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How the late night talk show set became an American icon

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

For more than six decades, American late night talk show hosts have sat behind large wooden desks, with guests in cushioned chairs or couches to their right. Behind them, the wall may be painted to mimic an open vista; around them, a brightly lit studio set is made more inviting through warm wood tones, mugs on a desk or — in Johnny Carson’s case — a couple of well-placed house plants.

As much as the programs themselves are part of Americans’ nightly rituals, the late night talk show set has become an iconic — and predictable — fixture in television, today inhabited by comics including Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, following in the lineage of Jay Leno and David Letterman, and further back, Carson, Steve Allen and Dick Cavett.

Johnny Carson (pictured with Dolly Parton) remains televisions longest-running late night talk show host, spending four decades behind the desk for “The Tonight Show.” Credit: Alice S. Hall/NBC/Getty Images

“It’s funny how late night sets have not changed much since they started,” said Robert Thompson, a media scholar and professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, in a video interview. “It’s an attempt to show some semblance of our idea of an American living room. But an American living room where one of the people, the owner of the living room, sits behind a desk.”

When it was first introduced around 1949, late night was a different beast than the already familiar entertainment of evening variety like “The Ed Sullivan Show” or daytime talk show programming like “The Today Show.” The late show concept had a very low bar for success, as the CNN original series “The Story of Late Night,” details. Prior to the debut of the then-novel, post-11pm programming, the nightly news would give way to a test pattern, and then static — a foreign visual today, in an era when there is always something to stream.

Watch a brief history of late night talk shows

“Late night began as a way to kill time,” host Conan O’Brien, who just announced the end of his long-running program on TBS, said in the docuseries. “It was the networks realizing… ‘let’s kick the football a little further down the road and see what happens at 11:30.'”

Today, late night talk shows have branched out beyond network television, and have begun to include more women and hosts of color, including new shows helmed by Seth Meyers’ writer Amber Ruffin and popular YouTuber Lilly Singh.

Yet the desk setup largely remains, and it’s notable when a host tries to do away with the formula — like when Bill Maher sat among his guests on the ’90s show “Politically Incorrect.” Last year, Samantha Bee explained the reason her weekly show “Full Frontal” is deskless in an interview for the Television Academy Foundation, saying the traditional approach made her feel “super confined.”
Comedian Steve Allen first introduced the talk show desk during the often experimental 1950s show "Tonight Starring Steve Allen" -- the first iteration of "The Tonight Show."

Comedian Steve Allen first introduced the talk show desk during the often experimental 1950s show “Tonight Starring Steve Allen” — the first iteration of “The Tonight Show.” Credit: NBC/Getty Images

Still, the spirit of the 1950s and ’60s era of set design has largely persisted.

“Every time you see a late night show, it seems like everybody starts with the same formula,” said Keith Raywood, a production designer who has built sets for O’Brien and Fallon, in a video interview. “They just dress it differently.”

Designed for power dynamics

The pioneer of the late night talk show was actually a woman, the actress Faye Emerson, who hosted interviews and gave her own political commentary in 1949 on “The Faye Emerson Show,” often from a couch in a living room. But then women were relegated to the realm of daytime television, where advertisers could appeal to stay-at-home wives, media historian Maureen Mauk explained in “The Story of Late Night.”

“The men started to take over (late night), and the women were really never to return, in a lot of ways,” Mauk said. (The next female host to nab a nighttime talk show was Joan Rivers in 1986, but Fox cancelled “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” the following year. A decade later, Cynthia Garrett became the first network late night Black female host, but her NBC show “Later” was axed after a single season.)

Joan Rivers was often a guest host for Carson on "The Tonight Show," as pictured here with Oprah Winfrey, but wound up competing against him with her own short-lived Fox show.

Joan Rivers was often a guest host for Carson on “The Tonight Show,” as pictured here with Oprah Winfrey, but wound up competing against him with her own short-lived Fox show. Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC/Getty Images

Comedian Steve Allen first introduced the desk during his wacky and experimental programming that was the first iteration of “The Tonight Show” — which included him dipping into vats of jello and happily pie-smashing his guests. According to “The Story of Late Night,” Allen’s successor, Jack Paar, added the content format we’re still familiar with today: a monologue, interview and performance.

But it was Johnny Carson, host of “The Tonight Show” for over four decades, whose affable, family-friendly charm became synonymous with late night. And his long-running show also cemented the hierarchy implicit in the layout of the set.

"The desk is occasionally breached," said Thompson. During the first taping of the "Late Show with David Letterman," Bill Murray spray painted Letterman's desk.

“The desk is occasionally breached,” said Thompson. During the first taping of the “Late Show with David Letterman,” Bill Murray spray painted Letterman’s desk. Credit: Alan Singer/CBS/Getty Images

“It’s less democratic, less egalitarian, if someone is sitting behind a desk in an elevated position, and his guests are not equal in stature in terms of how they’re being seated,” Raywood said.

Thompson points out the setup “leaves the guests to be fully exposed.” Cavett, whose talk show slots included late night, preferred to sit more casually on comfortable chairs with his guests, putting them on equal ground.

Arsenio Hall (here with Eddie Murphy) shook up late night as the first Black host -- and notably did away the desk format.

Arsenio Hall (here with Eddie Murphy) shook up late night as the first Black host — and notably did away the desk format. Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./Getty Images

But one magnetic personality aimed for an even more personal way of engaging with his guests. Arsenio Hall, who in 1989 became the first Black host to helm a late night talk show, sat close to his guests, who were on a couch, and leaned in with rapt attention.

“We see him in his entirety,” Thompson said of Hall. “He would lean into his interviews…which gave it a sense of intimacy.”

Carson, on the other hand, “had an emotional distance to him,” Thompson said. “The idea of him leaning in in that friendly, familiar way that Arsenio did would have been unthinkable. And I think it’s one of the reasons (“The Arsenio Hall Show”) really had some voltage and some energy — because it looked less like what we had seen so many times over and over again.”

Reworking the formula

Some of the most creative takes on talk show sets have come out of the parodies, which have become as ubiquitous as late night itself.

The original spoof, Norman Lear’s “Fernwood 2 Night” from 1977, and its grandchild, Zach Galifianakis’s “Between Two Ferns,” which premiered in 2008, directly referenced the ever-present greenery on Carson’s set. President Obama was famously tapped for Galifianakis’s Funny or Die series, which took place on a simple black set with two towering green ferns. During his interview, Obama deadpanned to the comedian: “When I heard that people actually watch this show, I was actually pretty surprised.”

Eric Andre and Semere Etmet at  "The Eric Andre Show Live!" The sketch comedy series parodies public-access talk shows with a wild dose of surrealism.

Eric Andre and Semere Etmet at “The Eric Andre Show Live!” The sketch comedy series parodies public-access talk shows with a wild dose of surrealism. Credit: Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

Meanwhile, “The Eric Andre Show,” the absurdist Adult Swim show that debuted in 2012 and repeatedly destroys its set, heightened all of the strangeness that Steve Allen had established in the Wild West of late night, and that Letterman continued early in his career.

“Older late night television had a real sense of that iconoclastic,” Thompson said.

But Thompson has noted how even kitsch and subversion has become cliché. It’s only recently that another substantial shift in late night set design has occurred, he said, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which forced late night hosts to tape from home for an extended period of time.

“All of a sudden, the set of the talk show itself was totally downsized, because people were doing it from home,” he said. “Colbert started in his bathtub the very first day.”

As Colbert suited up in his bubble bath the first night for “The Late Show” on CBS, Meyers posted up at his in-laws’ house for “Late Night” on NBC. After 68 episodes there, a painting of a sea captain, which had become an animated “guest” throughout the remote shows, said goodbye with a jaunty sea shanty.

Late-night TV marks anniversary of pandemic

“In a strange way, the liberation from those Carson-era studio sets was actually, creatively, a good thing for late night talk shows,” Thompson said.

Instead of guests stopping by the set, they could dial in from wherever, using Zoom backgrounds or sharing the intimacy of their homes.

“Sometimes it’s more interesting to talk to Arnold Schwarzenegger from his house, than it is to have Arnold Schwarzenegger wander onto the stage, which is so artificial, so prepped,” Thompson said.

Raywood also signaled that it’s time for something new, after nearly seven decades of following the same formula.

“I think we could easily be due for a change in format for late night television,” he said. “Every generation veers into another direction — how they look at things, how they dress, the kind of music they listen to — so why are we doing the same show every (time)?”

He added: “You need producers who are creative enough, and brave enough.”

This article has been updated to correct the title and year of Joan Rivers’ late-night show with Fox, and to include additional context regarding the Dick Cavett set.

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