A History of Forgotten Late-Night Talk Shows
Things have been pretty quiet on the late-night talk show front lately, but that’s about to change. With Jay Leno announcing that he’ll be stepping down from ‘The Tonight Show’ throne on February 6th, late night pundits are already buzzing about how Jimmy Fallon will do in the job. And with Seth Meyers taking over Fallon’s 12:30am ‘Late Night’ slot — and Chris Hardwick, Pete Holmes and more entering the fray on cable — the late-night game is about to get really crowded. (Hope you’re ready for tons of Amanda Bynes jokes!)
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a bumper crop of new talk shows. During the ’80s and ’90s, other networks jumped into the late night arena, launching a myriad of failed rivals to Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show.’ Syndication, a boon to ‘The Arsenio Hall’ show, proved to be the place where talk shows debuted and seemingly vanished overnight. And, of course, perpetual late-night bridesmaid Fox made several attempts to launch a talk show with “attitude.”
Take a look back at a time when pretty much any celebrity who could form a sentence on camera (and some who clearly couldn’t) got handed a late-night talk show.
‘Thicke of the Night’
Prior to becoming everyone’s favorite TV dad on ‘Growing Pains,’ Alan Thicke hosted what is unarguably the talk show with the greatest name in television history. Despite Thicke’s slick Canadian charm, the syndicated show was canceled after one season. The next year Thicke went on to offer fatherly advice to Kirk Cameron, and the rest is history. Now if Robin Thicke could host a show called ‘The Thicke of It,’ our dreams would be complete. (Watch an insane Red Hot Chili Peppers performance from their 1984 appearance on the show below.)
‘The Late Show with Joan Rivers’
The first original show broadcast on the Fox network, ‘The Late Show’ debuted in 1986 as a potential rival to ‘The Tonight Show.’ Launching with Joan Rivers — who was a frequent fill-in for Carson — behind the desk, the show never found its footing in the ratings. (Carson was reportedly miffed that Rivers took the gig, and the pair became estranged.)
Eventually Fox replaced Rivers with various hosts including Arsenio Hall, who proved to be a hit with young viewers. The network wanted to lock Arsenio in as a permanent host, but he was committed to making ‘Coming to America’ with Eddie Murphy. Of course, Arsenio would go on to his own hit talk show while Letterman later adopted the ‘Late Show’ name for his still running CBS talker. (Check out Joan’s first episode below, featuring such awesome ’80s guests as David Lee Roth and Pee-wee Herman.)
‘The Wilton North Report’
Fox’s second attempt at late night is less notable for who was in front of the camera (two unknown radio DJs) than who was writing gags behind the scenes. Originally conceived as a biting news satire way before ‘The Daily Show,’ the writing staff included the likes of Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels (‘The Office,’ ‘Parks and Recreation’) and ‘Toy Story’ screenwriter Alec Sokolow.
But behind-the-scenes conflicts led to the show’s edge getting toned down, and what resulted was a strange hybrid of a newsmagazine and a variety show. Airing less than a month, ‘The Wilton North Report’ holds the record for being the shortest-lived late-night show in television history. (Check out a hilariously dated, and NSFW, report on S&M from the show below. Documentarian Aron Ranen’s hair has to be seen to be believed.)
‘Into the Night With Rick Dees’
Radio DJ Rick Dees is perhaps best known for giving the world the sonic oddity that is ‘Disco Duck.’ (Kids, ask your parents.) After that…well, he’s probably more famous for other things besides his forgotten late-night show.
Back in the days when everyone wanted a piece of the ‘Tonight Show’ pie, ABC drew a name from a hat and came up with Rick Dees. Not really, but the radio jock proved to be a less-than-successful TV host with his show getting canned after only one season. (Probably due to a distinct lack of Disco Duck.)
‘The Pat Sajak Show’
As further proof that talk shows were the equivalent of jury duty in the ’80s, CBS attempted to take down Carson with everyone’s favorite game show host (after Alex Trebek) Pat Sajak. But without Vanna, Sajak looked a little lost delivering monologue jokes and gabbing with celebs about whatever project they were plugging. In fact, the show’s most famous moment didn’t even come from Sajak.
When guest host Rush Limbaugh used the show to discuss an Idaho abortion bill that had been vetoed, protesters in the audience turned on him, shouting, “You have blood on your hands!” and “You want people to die!” Rush was unable to get the show back on course, and ‘The Pat Sajak Show’ made headlines for the first and only time in its short run.
‘The Chevy Chase Show’
It’s easy to poke fun at Chevy Chase’s famously disastrous Fox talk show today, given the actor’s penchant for career flame-outs. But at the time of its debut in 1993, Chase was a huge superstar thanks to movies like ‘Christmas Vacation’ and ‘Nothing But Trouble.’ So it was with a great deal of fanfare that the ‘SNL’ alum came to Fox, a network that was starting to make a name for itself as the place for edgy comedy thanks to shows like ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Married…With Children.’
After Dolly Parton turned down Fox’s offer to host a talk show, the network hired the ‘National Lampoon’ star and dumped a million bucks into a theater that they dubbed “The Chevy Chase Theater.” Unfortunately for Fox, the show was a failure right out of the gate, with critics ripping Chase for his hackneyed jokes and nervous, fawning interviews with showbiz pals like Goldie Hawn.
Check out a clip from the first episode below and witness this televised train-wreck firsthand. Yes, the “Ollie” that Chase and Hawn awkwardly sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to is Oliver Hudson, brother of Kate and star of the CBS sitcom ‘Rules of Engagement’ that was somehow on for seven seasons.
‘The Jon Stewart Show’
Before MTV became the home of ‘My Super Sweet Sixteen Pregnant Teen Who Also Got Catfished,’ the network was the place for cutting edge comedy like ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ and ‘The State.’ America got their first taste of Jon Stewart on MTV’s ‘You Wrote It, You Watch It,’ a show Stewart hosted where members of ‘The State’ acted out scenarios sent in by viewers. (Okay, maybe MTV wasn’t always cutting edge back then.) But the network did have the foresight to give Stewart his first talk show, ‘The Jon Stewart Show,’ in 1993.
While it gained a cult following on MTV for a mix of eclectic musical guests and irreverent comedy bits (comedians Dave Attell and Brian Posehn were among the writers while ‘The Daily Show’ creators Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead served as producers), the show floundered when Paramount expanded it to an hour and put it in syndication as a successor to ‘The Arsenio Hall Show.’ (In some markets, it aired as late as 2am.)
Stewart went on to movie and TV roles before settling into the job he was born for as host of ‘The Daily Show’ in 1999. As an early showcase for Stewart’s comedic sensibility (and his sweet ’90s leather jackets), ‘The Jon Stewart Show’ is worth watching clips of today. Check out Jon chatting with a then-little known talk show host by the name of Conan O’Brien. How is it possible that Coco still looks pretty much the same as he did in 1994?
‘The Magic Hour’
Proof that every celebrity with even an iota of charisma scored a talk show back in the ’90s, ‘The Magic Hour’ was basketball great Magic Johnson’s attempt to be the next Arsenio.
Magic’s skills on the court didn’t exactly translate to good television, and critics ripped the show for its host’s overly complimentary manner with guests and forced banter with his sidekick, comedian Craig Shoemaker. ‘The Magic Hour’ is best remembered today as a cautionary example of what happens when a non-comedian is given a talk show.
‘Late World With Zach’
Years before ‘The Hangover’ made him a superstar, Zach Galifianakis brought his offbeat humor to a short-lived VH1 talk show. Airing for nine weeks in 2002, ‘Late World with Zach’ mixed traditional celebrity interviews with anti-comedy bits like Zach performing his monologue at a pre-school and doing an episode on a city bus. As you can see from the interview below with then ‘Alias’ star Bradley Cooper, the show was basically a precursor to ‘Between Two Ferns.’
‘The Kilborn File’
If there’s an award for hosting talk shows before they become beloved institutions, then Craig Kilborn would win that honor hands down.
As the first host of ‘The Daily Show,’ Kilborn perfected his smug anchorman persona, which he later took to CBS’ ‘The Late Late Show.’ You’re forgiven if his days hosting these now beloved programs are a bit hazy — Kilby has that affect on viewers. You’ve also probably forgotten ‘The Kilborn File,’ his recent return to late-night. That is, if you even caught the show’s six-week run in 2010 on a few Fox stations around the country.
Despite bringing back such beloved (to someone, we suppose) bits as “5 Questions” and “Yambo,” and featuring former ‘Step By Step’ star Christine Lakin in the sidekick chair, ‘The Kilborn File’ failed to capture an audience. Lakin is currently filming the ‘Veronica Mars’ movie, while good ol’ Kilby went back to doing whatever it is he does now.