There was hardly a time when late night television wasn't a staple of daily life for North America. From the first airing of The Tonight Show in 1954, it was watercooler entertainment – providing a national discussion the next day, obnoxious co-workers with a never-ending supply of catchphrases and some of the most indelible moments in television history. The old joke is that it's just something married couples have on in the background while having sex, but there are occasions when it became a transformative experience for the country. Presidential candidates have announced their candidacy, disgraced celebrities have appeared to atone for their sins and hope to return to the public's good graces and comic and musical acts have made or broke their careers under the hot lights of NBC's stage.
Getting on The Tonight Show in the age of Johnny Carson was every comedian's dream. And after your five minutes on national television, you looked toward the king of late night for approval. If he called you over to sit down, you had made it. You had a sitcom or a record deal decided with the simple beckoning of one man's finger.
Since then, with the advent of cable, other late night shows have flooded the airwaves, some of them surpassing the throne of The Tonight Show. Whatever your show of choice, the communal experience of late night television has always been cathartic – a pleasant way to digest the often hectic, too-commonly tragic events of the last 24 hours.
So how well do you know late night? Take the quiz and find out.
Who was the first host of The Tonight Show?
After the success of NBC's Broadway Open House in 1951, the network realized that there was a potential block of television as-yet untapped. Late night television programming was a new idea. Television was still very much in its infancy. In 1953, this well-known comic hosted what was known as The Knickerbocker Beer Show. It was soon renamed after the host before finally earning the name Tonight!. He hosted from 1954 to 1956 before Ernie Kovacs briefly took over in 1957.
What scandal did David Letterman openly confess to in order to get ahead of it?
Fame comes with pitfalls, most of them stemming from having your personal life being on display. David Letterman has always had a reputation of being blunt and straightforward – a no-nonsense host who would tackle issues with a modest, midwestern "aw shucks" charm that only thinly veiled the bile and vitriol that seethed just beneath the surface. So when he woke up one morning with a note in his car trying to blackmail him, he'd have none of it. He went right to the authorities and had the perpetrator arrested, then went on television to inform the world that he'd made a mistake. It's the kind of courage you don't see on television anymore. And his transgression, while uncouth, was put behind him and his audience.
Who flashed David Letterman?
In 1995, David Letterman celebrated his 48th birthday on air. The show was fairly standard fare – funny, light – that was until this celebrity took the chair. At the time, she was known for outlandish public behaviour. Whether it was a publicity stunt or a genuine moment of spontaneity, no one forgot it. She claims it was spontaneous, her apprehension largely non-existent because Letterman was so easy to be around and would let a guest know if they had gone too far. After it happened, Dave smiled and said, "I can't thank you enough for that."
What event put Leno ahead of the ratings after he took over The Tonight Show?
Then NBC Vice President of Entertainment Warren Littlefield had serious concerns about Jay Leno taking up the mantle after Johnny Carson over Letterman. His biggest was Leno's terrible interviewing skills. And throughout Leno's tenure, his softball "How you holding up?" kind of questions reflected poorly when put up against Letterman's unbridled curiosity and earnestness. For months after Letterman moved to CBS and competed with Leno, Dave's ratings stayed on top. Until, that is, this particularly memorable scandal broke. And for the first and probably last time, Leno asked a legitimate question: "What the hell were you thinking?"
What did Leno do that some say intentionally undercut new Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien?
In journalist Bill Carter's book The War for Late Night, a historical sequel to The Late Shift, Leno comes across as an OCD-ridden tyrant. When he's told Conan will be taking over for him, he repeats the same sentence during negotiations: "I go on at 11:30 and I tell jokes." He says it so many times it almost becomes a Rain Man-esque tic. In the months before Conan took over, Leno did everything he could to sabotage his successor, but it was this final move that made the entire comedy world resent him.
Who teared up saying goodbye the Letterman on his penultimate episode?
Letterman had a stable of regular guests – often close friends of his or at least performers of whom he was particularly fond. And he was nothing if not loyal to them – championing their works and speaking highly of them in the press. When it came time to say goodbye to Letterman, this comic came on to deliver one last five minute act. At the end, he began to say his farewell – which included him telling his favourite Letterman joke from his stand up days. Then, eyes welling up, he told Dave that he loved him.
What cable news host did Lettermen regularly have on to mock?
Letterman was not a guy you tried to one-up on his home turf. And, much like Jon Stewart did on Crossfire in his legendary appearance, if he disapproved of your behaviour publicly, he would scold you. And his midwestern terms seemed to soften the blow, but his insults were just as harsh. This particular host must have been a glutton for punishment. Letterman's Indiana-isms described him as "a goon", "a buffoon" and "a fool". It's the kind of hard-edged attack this administration could use more of.
Of whom did Letterman ask "How was prison?"
Yet another example of Letterman not taking any crap, this celebrity came on to promote a product shortly after a brief stay in lock-up. Whatever the product, Letterman wouldn't let up. His first question after this celebrity sat down was, "How was prison?" Whenever they tried to change the subject or sway it back to polite banter, he would get specific about what it was like in jail, much to the chagrin of his guest. There's no doubt it was hysterical, but the audience felt the tension between the two throughout the interview.
When Lettermen underwent heart surgery, who was the first guest host?
In 2000, a routine check-up revealed that Letterman had a massive obstruction in an artery in his heart. He was rushed to the hospital for an emergency triple bypass. For the first week of his hiatus, the show went into reruns – albeit introduced by friends of his ranging from Nathan Lane to Steve Martin. He returned on February 21, bringing his entire surgical staff onstage and introducing them ("This woman has seen me naked"). He concluded the moment by saying, "These are the people that saved my life." In his absence a series of guest hosts started in rotation. The first turned out to be surprisingly charismatic, spinning his hosting gig into an interview show of his own. He also had the pleasure of introducing comedian Mitch Hedberg to do five minutes.
What university did Conan O'Brien attend?
Late night is full of comics from prestigious ivy league schools, both behind and in front of the camera. Jon Stewart attended William and Mary. Correspondent John Hodgman went to Yale. Conan O'Brien was no exception - perhaps currently the most well-known for his attendance. Jennifer Garner even rudely corrected his English on an episode of the show, claiming he should know better since he attended this school. In fact, many well-known comics and writers, from SNL to The Simpsons, cur their teeth here.
Which of these writers was NOT on Conan's staff in the early days of his show?
Conan O'Brien's first late night show was top-loaded with writers whose names you know now, but at the time wouldn't give a second glance. Even the writer's interns on Late Night went on to have impressive writing and acting careers. John Krasinski, Mindy Kaling, Ellie Kemper, Jack McBrayer and Vanessa Bayer all started as interns before landing gigs in The Office and 30 Rock. Dino Stamatopoulis (Community) regularly wrote for the show as well. Some of these writers also wrote for the short-lived but beloved Dana Carvey Show, the staff of which included noted screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann
Who took over hosting The Daily Show when Stewart left to film his directorial debut, Rosewater?
Jon Stewart was known for booking guests that went beyond the standard celebrity promoting his new movie or TV show or fragrance. One of these was Maziar Bahari, with whom Stewart maintains a friendship. The journalist was arrested in Iran while covering post-election protests and accused of being a spy. Their proof of his espionage? A satirical interview he had given on The Daily Show with Jason Jones. Stewart was moved by Bahari's memoir and felt some personal responsibility for his imprisonment. When he left for three months to shoot Rosewater, this correspondent took the hosting gig – to much critical acclaim.
What animal "expert" was a regular on Carson, often scaring the host with his ineptitude?
It seems no one brings exotic pets on late night anymore. In Carson's days, it was a staple. This zoologist would come on with a creature and give brief lectures about its behaviours and habits. The bits would usually wind up with Carson either terrified of the animal or treating it like just another guest. It provided some of the biggest laughs in the show's history – particularly when Carson was genuinely afraid. In total, he appeared over 40 times.
What was the name of Carson's psychic character?
Carson was the last Tonight Show host with vaudevillian tendencies. As such, he had a roster of characters that would appear regularly. His psychic would come out in a garish, oversized hat and cape, then sit at the desk and hold an envelope to his forehead. Then he would predict three answers to the question contained in the envelope, such as, "Robin Hood, Dead Again and Thelma and Louise." He would then open the envelope. "Describe the last 800 years of Shirley MacClaine."
What recurring bit did Leno have during the O.J. Simpson trial?
During the so-called trial of the century (the fourth or fifth trial of the century, by media standards), the late night crew had found a goldmine. Throughout the O.J. Trial, the public was subjected to the various absurdities in the American legal system. Norm MacDonald seemed to have the most fun with it on Weekend Update, constantly stressing without fail that Simpson had brutally murdered his wife. From Mark Furhman's racist testimony to the infamous glove moment, there was literally nothing not funny about the trial – except the fact that O.J. Had stabbed two people to death. Leave it to Leno to find the worst joke to drill into the ground.
What musician announced he was dying of lung cancer on Letterman?
Journalism professors teach the moment David Letterman called out this guest and asked him, "So recently your life changed drastically - what happened?" Though Letterman was a friend of the musician, and he allowed him to play the rest of the show, he still handled the initial moments when the shocking news that the singer had stage 3 lung cancer with the kind of professionalism and gravity you only wish you could see on an actual news broadcast. Not long after, the guest passed away.
What band did drummer Max Weinberg play with when not leading Conan's?
Max Weinberg was Conan's bandleader through Late Night with Conan O'Brien, but occasionally he would leave to go on tour with his old band. When he dead, guitarist Jimmy Vivino took over. Weinberg did not follow when Conan moved to NBC nor TBS, with Vivino taking the gig full time. Still, Weinberg was always good with banter when he was there - not as memorable as Paul Shaeffer and Letterman's long history. Weinberg was much less intrusive, only spoken to when called upon.
Who hosted The Daily Show before Jon Stewart?
It took years, even after Stewart took the gig, for The Daily Show to be one of the most influential comedy shows in television history. It was created for Comedy Central - then a fledgling cable network - in 1996 by Madeleine Smithberg and Liz Winstead. Originally, the show hardly got political, spending most of its time poking fun at yokels with missing teeth who claimed to have seen Bigfoot and whatever celebrity gossip was new. Not everyone was glad when this host left, even though reports claim he was a sexist, crude monster in the office. It took a purging of juvenile writers after Stewart took over before it could begin to be shaped into what it was under his tenure.
What actor played Letterman in the HBO adaptation of Bill Carter's book The Late Shift?
The Late Shift, which chronicles the war for Johnny Carson's seat on The Tonight Show, doesn't make anyone come off well. Leno comes across as a cloying phony who connives his way to power while pretending to be your best friend. Letterman acts like a self-loathing control freak who is completely single-minded about his career. Arguably, Leno is the villain, though blame is shifted to his agent - played by Kathy Bates. This actor was invited on Letterman after portraying him. Letterman had him in the green room, then never brought him out on the air out of spite.
Who did Jon Stewart famously tear into during an interview after the subprime housing crisis?
Jon Stewart, like David Letterman, never let a guest off the hook. This resulted in his interview segments often being the most riveting part of the show. Even when he wasn't confrontational, his earnest curiosity about the world led to questions more informed than cable news ever attempted. After the subprime housing crisis of 2008, when bankers were being let off the hook left and right, Stewart had this analyst on. Rather than stand up for himself, the guest surprisingly acquiesced, accepting Stewart's tirade about how his show on CNBC was actually hurting people.
What host regularly had Donald Trump as a guest just to call him a "slumlord"?
With presidents past, it was easy to forget their former careers once they took office. No one commented on Ronald Reagan's appearance in Betime for Bonzo after he was elected. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer, but the U.S. was too embroiled in Iran to care. Not so with Trump, who regularly brings up his past and how much he misses putting his name on things and short-changing employees. He's often been accused of being a slumlord, buying up buildings in low-income areas on the cheap and screwing the tenants out of whatever money he could squeeze from them. This host was none too kind to him for it.
What comic used his appearance on Leno's 10 p.m. show to confront the host?
This comic was infuriated. Leno was refusing to relinquish his grip on The Tonight Show, which had already been handed to Conan. So it was stupid to invite a friend of O'Brien's on his 10 p.m. show to play his nonsensical "Ten Questions" game. His answers to questions like "What's the best prank you ever pulled?" were "I told someone I was giving him my show in three years and then I took it back." It was a public evisceration. All Leno could do was smile, dumbfounded.
What show could Conan play a ridiculous clip from when he pulled a lever?
It must have been a great day in the writer's room of Late Night with Conan O'Brien when they learned NBC had purchased the syndication rights to this ridiculous 90s television show. It resulted in Conan having a lever next to him that he could (and would) pull several times a night, resulting in an absurdly funny clip from the show to run. And there was no shortage of clips to choose from - one in which the hero leaps from a helicopter into a moving convertible and decks the female driver in the face.
What year did Johnny Carson retire from The Tonight Show?
Johnny Carson had hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years and reigned as the king of late night. He hosted when it was still black and white and his tenure is still considered the most legendary television has ever seen. Over the years, he introduced the world to some of the finest comics, musical acts, actors and strange flavours-of-the-month. He served as guide and mentor for younger comics - the ideal standard to live up to. He retired in this year, to Bette Midler serenading him with "One More for my Baby".
What Tonight Show host still moonlighted at stand up clubs every weekend?
Give a comic this: it takes one hell of a work ethic to do a show five nights a week, then travel into the valley to continue doing standup. There's a certain kind of compulsion some comedians have - either to be adored or just to perform. And this host never stopped. When it stops being about the money - when you aren't begging club owners for a paid five or ten minutes, that's when you know you love your job. They say Lenny Bruce's first paid gig was for a meal.