It’s not an exact anniversary, this “50 Years of NBC Late Night,” but nobody in the audience will care. It’s good for a few laughs and a few sappy nostalgic reminiscences, and it also works as an ad for host Conan O’Brien’s show, which has established itself firmly enough to be considered a part of the network’s history.
As expected, show focuses on Johnny Carson, who produced enough clips in his 30 years of hosting “The Tonight Show” to fill plenty more of these spex. “50 Years” opens with fairly recent history, giving us some nice Carson clips with kids, the elderly and animals; Jay Leno clips with celebrities and headlines; and David Letterman clips with Velcro and Alka-Seltzer and stupid pet tricks (which just never get tired). There’s no sign of lasting bitterness here regarding Letterman — just the briefest mention of his departure to CBS.
NBC exec Pat Weaver created latenight TV in 1950 with “Broadway Open House,” and “50 Years” shows us too little of that show’s pioneering hosts, Maury Amsterdam and vaudevillian Jerry Lester.
“Open House” went off the air in August 1951 — which seems to be the 50th anniversary this special celebrates. “Tonight,” with Steve Allen, began three years later, creating the form its antecedents would follow. Then came Jack Paar, who quit briefly when he was censored, an incident mentioned but not really explained in O’Brien’s narration, which he wrote with Jonathan Groff. Then came Johnny, who, this show notes, guest-hosted while Paar battled with NBC.
The second round of Carson clips are fine, too, although we’ve seen them all many times before.
O’Brien is a fine host, cracking wise about how to introduce clips of one’s own show without seeming snooty. After some clips of Conan with video special effects and animals, we’re taken to clips of interview shows “Tomorrow” with Tom Snyder (on NBC 1973-82), who had the best guests of all — we get glimpses of Charles Manson, Alfred Hitchcock, Muhammad Ali and John Lennon — and “Later” with Bob Costas (1988-94).
Exec producer Lorne Michaels has focused on providing a quick sense of each host’s personality and specialty, and the show does manage to accomplish that fairly well. Show ends with clips of Michaels’ “Saturday Night Live.” Just a few, though: the rest will be saved for the next clip show, celebrating who knows what.