Weird History

Things We Just Learned About The Late Night Talk Show Hosts Of The '90s

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The 1990s were a golden age of late night comedy, shaping the late night television landscape for generations to come. For years, The Tonight Show on NBC - and its longtime host Johnny Carson - was the ultimate tastemaker. But a cast shake-up and its fallout changed that landscape forever.

Carson took over the as host of The Tonight Show from Jack Paar in 1962, and speculation over who would succeed him ran rampant in the late '80s and early '90s. Three contenders were David Letterman (who hosted the show that came on immediately after Carson), Joan Rivers, and Jay Leno. Ultimately, Rivers would be wooed away to Fox for her own show that aired at the same time as Carson. River's show failed - partially due to the efforts of Carson and his loyalists - and was replaced by the '90s sensation The Arsenio Hall Show. Carson never spoke to Rivers ever again.

Through a series of backdoor machinations and a powerful management team, Leno ultimately secured Carson's spot. This led to Letterman departing NBC to start a competing show, Late Night With David Letterman on CBS. This left Letterman's old show, The Late Show, without a host - a job that went to virtual unknown Conan O'Brien. Throughout the 1990s, late night was a newsworthy subject, with new shows, new hosts, and lots of new eyeballs. Other channels tried to jump in and start their own shows, which led to a decade full of bizarre bits, and wild hosts.

  • During an appearance on The Tonight Show, legendary comedian Rodney Dangerfield seemed slightly off of his game, but only someone who knew his act intimately, like host Jay Leno, was able to notice.

    It turned out Dangerfield actually was suffering a mini-stroke and Leno's quick call to his producers to alert paramedics helped to save him. Leno explains:

    I know Rodney and I know his act, and his movements were off. As he was doing his stand-up I told our producer, "I think Rodney’s having a stroke or heart attack. Call the paramedics."

  • Johnny Carson Sent Jokes To David Letterman After He Retired
    Photo: The Tonight Show / NBC

    For many people, especially a generation of comedians that grew up seeing his version of the show as the holy grail, Johnny Carson was the ultimate host of The Tonight Show. Carson finally retired in 1992, giving his chair to Jay Leno, which sent his spurned friend, David Letterman, to rival network CBS to create his own show.

    In 2005, Carson passed. Soon after, on an episode of Late Night, Letterman delivered his usual, laugh-filled opening monologue and then revealed it had been written by Carson. Since he had retired, Carson had been sending Letterman jokes to use in the opening of his shows.

  • David Letterman Was Blackmailed For $2 Million After Having Sexual Relationships With Staff Members
    Photo: Late Show With David Letterman / CBS
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    David Letterman Was Blackmailed For $2 Million After Having Sexual Relationships With Staff Members

    In a surreal segment of The Late Show With David Letterman, Letterman took a moment to explain an all-too-true extortion attempt at his expense - while the audience listened, not completely sure if he was actually just setting up a joke.

    Letterman found a box in the back seat of his car containing what he described as "creepy stuff" he had done, and a note threatening to expose him in a screenplay. The blackmailer demanded $2 million or they would write both a screenplay and a book exposing Letterman's secrets.

    Letterman worked with police to get the blackmailer a fake check, which led to his arrest. Letterman then confessed on air that the information the blackmailer had was that Letterman had been involved in sexual relationships with members of his staff.

  • In 1993, comedian Bill Hicks was censored by CBS and had his stand-up routine cut from a broadcast of The Late Show With David Letterman. Hicks was famous for his biting social commentary and a take-no-prisoners approach to comedy. It was the first time a comedy act was censored at CBS's Ed Sullivan Theater.

    Ultimately, it was David Letterman who made the decision not to air the set and took full responsibility. Letterman was unaware Hicks had recently been diagnosed with cancer and would pass only four months later.

    In 2009, Letterman invited Hicks's mother onto the show to apologize and air the routine in its entirety.