November 18, 2014

Be my guest (host)

One of the many downsides to the modern late-night talk show is that we've seen the virtual disappearance of the guest host. Younger viewers may not believe this, but there was a time when, while the host was on vacation, a guest host came in and took over the show. The substitute might only be on for a night or two while the regular host was enjoying a long weekend, or it could be an entire week - or even two, in some cases.

Johnny Carson was famous for having guest hosts, particularly since he took so much time off, Joey Bishop parlayed his guesting gig into a show of his own (after its cancellation, he returned to the Carson stable; his 177 guest host appearances is the all-time high); Joan Rivers, who became Carson's permanent guest host, bolted to Fox for her own star turn (unlike Bishop, she and Carson never reconciled), with the result that the role was taken over by Jay Leno, who succeeded to the top spot when Carson retired.  Carson would have guest hosts for a week or two at a time; some, like Jerry Lewis, John Davidson and Don Rickles were regulars, but he also had more unlikely stars such as Woody Allen sit in for him for a week, and Beverly Sills became the first female to command the host's seat.  Johnny ran his share of reruns, but he knew it was important to keep the show fresh, and he wasn't threatened by having someone else sit in the big chair.

Johnny didn't create the guest host, though; after all, when Steve Allen hosted Tonight he had Ernie Kovacs as the permanent Monday-Tuesday guest host, primarily to help out Allen's work load while he got his Sunday night prime-time variety show going; Ernie even had his own cast and format.  Jack Paar, when he went on vacation, would have guest hosts take over - including several appearances by none other than Johnny Carson himself.  Of course, there were quite a few guest hosts to hold down the fort when Paar walked off the show in 1960 during his "water closet" feud with NBC.  For that matter, the Today show was famous for guest hosts, particularly during the days of Dave Garroway and Hugh Downs*; Garroway in particular used to take weeks off, during which he'd be replaced by hosts ranging from John Daly to Charles Van Doren.

*Who was previously Paar's sidekick.

So why don't we have guest hosts on the late-night shows today?  Is it because today's hosts feel threatened by the presence of a substitute who might wind up being funnier than they are? (Remember how "Larry Sanders" was constantly looking over his shoulder at Jon Stewart?)  Or perhaps it's just a matter of pure economics, being easier and cheaper to show reruns than it is to hire a guest host, even though the show loses some of its topical humor. For whatever reason, the guest host - once a staple of talk shows - has almost completely vanished. In recent years only Letterman has had them, and then it's mostly been due to illnesses that made showing an extended series of reruns impractical.

I think we've lost something by not having guest hosts anymore; there was a variety and a different perspective that viewers got by having someone else in the host's chair. Some were better than others, but all of them were different, and that kept things interesting. Take, for example, Tonight's schedule for the week of February 5-9, 1968. The singer/actor/activist Harry Belafonte was the guest host for that week, and just take a look at this lineup:

Monday: Senator and Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy, Bill Cosby, Lena Horne, and actress Melina Mercouri and her husband, movie producer Jules Dasin.

Tuesday: Zero Mostel, Diahann Carool, Petula Clark, folk singers Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and ski expert Ken White.

Wednesday: Sidney Poitier, Dionne Warwick, George London and Marianne Moore.

Thursday: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Newman, and Nipsey Russell.

Friday: Robert Goulet, Aretha Franklin, and Thomas Hoving (director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

You might not recognize all of those names, but trust me - these were very big names of the time, and to have even a few of them on during the course of one week would be something. Having all of them on the week's lineup would have been fantastic. And to think that this was for a guest host! I'm sure Belafonte must have had something to do with choosing the lineup - there was at least one big-name African-American guest each night, he probably knew or had worked with many of them personally, and guests such as King and Kennedy certainly would have reflected his own political philosophy. There's no doubt, though, that Tonight's booking crew really gave Harry a tremendous week's worth.

It's a reminder that talk shows weren't always about mindless entertainment - many of these guests had no songs to sing, nor jokes to tell. They were there to converse and to share their ideas, and I can imagine they did it with more dignity than today's newsmakers do when they appear with Letterman or Fallon or O'Brien, or Leno before that.

I'm not trying to suggest that shows were better then, or that guests were more interesting, or that television was simply better. (Well, in fact, that is what I'm suggesting - but that's another story, as I like to say, for another day.) My point here is just that times change, and we get used to it - but what a time that week must have been!


  1. Yeah, if you won't say it I will - the shows were definitely better then. David Brenner was one of Carson's better guest hosts, I always thought.

    1. You're right - I'd completely forgotten about him, but he was an excellent guest host. I always looked forward to the guest host - if they were one of my favorites, I really enjoyed it, and if they were someone new, there was the curiosity factor that intrigued me.

  2. In the early days of Australian TV we had a variety show In Melbourne Tonight. It ran 5 nights a week for 13 years. It was initially loosely based on The Tonight Show concept from the US but later became more about variety rather than chat/interviews. Graham Kennedy was always the show's principal host but he would often step aside for days or weeks at a time. At one point he was only hosting twice a week. Over the course of the show's 13 year run as many as 50 guest hosts ran the show, ranging from female performers (revolutionary for Australian TV in the 1960s) to a Catholic priest, but it was always Kennedy's show.

    But Australia doesn't really have any local 'tonight' shows anymore.

    1. Yes, in the early days of television local variety and talk shows were very big - they were the starting ground for many who went on to great fame nationally. But we don't much have that anymore, except perhaps in the biggest cities. Which is really too bad - we can do without the syndicated talkfests and judge shows!

  3. I'm old enough to remember Joan Rivers, David Brenner, Don Rickles and Bob Newhart guest hosting The Tonight Show and it was always a kick to watch the guest hosts just to see how the show would differ with them to see how they handle the interviews, comic skits, singers, etc.... Johnny earned his fame, but it was just as much of a treat when he was gone.

  4. I think part of it is competition. without any real competition Carson was able to cut back to 3 nights a week and numerous weeks off. Letterman, Leno and the Jimmys were all 5 nights a week so no room for a weekly guest host and I suspect they all take fewer weeks off than Carson did.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!