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Every Host of The Tonight Show Through the Years

From Steve Allen to Jimmy Fallon, six Hosts put their own spin on NBC's iconic late-night program.


By Samantha Vincenty

The Tonight Show first made its national debut back in 1954. While much of the world has changed since then—including how audiences watch and react to television—nearly 70 years and 13 presidential administrations later, it remains a pillar of late-night TV.

How to Watch

Watch The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on NBC weeknights at 11:35/10:35c and next day on Peacock

The iconic talk show’s enduring relevance can be credited, in part, to its ability to evolve through the years. And as the face of the program, each Tonight Show Host has met the current moment in their own way, five nights a week—joined by an array of celebrities, musical guests, and sidekicks. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the six Hosts of The Tonight Show.

Who was the first Host of The Tonight Show?

Steve Allen.

The son of vaudeville performers, Allen was a comedian, actor, and musician who debuted the first version of what would become The Tonight Show in the summer of 1953.

Tonight Show Host Steve Allen.

Then called Tonight, the show aired locally on a New York NBC station and was, as Allen later recounted to David Letterman in 1982, “an enormous hit.” This inspired NBC to create a version that would air nationally on the network.

Aside from the fact that it was broadcast live, Allen’s program provided the blueprint for the show’s enduring format, and that of many late-night talk shows since.

“It was sort of like you do here: I would go out to the audience with a hand mic sometimes and talk to people. I would read [viewer] letters as you just did, and…as a matter a fact, you’re under arrest,” Allen joked to Letterman.

Steve Allen left The Tonight Show in 1957 to pursue other projects—including The Steve Allen Show, also on NBC.

Jack Paar

Jack Paar and Joey Bishop together during The Tonight Show.

Paar was a comedian, TV radio personality, and sometime actor, and he hosted The Tonight Show from 1957-1962. During Paar’s tenure as Host, he placed more of an emphasis on interviews than his predecessor, welcoming icons-in-the-making such as Carol Burnett, Liza Minelli, and Bob Hope as well as authors and political figures.

According to PBS, Paar departed in 1962 for a slightly slower-paced schedule hosting a weekly prime time variety show, and to spend time with his family.

RELATED: How to Watch The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Johnny Carson 

Tom Selleck during an interview with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.

Prior to taking on the role, Carson hosted a game show called Who Do You Trust? It was there that he met emcee Ed McMahon, who’d join Carson for the entirety of his Tonight Show run as announcer and sidekick. McMahon was known for his nightly introduction: “Heeere’s Johnny!”

Johnny Carson had the longest run of any Tonight Show Host, logging over *29 years* behind the desk from October 1962 to May 1992. One could say that Carson sat behind two desks, as the show moved from New York City to Burbank, California in 1972.

“When that red light came on, that’s when he came alive,” Mike Zanella, who worked on Carson’s The Tonight Show as a talent coordinator and personal assistant, told Vanity Fair. “He was a very shy and quiet man. He had the midwesterner’s awe for New York, and he lived for the show.”

"I am one of the lucky people in the world,” Carson said in his final Tonight Show sign-off. “I found something I always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it.”

Jay Leno

Steven Allen on The Tonight Show hosted by Jay Leno.

Standup comic Jay Leno was the last Tonight Show Host before Jimmy Fallon—and the only Host who did it twice.

After becoming the official guest Host by the end of Carson’s run, Leno's first era as an official Host lasted from 1992 to 2009. After leaving briefly to host his own 10 p.m. show, he returned for a second stretch that lasted from 2010-2014.

Leno hosted more than 4,600 episodes of The Tonight Show, so it’s safe to say he loved the job.

Conan O’Brien

Conan O'Brien picture during The Tonight Show.

A former writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, Conan O’Brien took over the Tonight Show after hosting Late Night with Conan O’Brien from 1993-2009. He brought his collaborators with him—including sidekick Andy Richter and his house band, led by longtime E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg.

RELATED: The Most-Watched Games of The Tonight Show Season 10

O’Brien hosted from 2009-2010, departing to start his talk show Conan on TBS. He currently hosts the popular podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.

Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy Fallon presenting during The Tonight Show.

Like O’Brien, Fallon hosted Late Night prior to becoming Host of The Tonight Show. The SNL alum is the sixth and current Host, debuting on February 17, 2014.

Fallon moved the show back to 30 Rockefeller Center’s Studio, and made the jump to 11:35 p.m. alongside his house band, The Roots, and announcer Steve Higgins.

Like each previous Host, Fallon has brought his own unique spin on what’s become the traditional late-night format, tapping his talents as a comedic and musical performer and his love for games and his social media savvy. He’s also the Host of the NBC musical game show That’s My Jam and faces off against Emmy-nominated Host Keke Palmer on another classic show revived by NBC, Password.

When did The Tonight Show start?

The Tonight Show premiered on September 27, 1954.

While a local version of the show hosted by Steve Allen began airing on New York City's NBC affiliate in 1953, the first  incarnation of The Tonight Show as we know it today made its national debut the following year. 

When did The Tonight Show move to California?

After Host Johnny Carson decided to move the show from New York City to California, the first Burbank episode of The Tonight Show aired on May 1, 1972. 

As journalist Sam Kashner described it in his 2014 Vanity Fair retrospective of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show era, the move was born from an impulse to evolve after innovating the late night talk show format. "Tonight Show producer Freddie de Cordova felt that they had exploited all the New York talent, and he convinced Carson that he should move to Los Angeles," he wrote.

The Tonight Show remained based in Burbank through Leno and O'Brien's years as Host, moving back to 30 Rock in 2014.

Originally published Aug 2, 2023.