The Past and Present Hosts of "The Tonight Show"

Who Has Hosted This Iconic Late Night Talk Show?

You know Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and Jimmy Fallon, but do you know all the other hosts of "The Tonight Show"? This iconic late night talk show has had a number of talented and very funny men walk through the stage curtain and deliver the monolog over the years. 

While Carson and Leno have the longest runs, the show has seen quite a bit of turnover. There were times when it seemed like the show was continually changing hosts, playing with different formats, and dealing with celebrity controversy. Yet, it was when Johnny Carson took the desk in 1962 that the show became the powerhouse program we know and love today.

So who came before Johnny Carson? And who followed in his footsteps? Let's find out.

01
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Steve Allen: 1954 to 1957

Former 'Tonight Show' host Steve Allen
Former 'Tonight Show' host Steve Allen. Getty Images

Steve Allen was the first host of "Tonight." His run on the show set the bar for nearly every talk show to come. He was a pioneer and his impact is still felt today.

How so? Allen is considered the originator of the talk show monolog, the comedy sketch break, and playful banter with the audience. In a very big way, we could consider Allen the father of the modern-day talk show.

Because Allen was so popular with viewers, NBC gave him his own prime time talk show. Rather than quit "Tonight," Allen hosted both programs simultaneously, sharing hosting duties with Ernie Kovacs during his final 1956-57 season.

02
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Jack Lescoulie and Al Collins: Six months in 1957

Tonight Show host Jack Lescoulie on the set of 'The Today Show'
Tonight Show host Jack Lescoulie on the set of 'The Today Show'. Getty Images

You've probably never heard of Jack Lescoulie and Al "Jazzbo" Collins and you're not the first. At least when it comes to talking about "The Tonight Show."

Lescoulie was a radio and television announcer and one-time host of "The Today Show." Collins was a deejay, radio personality, and recording artist. The duo hosted the show for six months in 1957 after Allen retired.

NBC completely revamped "Tonight," at the time, turning it more into a late-night "Today Show." The format didn't work. By year's end, Jack Paar was behind the desk in a once-more formatted "Tonight Show," this one more closely resembling the familiar format we still enjoy.

03
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Jack Paar: 1957 to 1962

Former 'Tonight Show' host Jack Paar
Former 'Tonight Show' host Jack Paar. Getty Images

Most consider Jack Paar the true "Tonight " successor to Steve Allen.

Perhaps most famously, Paar abruptly quit "The Tonight Show" after NBC censored one of his monolog jokes. After delivering his monolog the following evening, Paar walked out, leaving announcer Hugh Downs to fill in for the remainder of the program.

He returned a month later and delivered the famous line, "As I was saying before I was interrupted … I believe the last thing I said was 'There must be a better way to make a living than this.' Well, I've looked - and there isn't."

04
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Johnny Carson: 1962 to 1992

Former 'Tonight Show' host Johnny Carson
Former 'Tonight Show' host Johnny Carson. Getty Images

Johnny Carson will be forever known as the king of late night television. His 30 years as host of "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" serves as an achievement - both in longevity and artistically - for current and future talk show hosts to aspire to.

Carson reinvented the monolog, scored with clever skits and memorable characters, and became loved by Americans young and old.

Nearly every major talk show host of the last 20 years includes Carson as both an inspiration and an influence. This list includes David Letterman, Jay​ Leno, and ​Conan O'Brien.

05
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Jay Leno: 1992 to 2009

Former 'Tonight Show' host Jay Leno
Former 'Tonight Show' host Jay Leno. Getty Images

After Carson retired from "Tonight," comedian and regular guest host Jay Leno took over the late night desk. This did not come without some controversy.

Most people assumed "Late Night" host, David Letterman, would be named Carson's replacement. But heavy lobbying - and some questionable actions by Leno's then-manager, including planting a false story that NBC executives wanted Carson gone - scored Leno the job.

Leno had the last laugh, though, regularly beating his late night competition in the ratings. Leno also brought a more mellow, California-flavor to the program.

Conan O'Brien
Talk show host Conan O'Brien. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

When Leno left late night to take a shot at primetime in 2009, "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien stepped into the role of "Tonight Show" host. Then the wheels came off the bus.

Leno's primetime program was flailing in the ratings and O'Brien wasn't doing much better with his younger version of "Tonight." Through all of this, NBC felt pressure to bring Leno back to late night.

Another messy transition saw O'Brien relinquish his role as host, break his contract with NBC, and bolt for greener pastures on TBS. Leno returned to late night after a little more than nine months away from ​"The Tonight Show." More »

07
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Jay Leno: March 2010 to February 2014

Jay Leno and Billy Crystal on 'The Tonight Show'
Jay Leno and Billy Crystal on 'The Tonight Show'. Getty Images

Leno returned to ​"Tonight" after ​the cancellation of ​​"The Jay Leno Show" and steered the program toward relatively stable ratings.

But as he faced new competition from Jimmy Kimmel, who steadily pulled coveted young viewers away from "Tonight," Leno faced another challenge. How long could he keep his seat before NBC asked him to leave? The answer was about four years.

08
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Jimmy Fallon: February 2014 to present

'Tonight Show' host Jimmy Fallon
'Tonight Show' host Jimmy Fallon. Getty Images

"Late Night" host Jimmy Fallon took over for Jay Leno in February 2014. While Fallon promised that the show wouldn't feel much different than "The Tonight Show" people had grown to love, he did make at least one big change. He moved "The Tonight Show" from Los Angeles and brought it back home to New York.

Since then, Fallon has wowed viewers with his peppy and poppy mix of comedy and musical numbers. His show is built for the digital age and ready to be shared on social networks by fans of all ages.