Ever since variety show hosts realized they could sit down and talk to their guests, the talk show has been a fixture of television. In A Great Show For You, Rebeat’s own talk show expert David Lebovitz runs down the history of the format, in all its glory, failure, and occasional outlandishness.
This edition: the long, mostly dead history of the guest host.
The concept of a late night talk show guest host is one long dead to history. To the best of my knowledge, no network late night talk show has had a non-emergency guest host since 2003.
But it was once commonplace part of the game. It wasn’t just a way for hosts to get a night off; it was a way for talent to get recognized beyond being on the couch next to Carson. It was a way to foster a new general of hosts themselves. It was just the way things were done.
While Johnny Carson wasn’t the first to do this (it’s a practice that well predates his tenure at The Tonight Show, and was often used to fill the gap between host changes), the talk show legend will always be the man most associated with guest hosts.
During the ’60s and ’70s Carson had a revolving door of guest hosts, some hosting for a day, others staying for an entire week. Since Carson was the only game in town, nobody thought too much of his frequent vacations and absences; they, too, were just part of the game. Among the more notable recurring guest hosts were David Letterman and David Brenner, both of whom would go on to have their own talk shows. Others included John Denver, Joey Bishop, and my personal favorite, Kermit the Frog.
Though it was brief, perhaps the guest host with the most historical significance was Harry Belefonte. In February 1968, Belafonte took over The Tonight Show for a full week and was given an unheard of degree of creative control. He was permitted to sing in place of the standard monologue, and he chose his own guests. (In contrast, Frank Zappa once tried to guest host The Late Show on Fox and his predictably bizarre episode never even aired.)
Belefonte’s two most prominent and unexpected guests were Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom talked about civil rights in front of an audience that wasn’t used to hearing such heavy topics on such a show.
Only months later, both men would be dead.
Around the late 1970s, Carson grew tired of his extensive workload and threatened to either retire or move to ABC, which was offering a much more accommodating contract. After a fair amount of legal wrangling, Carson re-signed with NBC on a contract that allowed him to work 37 weeks a year, with Mondays and Fridays off. Tuesdays became a day for reruns and clip shows, and Monday became the domain of the guest host. The deal also gave Carson power over the time slot after his, which is how regular guest host David Letterman got his own late night show.
Eventually, Carson settled on having permanent guest hosts, which meant that, instead of a one-off appearance, guest hosts would be under contract to fill in for him during his day off each week. It was easier for all parties involved: the guest host would have steady work, and the audience at home would know what to expect each Monday.
All three of Carson’s permanent guest hosts went on to have their own talk shows — or, at least, close approximations.
Carson’s first guest host was Joan Rivers, starting in the early ’80s. She’d go on to host her own talk show, The Late Show With Joan Rivers. The circumstances that led to it are among some of the most infamous moments in late night history. Rivers jumped to Fox to get an opportunity she knew she wouldn’t have at NBC, but didn’t tell Johnny before accepting the deal. Carson never spoke to her again.
Her show didn’t last long — partly because of ratings battles, partly because of infighting — but in the grand scheme of things, she was just another show for Carson to take down.
When Joan Rivers was fired from The Late Show on Fox, the network brought in a series of guest hosts to fill the gap until the show ran its course. The most popular of the guest hosts was Arsenio Hall, who was offered a deal to stay but chose to move on and give Hollywood a try. Several years later, he started his own popular eponymous show.
Of course, all of this still happened while Carson was on air, making The Late Show one more competitor Carson outlasted.
His second permanent guest host was Garry Shandling. Another favorite of Carson’s, Shandling was courted for several forces the early ’90s— including being offered a blank check by a syndication company — before deciding to explore Hollywood on his own and circling back to TV with faux-talk show The Larry Sanders Show.
Carson’s final permanent guest host, often cited as his best, was Jay Leno. An edgy, innovative comedian at the time (how things change), Leno appealed to the younger crowd while being perfectly unobjectionable to Carson’s core audience. He ended up being the anointed one, and took over the show in a famously acrimonious transition.
Guest hosts have been rare since Carson retired. Jay Leno, a famed workhorse, only had one guest host his entire run at The Tonight Show. But even that comes with a bit of an asterisk: he and Katie Couric swapped places for a day as a joke, so he took the morning slot and she took his slot.
Now, networks are more likely to show a repeat than find a guest host. When Jimmy Fallon had to attend to the birth of each of his children, his shows were canceled that night. The same goes for Seth Meyers.
I suspect that the drop in guest hosts can be traced to the late night wars between Leno and Letterman. Letterman posed the first genuine competition for The Tonight Show, and all parties involved would do anything to come out on top. That involved carving out a strong brand for themselves, and proving that they were worthy of wearing the late night crown. If that meant never taking a break, so be it.
The only major shows that have had any guest hosts since the turn of the century were Ellen, The Late Show with David Letterman, and The Daily Show.
Letterman briefly flirted with using guest hosts on a more regular basis before abandoning the concept. One largely forgotten to time but surely significant now was Jimmy Fallon in 2003. He was a cast member on Saturday Night Live at the time, with no plans on hosting a talkshow. He later said, semi-jocularly, that doing this gave him “the bug” for hosting a talkshow.
Most of the time guest hosts appear when the regular host becomes ill. When Letterman had heart surgery in 2000, CBS wheeled in a series of guests hosts to cover for him while he recovered. On a few other occasions, Letterman was sick and had last minute guest hosts, notably, Adam Sandler.
Ellie Kemper took over for a sick Ellen DeGeneres for a single show. One of Trevor Noah’s shows was canceled due to Noah’s burst appendix, while another was hosted by Jordan Klepper while Noah was otherwise sick. Under Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jason Jones each helmed a show or two when Stewart was absent. Most recently, Jimmy Kimmel had guest hosts fill in for him while he attended to his ill newborn son.
Television production has changed dramatically in the decades since Carson reigned supreme. There’s more competition, and people aren’t just happy to have a job in television anymore. Indeed, one of the reasons the entire show tends to take off when the host does it because the crew needs a break, too; writing four or five shows a week for 52 weeks a year is demanding for all parties involved.
With so many hosts fighting for an audience — and with so many trying to copy the work ethic of Leno and Letterman — guest hosting may be a thing of the past. We’re likely at least 10 to 20 years out before the talk shows on NBC and CBS need a new host. Up-and-comer James Corden is young enough to take over from Stephen Colbert eventually. Kimmel has hinted that he’ll retire once his contract is up, but there’s no word on his planned replacement.
Unless there’s a seismic change in the way late night is done, guest hosts are a thing of the past. That’s good for reliability and perhaps, for ratings. But where the next great host will come from is a big question mark.