54° Good Morning
54° Good Morning

'Late Night''s comedic legacy of the strange and askew

It's the witching hour of comedy. Oddball characters, surreal skits and awkward celebrity interviews have come to define the "Late Night" franchise on NBC that begins after midnight. Created when the "Tonight Show" was cut back from 90 to 60 minutes and originally produced by Johnny Carson's production company, the "Late Night" show aimed to engage what the network considered an untapped demographic.

"The late night host was called upon to tap into a younger sensibility," said Ron Simon, a curator at The Paley Center for the Media in New York City and a television scholar. "Especially a male sensibility."

Changeovers at "Late Night" have been infrequent, with just three hosts having led the franchise since it was created in 1982. Seth Meyers, the former head writer of "Saturday Night Live," takes over as host on Feb. 24, with Lorne Michaels as producer.

Tom Snyder, the predecessor, 1973-1981

Before there was
Photo Credit: NBCU Photo Bank

Before there was "Late Night," there was "Tomorrow with Tom Snyder," a former journalist who cultivated a reputation for iconic interviews — from serial killer Charles Manson and LSD enthusiast Timothy Leary to KISS and the cast of "Star Trek." He even famously visited a nudist colony. John Lennon appeared on "Tomorrow" in his final interview before his assassination in December 1980. The show was cancelled to make room for "Late Night with David Letterman" in 1982.
Watch a clip:
Snyder interviews members of KISS

David Letterman, Feb. 1, 1982-June 25, 1993

As the first host of the
Photo Credit: Getty Images

As the first host of the "Late Night" franchise, Letterman is credited with redefining the late-night television genre with heavy doses of irony and hijinks (think stupid pet tricks) that appealed to the youthful audience NBC was trying to reach. His interviews could turn bizarre and prickly for both host and interviewee. There was, unforgettably, comedian Andy Kaufman wearing a neck brace in a mock-fight with a wrestler, disgruntled comic book artist Harvey Pekar ranting against General Electric (then the owner of NBC) and a scattered Crispin Glover possibly in character in a drug-induced state. Letterman left the show — and the network — after being famously passed over by NBC for the hosting gig of "The Tonight Show." He has since hosted the "Late Show with David Letterman" from the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York City.
Watch a clip:
Letterman interviews Kaufman and wrestler Jerry Lawler

Conan O'Brien, Sept. 13, 1993-Feb. 20, 2009

O’Brien, then 30, was so unknown when he
Photo Credit: Getty Images/NBC

O’Brien, then 30, was so unknown when he was named by NBC as host of "Late Night" that there was no updated photo to circulate to the press at the time. Lorne Michaels, the producer of "Saturday Night Live," suggested O’Brien, who had been a writer for "SNL" as well as "The Simpsons," for the "Late Night" job. In many ways, O’Brien was a natural heir to the Letterman comedic tradition: his humor could be cartoonish, absurd and downright maladroit. His show became known for a cast of exuberantly strange characters — many of which became pop culture fodder in and of themselves — from Pimpbot 5000 to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. O'Brien left after being chosen to host "The Tonight Show."
Watch a clip:
Pimpbot 5000 makes an appearance

Jimmy Fallon, March 2, 2009-Feb. 7, 2014

Fallon was a floundering movie star and once-prominent
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Theo Wargo

Fallon was a floundering movie star and once-prominent member of "Saturday Night Live" when he was picked to take over hosting duties at "Late Night." For his show, he drew on the variety show tradition of Steve Allen — who had hosted "The Tonight Show" in the 1950s and was famous for antics like “playing” a bicycle with musician Frank Zappa — rather than the sardonic humor of Letterman. Bubbly, given to laughing at his own jokes, Fallon was known for silly games with celebrities helping along (beer pong or egg Russian roulette) as well as social-media savvy video clips. In the photo above, Queen Latifah plays a game of antler ring toss with Fallon.
Watch a clip:
The Evolution of Mom Dancing

Seth Meyers, Feb. 24, 2014

Before the “Late Night
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Jamie McCarthy

Before the “Late Night" pickle was passed to Seth Meyers in January, the comedian was largely known as anchor of the "Saturday Night Live" weekend update segment. It’s unclear what Meyers, 40, has in store for his version of the franchise. But, elsewhere, Meyers has said that he prefers sketch comedy. “There’s no greater joy for me than writing a really tight sketch and having it land,” Meyers told Northwestern University’s alumni magazine. Although he’s not known for weirdness, Meyers is bringing along fellow "SNL" alum Fred Armisen as bandleader. Armisen, also the creator of the eccentric Portlandia comedy sketch show, has a trademark weirdness all his own.
Watch a clip:
Clips from Weekend Update


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

Entertainment photos & videos