Jimmy Fallon’s ascension to the Tonight Show throne – even if that chair doesn’t have the luster it once did – is imminent.
With the Winter Olympics looming, NBC has begun promoting the new Tonight Show heavily. Two things have jumped out at me about the spots I’ve seen so far. First, it’s going to be The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. That’s an interesting change, as Jay Leno quickly dispensed with the “starring” tag in favor of the more humble “with” shortly after taking over the show from Johnny Carson, citing the fact that he thought a word like that should be reserved for someone like Carson.
The second, less-subtle feature is the list of hosts presented in the new ads. One of them even goes so far as to say that “only five men” have ever hosted The Tonight Show. Here’s the list that the version of the ad I linked above presents: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien.
The list is problematic because it is incomplete.
A quick history lesson: Tonight began as a local show in New York hosted by Steve Allen on WNBT, the then-flagship station among the NBC affiliates. NBC took the show national in 1954, and Allen, then 32, became the first (and still youngest) host of Tonight. Allen left in 1957 because NBC wanted him to give his full attention to being a prime-time draw.
Believe it or not, Tonight! was converted into a direct counterpart to the Today Show for several months, shifting to a news format. That changed when Jack Paar took over in 1957, hosting until 1962. Paar switched the show back to a talk / variety format that was heavier on the former and lighter on the latter than Steve Allen’s Tonight! had been. Carson took over a few months later (he had to wait out a contractual obligation), remaining as host for 30 years.
Leno famously won the job over Carson favorite David Letterman, lost the job to O’Brien, then was brought back by the network after O’Brien’s ratings tanked, much to the chagrin of Conan’s Millennial fanbase. By the time Leno makes his final exit this week, he will have hosted well over 4,600 episodes of The Tonight Show – even more episodes than Johnny Carson did.
But let’s go back to Steve Allen for a second. About three years into his Tonight! run, NBC gave him a weekly, prime-time show on Sunday night. The time commitment required to do a second, different show took a toll.
Here’s where we get to the crux of the problem with the new Tonight Show ad.
Once it became apparent that Steve Allen couldn’t possibly host a late-night show five nights a week and a weekend prime-time show, he actually split Tonight! hosting duties with Ernie Kovacs. Kovacs, unlike the “permanent guest host” of the later Carson years, was a bona fide host of Tonight!, having those duties every Monday and Tuesday night for the end of Allen’s 1956-57 run.
You may say, “Ok, Tom, but he only hosted for what amounted to a few months.” That may be true, but we could also say the same about Conan O’Brien (although, granted, Conan was anointed as “THE” guy in a way Kovacs wasn’t).
More importantly, Kovacs was a visionary comic talent. Allen was spectacular in his own right, and is still one of the most genuinely multi-talented people ever to become a television star, but Kovacs was special in a different way: He was cutting-edge.
Kovacs invented bits and concepts that were incredibly influential on later programs like Saturday Night Live, particularly certain types of visual gags. Unconventional for the time period, these Kovacs creations were perhaps too much of a leap for 1950s audiences to embrace. As Jack Lemmon, a friend of Kovacs’, famously said – no one could understand what Kovacs was doing because he was “always 15 years ahead of everyone else.”
One problem Kovacs faces in being remembered by non-aficionados is that much of his work was “wiped,” a widespread practice of erasing and re-recording over archived tapes that was common in the 1950s and 60s. Most of Allen’s Tonight! is gone, but there’s enough suriving footage for us to remember the show’s first host. The New York version of Carson’s Tonight Show is all-but-gone, but he obviously had two more decades of shows that did survive, as well as iconic status.
By contrast, Kovacs’ relatively short hosting tenure, which took place in the “wipe-heavy” late 1950s, is, to my knowledge, completely gone – as is most of the work he did on television as a whole. [Edit: See Note at Bottom] Unlike the other hosts on the list, Kovacs has no classic Tonight Show moment that’s become a part of pop culture legend. Allen had the “this show will be on forever” quip, Paar had his walk-off and return, Carson – take your pick, and Leno has more episodes on tape than the other three combined. Even O’Brien had his feud with NBC and pulling-out-all-the-stops final week.
So, even if NBC were inclined to include Kovacs in Tonight Show canon, there’s not much visual evidence they could have to support that decision. Kovacs remains in a sort of television history limbo. He was something more than a guest host, but, from NBC’s perspective, he doesn’t make the cut as one of the “five men” who hosted the program.
And that’s a shame.
[Update: 2/7/04] Josh Mills of ErnieKovacs.com reports that there are “two or three” surviving episodes of Kovacs’ Tonight run, and footage from those episodes was released via direct mail from the Shout! Factory website in 2010.
 To be fair, Carson’s final contract at NBC had him doing only three new episodes per week – when he wasn’t on vacation. The other two episodes were (1) a “Best of Carson” rerun and (2) one night hosted by Carson’s “permanent guest host,” a role filled by Jay Leno for about five years before he took over for Carson.
 What Allen was actually referring to was the fact that the original Tonight! was 105 minutes in length. The Tonight Show was still 90 minutes long well into Johnny Carson’s tenure, until Carson got the show reduced to the now-standard 60 minutes as part of a contract battle. That, in turn, eventually paved the way for Late Night to replace Tomorrow (Tom Snyder’s show), as NBC ultimately wanted a more conventional talk show to follow Carson now that The Tonight Show ended at 12:30 instead of 1:00.