuing coronavirus pandemic, which pressured late evening hosts to tape from dwelling for an prolonged time frame.

“Swiftly, the set of the discuss present itself was completely downsized, as a result of individuals had been doing it from dwelling,” he mentioned. “Colbert began in his bathtub the very first day.”

As Colbert suited up in his bubble tub the primary evening for “The Late Present” on CBS, Meyers posted up at his in-laws’ home for “Late Night time” on NBC. After 68 episodes there, a portray of a sea captain, which had turn into an animated “visitor” all through the distant exhibits, mentioned goodbye with a jaunty sea shanty.

Late-night TV marks anniversary of pandemic

“In a wierd means, the liberation from these Carson-era studio units was really, creatively, factor for late evening discuss exhibits,” Thompson mentioned.

As a substitute of friends stopping by the set, they might dial in from wherever, utilizing Zoom backgrounds or sharing the intimacy of their properties.

“Typically it is extra attention-grabbing to speak to Arnold Schwarzenegger from his home, than it’s to have Arnold Schwarzenegger wander onto the stage, which is so synthetic, so prepped,” Thompson mentioned.

Raywood additionally signaled that it is time for one thing new, after practically seven many years of following the identical system.

“I believe we may simply be due for a change in format for late evening tv,” he mentioned. “Each technology veers into one other course — how they take a look at issues, how they costume, the form of music they hearken to — so why are we doing the identical present each (time)?”

He added: “You want producers who’re artistic sufficient, and courageous sufficient.”

This text has been up to date to appropriate the title and yr of Joan Rivers’ late-night present with Fox, and to incorporate further context relating to the Dick Cavett set.

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