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In 1982, when he settled behind the desk of NBC's Late Night with David Letterman, few would have guessed that the former Indianapolis weatherman would become TV's most enduring late night host. His latest contract keeps him on the air through 2014, which will make his tenure longer than Johnny Carson's 30 years. Letterman's recurring bits, including Stupid Pet Tricks and the nightly Top Ten List, are now ingrained in our pop culture.
Many (including Letterman) will always consider Carson the King of Late Night. Born in Iowa and raised in Nebraska, he became a powerful cultural force on The Tonight Show. Broadcasting first from New York and later from Burbank, Calif., Carson turned his nightly monologue into a must-see for millions of Americans. He retired in 1992 and died in 2005.
His stint as host of The Tonight Show lasted only five years, from 1957 until 1962, but he left his mark. When he died in 2004, Time wrote that he "split talk show history into two eras: Before Paar and After Paar."
The deadpan stand-up comic was a frequent Tonight Show guest host during the 1980s and was at one point thought to be first in line to succeed Carson. But he's included on this list as his alter ego, Larry Sanders, the neurotic centerpiece and host of The Larry Sanders Show, HBO's late night send-up that mercilessly skewered the conventions of the talk show genre, and Hollywood in general.
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More than a dozen years into Comedy Central's The Daily Show, it's hard to remember how revolutionary the concept was when Stewart took over. Carson and others had incorporated news and politics into their comedy, but always with a light, inoffensive touch. Not Stewart, whose faux-newscast hilariously takes on the absurdities spewed by those on both sides of the political aisle — and the news media covering them.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Comedy Central
Can we talk? Rivers is still the only woman to host a late night talk show on a broadcast network — she starred in the then-fledgling Fox Network's ill-fated The Late Show with Joan Rivers, which ran for just eight months in 1986-87. In taking the job, she made an enemy out of former mentor Carson.
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Hall was a rising star on the comedy circuit when he got a shot hosting Fox's Late Show after Rivers was fired in 1987. He did so well that Paramount signed him to his own late night deal the following year. The Arsenio Hall Show ran in syndication from 1988 to 1994 and its hip vibe helped it become a credible competitor to Carson's Tonight Show. In1992, Bill Clinton famously played the sax on his show. Hall returns to late night next year.
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The former Saturday Night Live and Simpsons writer was plucked from obscurity by SNL producer Lorne Michaels in 1993 to replace the departing Letterman on NBC's Late Night franchise. His offbeat sense of humor took some time to catch on but eventually he dominated at 12:30 a.m. His move to The Tonight Show in 2010 proved less successful, but he managed a gracious exit, and reentered the late night wars in 2011 with the premiere of Conan on TBS.
Leno outmaneuvered Letterman in the chase to succeed Carson as Tonight Show host in 1992. His Tonight Show has been a consistent ratings champ for NBC. His Headlines and Jaywalking bits should be entered in the late night hall of fame, but his various personal run-ins with his peers — Letterman, Carson and O'Brien in particular — have tainted his late night legacy.
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As the first host of The Tonight Show, which he started in 1953 as a local show for the network's New York affiliate, Allen pioneered many of the late night staples that endure today, including improvised man-on-the-street interviews and pulling the live studio audience into the comedy bits. NBC took the show national in 1954 and Allen stayed on as host for three more years. On the first-ever Tonight Show broadcast, which began at the then-unheard of time slot of 11 p.m. and ran until 1 a.m., Allen jokingly warned his audience that the show "would go on forever." Who knew how right he would be?
Whom you spend your last waking hours with is a personal thing. Maybe you watch in bed; perhaps you've always been a "monologue only" kind of fan. Most important, these late night hosts may represent a time in your life when you stayed up late, alone or with a partner, and shared a few minutes of fun before the lights went out. Would you share some of those late night memories with us at our Message Board?
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