From Carson to Oprah to Colbert – A History of the Television Talk Show

Based in part on a Smithsonian Associates lecture by Brian Rose.
All unattributed quotes are Mr. Rose.

“It’s hard work to conduct a lively and informative conversation, especially one that would interest millions of viewers who’ve been surrounded by talk throughout their busy days, but since its beginnings, TV has understood there’s nothing more intriguing…” begins host Brian Rose.

Dave Garroway, 1955 (Public Domain)

Talk show roots go back 70 years to early days of the medium. NBC president Sylvester “Pat” Weaver thought viewers might like to end their days watching entertainers converse. The result was Broadway Open House with loud-mouthed comedian Jerry Lester,“ a free-for-all party” lasting 1950-51. A year later, Weaver instituted the early morning Today Show with affable Dave Garroway and his mischievous simian co-host J. Fred Muggs. “He does not crash into the home with the false jollity and thunderous witticisms of a backslapper. He is pleasant, serious, scholarly looking, and not obtrusively convivial.” (Richard F. Shepard-The New York Times) It’s Rose’s theory that the monkey drew kids which, in turn, drew parents.

In 1954, Weaver premiered both The Home Show during which Arlene Francis focused on the needs and interests of housewives and then, The Tonight Show with television and radio personality, musician, composer, actor, comedian, writer Steve Allen. At its debut, Allen warned his audience, “…This program is going to go on forever … You think you’re tired now. Wait until you see one o’clock roll around!” The performer hosted four years. He pioneered man-on-the-street interviews, jumped into a vat of cottage cheese and allowed himself to be covered with ice cream, bananas, and hot fudge. Leaving CBS for NBC, The Steve Allen Show became a popular variety hour featuring regulars like Tom Poston, Louis Nye, and Don Knotts.

Arlene Francis (Photo by Bruno of Hollywood – Public Domain); Sammy Davis, Jr. and Steve Allen, 1956 (Public Domain)

Weaver’s three innovative shows (Today, Home, and Tonight) were referred to as the “T-H-T” package. The programs helped establish a practice of selling advertising rights to several temporary sponsors. Meanwhile Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person and The Mike Wallace show helped the first become more relaxed and the second increasingly hard-hitting. Jack Paar took over The Tonight Show. His “homespun observations and emotional honesty” changed its tenor. Then, one night, an innocuous bathroom joke in a monologue was censored. The next evening Parr angrily quit on air. A month later he was enticed back. “As I was saying before I was interrupted,” he began.

Jack Paar with Senator John F. Kennedy, 1959 (Public Domain)

“Openness to controversy, candid remarks, and serious topics were studiously avoided by his successor, former game show host, Johnny Carson, who took over in 1962.” At first insecure about the job, Carson turned out to be a natural, bringing a cool factor and sophistication to the show. His tenure would last 30 years. “By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best. He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn…No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. …He has no conceit.” (Director Billy Wilder) By the mid-1970s, Carson was the highest-paid personality on television.

The host had a penchant for comics and magicians – including his own portrayal of Carnac the Magnificent. He also played blue collar Floyd R. Turbo American, The Maharishi, and Art Fern Tea Time Movie Announcer. Ten million viewers tuned in nightly, 40 million for Tiny Tim’s wedding. No one put up against The Tonight Show could compete.

Woody Allen with Johnny Carson, 1964 (Public Domain)

The rise of syndicated talk shows brought easy going Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin, both of whom had been big band singers. A move to greater seriousness in daytime began with The Phil Donahue Show. This host openly courted controversy and encouraged his studio to ask questions. Serious conversation found a late night home with The Dick Cavett Show. Cavett had been a comedy writer for Jack Paar, Groucho Marx, and Jerry Lewis but was also a Yale alumnus intellect whose wide interests and lack of pandering attracted a younger audience.

We watch a lineup of writers, Janet Flanner, Gore Vidal, and Norman Mailer. Vidal had written something about Mailer the latter found objectionable. Mailer insisted on an apology. “Because I hurt your feelings?” Vidal asks. “No, because you hurt my sense of intellectual pollution,” Mailer snaps. “You’re an expert…” Vidal drawls. Flanner objects to their public fighting. Cavett is silent until Mailer says he won’t hurt any of the people on stage because they’re intellectually smaller.

Anthony Quinn with Dick Cavett, 1971 (Public Domain)

“Perhaps you’d like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect,” the host calmly responds. When Mailer lobbs one back about sticking to the list of questions, the host tells him to fold said list and put it where the sun don’t shine. Not your usual talk show banter. Celebrities like Katharine Hepburn, notoriously against being interviewed, appeared on Cavett.

The first two decades of talk/interview shows were dominated by men until reporter-at-large Barbara Walters became Harry Reasoner’s news co-host – a failure, then was showcased in her own Barbara Walters Specials – a roaring success with a one million dollar salary. The journalist had no compunction about asking the hard questions and was internationally respected. Decades later, her concept of women talking, The View, remains not only popular, but a venue on which politicians feel they must appear.

Russian President Vladimir Putin pictured signing his book (published in USA) at the request of ABC television with Barbara Walters – Creative Commons

Oprah Winfrey’s “comfort-style” program rocketed from Chicago to syndication to a multifaceted company, including OWN (network) and a magazine. WInfrey was/is empathetic. People open up to her. It was on a Winfrey show that Donald Trump first expressed his desire for the presidency in 1988, and on which Tom Cruise jumped on a couch hysterically declaring love for Katie Holmes. It was Oprah to whom Meghan and Harry (60 million viewers) took their grievances.

Oprah Winfrey 2014, Creative Commons

Tabloid TV became popular with Geraldo Rivera who had a solid journalistic background he appeared to ignore, Maury Povich “who spent 30 dishonorable years” stirring up trouble and culminated with Jerry Springer’s incendiary chaos. Povich specialized in emotional humiliation. Springer had security guards on his full time stage staff.

In the 1980s, nighttime television changed with the arrival of David Letterman, who’d begun his career as a wise-cracking weatherman. An on air benediction from Johnny Carson resulted in his hosting The Tonight Show 29 times. Late Night with David Letterman allowed his sense of the absurd free reign. The man in the street segments,  Stupid Pet Tricks, and The Top Ten List highlighted. It was assumed Letterman would replace Carson. NBC hired Jay Leno and Letterman moved to CBS. At the latter, he became more open and personal, inviting his entire heart surgery team on air for example.

David Letterman 2011, Creative Commons

The rise of political commentary began with Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect (now The Bill Maher Show), followed by The Daily Show, “A Fake News Program” helmed by last year’s Mark Twain prize winner, Jon Stewart. The latter opened a new chapter with outside correspondents like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee, all of whom went on to their own shows. Rose calls Stewart’s specialty, “a well honed sense of outrage, especially for Fox News and hypocritical politicians.” 

In 2010 Stewart and Colbert (who hosts the wildly successful The Late Show) organized the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear attracting 250,000 demonstrators to Washington, D.C. Either smart, honest, liberal man might arguably run for office with success. Now that Stewart’s stepped back, part of the country gets their news directly from Colbert who pulls no punches. Once cowed by advertisers, talk show hosts express their own points of view.

Jon Stewart, Creative Commons; Stephen Colbert, Creative Commons

Seth Myers, Jimmy Fallon, James Cordon, and Republican, Greg Gutfeld, whose 11 p.m. program frighteningly leads the time slot, appear nightly. Of more intellectual ilk, William F. Buckley and Charlie Rose appeared on PBS (as did Cavett later on.) Larry King had several long running shows. There are more of course.

Opening Jack Paar and Dick Cavett (Public Domain)

Brian Rose is an entertaining lecturer. Photos are excellent, clips illuminating and entertaining. I’ve added and embroidered.

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About Alix Cohen (1775 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.