Tonight Show Guest Hosts: Keeping Johnny Carson's Seat Warm

Entertainment | January 5, 2019

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson - Season 12 Pictured: (l-r) Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, guest host Jerry Lewis on December 27, 1973. Source: (Photo by: Paul W. Bailey/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

During the 30 years that Johnny Carson was host of The Tonight Show, celebrity guest hosts were common. And in fact, for those who hoped to get their own talk show someday, getting the nod to sit in for Johnny was a major endorsement is quite extensive. Among the favorites are Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Bill Cosby, Frank Sinatra, Rich Little, David Letterman, John Denver, Steve Martin, and even Kermit the Frog.

Jerry Lewis was a popular guest host back in the sixties and seventies. He has always been a very funny comedian and actor. Alongside Dean Martin in the fifties, Lewis starred in movies such as That’s My Boy in 1951, The Stooge in 1952, and Hollywood or Bust in 1956, which was their last film together. Jerry Lewis was also known for his starring role in The Nutty Professor. Bringing his slapstick humor to The Tonight Show proved to be quite entertaining as well.

Source: (Photo from 27-frank_sinatra_theredlist)

Frank Sinatra was one of the most popular singers of the twentieth century.  He was also an actor and producer as well. He was one of the guest hosts of The Tonight Show. One episode in particular that he hosted was with guests Don Rickles, George Burns, Carroll O’Connor, and a few other popular celebrities that provided a really entertaining episode with witty comments by Don Rickles. Some of his comments though, that were considered acceptable during that era, would cause quite a stir today because of racial slurs and other innuendos.    

Jimmy Gallios and Joey Bishop visiting Miller’s Pub in Chicago. Source: (https://chicago.eater.com/2012/6/20/6572407/getting-to-know-millers-pub-through-its-regulars)

Actor and comedian Joey Bishop, who, like Sinatra, was a member of the "Rat Pack," was one of the most frequent guest hosts on The Tonight Show, having manned the chair in Johnny's absence 177 times. Joan Rivers hosted 93 times, and Jay Leno hosted the most of all which was 300 times. Jay Leno went on to become a permanent host.

Currently, Saturday Night Live alumnus Jimmy Fallon hosts The Tonight Show, and he's the sixth major host. The five who preceded him are: Steve Allen from 1954 to 1957, Jack Paar from 1957 to 1962, Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992, Jay Leno from 1992 to 2009, Conan O'Brien from 2009 to 2010. Jay Leno actually left and came back in 2010 and stayed until 2014 when Jimmy Fallon took over. There was also a brief period in 1957 when Jack Lescoulie and Al Collins were hosts for about six months.

Rivers became permanent guest host for The Tonight Show in 1983, a gig that ended when she left to host her own late-night show on Fox. Here she interviews Miss America Suzette Charles in 1984. Source: (Photo from npr.org)

As a "permanent" guest host, Joan Rivers interviewed Miss America on one of the episodes she hosted in 1983, but her hosting relationship with The Tonight Show would turn out to be a complicated one. Johnny Carson, who hosted the show for the longest stretch since its beginning, brought her in as a gag writer in 1965 and supported her for many years. Out of respect and loyalty to him, she turned down offers from other networks. It was her hope and desire to one day become a permanent host, but she believed that because of her gender, she was never given the opportunity. Eventually, in 1986, she accepted an offer from Fox for The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. Johnny Carson was not too happy about it and according to her interview with People magazine, he never spoke to her again, even after her husband committed suicide. There was quite a rift between them and she was blackballed from even being a guest on the show. It was not until the current host, Jimmy Fallon took over the show that she was invited to come back on the show.

George W. Bush on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Source: (Photo from http://houston.culturemap.com/news/travel/02-27-14-george-w-bush-plans-to-share-his-paintings-with-the-world-in-new-exhibit/slideshow/)

On one of the episodes with Jay Leno as host, George W. Bush was one of his guests and gave him one of his paintings. After Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon retired, Jay Leno (also a comedian) became a permanent host. From 1992 to 2009, he was the permanent host of The Tonight Show after being guest host about 300 times in the past and then left the show only to return in 2010, staying with the show until 2014. On his last show in 2014, two of his guests were Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks. For a total of 20 years, he was the show’s longest running host behind Johnny Carson who was the host for 30 years.  

Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years. During that time, he received six Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in 2005. Source: (PBS.com)

Johnny Carson was the Tonight Show -- in fact it became customary for viewers to remark that they had seen a star "on Johnny Carson" rather than "on the Tonight Show." No other host can compare to the format and style that Carson brought to the show. With each different host, the style of the show changed. Guests and guest hosts on the show did launch their careers from the show such as Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman, and others. Some were able to obtain shows of their own based on the exposure they received. There was much speculation as to who would succeed Carson when he announced he would be retiring.  

Jimmy Fallon asked his Twittos to write rap punchlines on Star Wars. Set to music in the show. Source: (Photo from http://braindamaged.fr/20/12/2015/star-wars-jimmy-fallon-transforme-les-tweets-en-rap/)

Jimmy Fallon took over as the sixth permanent host of The Tonight Show in February of 2014 and is the current host today. He had previously hosted the NBC Late Night show. After Fallon took over as host, the show was moved back to New York City, which is where it was originally located when it first started in 1953 with Steve Allen.

Although the faces of The Tonight Show have changed a lot over the years, it is still an entertaining show that features an enjoyable mix of celebrities, comedy, laughter, and music. 

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Bill Cosby | Celebrities In The 1960s | Celebrities In The 1970s | Celebrities In The 1980s | David Letterman | Don Rickles | Frank Sinatra | Jack Paar | Jay Leno | Jerry Lewis | John Denver | Johnny Carson | Kermit The Frog | Rich Little | Steve Allen | Steve Martin | Talk Shows | The Tonight Show | TV In The 1960s | TV In The 1970s

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Penny Chavers


Penny, besides writing, loves to spend her time with family and friends. In her spare time, she also enjoys playing the piano, board games, and taking online classes on topics that interest her.