So, 2014 has been quite the year for late-night TV. Every other day it seems someone takes over a show, or leaves one, or retires, or is replaced. Not to mention the constant rumors about which people deserve to have a show and don’t have one, or the ones who do have a show and don’t deserve one.
However, this hasn’t even been the craziest year for late-night television — that would be 1993 when the Jay Leno-David Letterman “late-night war” first broke out. Or maybe it was 2010, when everything exploded after Conan O’Brien took over — and then lost — “The Tonight Show.” We mapped it out in the chart above, assigning each year of late-night TV a number 1 through 10 (from drama-free to apocalyptic) based on the madness that transpired, which is collected below in a timeline of all the major events in late-night history.
1954 – 1982: Everything is great! Late-night is basically drama-free.
September 1954: “Tonight Starring Steve Allen” (NBC) makes history as the first version of “The Tonight Show.” All is well.
July 1957: “Tonight Starring Jack Paar” (NBC) — After making some changes, NBC brings in Jack Paar as new host.
October 1962: “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” (NBC) launches. Everyone loves Johnny, and everything is pretty much cool for the next 25 years over at NBC late night.
February 1982: “Late Night With David Letterman” (NBC) — A promising young comedian from Indiana who idolizes Carson gets the new 12:30 a.m. spot following “The Tonight Show.”
1987 – 1989: Uh-oh. This is starting to get complicated.
April 1987: “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” (Fox) — Joan Rivers, frequently a guest host for Carson, gets her own rival late-night show on Fox — destroying her relationship with Carson, who considers it the worst betrayal. To make matters worse, the show flamed out. It had a series of guest hosts after Rivers departed, including Arsenio Hall, but nothing worked and the show was canceled for good in October 1988.
January 1989: “The Arsenio Hall Show” (syndicated) runs for five years, and has some landmark episodes, such as Bill Clinton famously performing a saxophone solo. That sparked a new era of political figures showing off their personalities by appearing on late-night TV.
1992-1993: Everything blows up, Part 1.
May 1991: Out of the blue, Carson announces his retirement. Time to look for a new host. What could possibly go wrong?
June 1991: To the shock of many, NBC announces Jay Leno will take over “The Tonight Show” (NBC) even though Letterman was considered a shoo-in — and Carson’s personal choice.
May 1992: The final episode of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” (NBC) airs, and Bette Midler sings him a now-famous tribute.
May 1992: “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” (NBC) launches and some people are still pretty upset about Letterman being passed over. Regardless, Leno will be on the air until 2009. (And then even again after that…)
July 1993: “Politically Incorrect” starring Bill Maher (Comedy Central) hits the airwaves, and though it jumped across networks, lasts for nearly 10 years.
August 1993: Recognizing a star when they see one, CBS poaches Letterman (still stinging from his “Tonight Show” rejection) by offering him his own late-night franchise at 11:30, “The Late Show With David Letterman” (CBS)
September 1993: Now someone needs to replace Dave on NBC. Thanks to a little help from “Saturday Night Live” boss Lorne Michaels, that job goes to an unknown “SNL” and “Simpsons” writer named Conan O’Brien. “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” (NBC) is born — it’s pretty shaky for a while, but then young viewers flock to him.
September 1993: Let’s give Chevy Chase a talk show! “The Chevy Chase Show” (Fox) begins — and then almost immediately ends. Let’s not even talk about it.
1995 – 2004: Things change, but are mostly calm. Maybe late-night is safe again.
January 1995: Letterman needs a late-night show to follow him, so his production company launches “The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder” (CBS) — he lasts a few years.
July 1996: Over on the cable side of things, former ESPN sportscaster Craig Kilborn stars on “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central.
January 1999: Kilborn departs “The Daily Show” (Comedy Central) and Jon Stewart takes over. He brings to the show his unique brand of skewering political humor and gains the show a huge following, particularly during the 2000 election. He wins about a million Emmys over the years.
March 1999: Craig Kilborn takes over for Tom Snyder as “The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn” (CBS) era starts.
February 2003: With “Politically Incorrect” canceled, Bill Maher tests his luck over on a weekly series on HBO — “Real Time With Bill Maher” is a hit.
2004 to 2006: Clear signs of danger that everyone ignores.
May 2004: Conan O’Brien, at the height of his popularity, makes it known he will leave NBC if he doesn’t eventually get to host “The Tonight Show.” So NBC tells Jay Leno that he will have five more years, then Conan will take over. Leno agrees but clearly isn’t happy about it.
January 2005: One Craig departs and another one arrives: “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” (CBS) kicks off with the Scottish comedian who’s best known as the boss on “The Drew Carey Show.”
October 2005: Another late-night competitor arrives in the form of former “Daily Show” correspondent Stephen Colbert. He lands his own show, “The Colbert Report,” complete with his own faux-conservative cable news anchor character. It airs immediately after “The Daily Show” and builds on Comedy Central’s strength with young viewers.
January 2006: It’s never too late to start a late-night franchise: “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” at 12:05 a.m. debuts on ABC, hoping to get a slice of that younger audience.
2007: More players jump in, but it’s fine.
July 2007: Chelsea Handler makes a splash in the cable world pretty much because she’s the only woman in late-night, with “Chelsea Lately” on E!
2008 to 2009: Serious trouble is brewing.
December 2008: Turns out Jay Leno isn’t really ready to retire — as he prepares to hand the “Tonight Show” reigns over to Conan in June, he starts thinking about what’s next. NBC doesn’t want him to go to another network and pitches him the idea that they’ll scrap their entire 10 p.m. lineup for a series called “The Jay Leno Show.” Leno says sure, but the entire entertainment industry — and NBC affiliate stations — is wildly skeptical.
March 2009: Lorne Michaels steps in again, and popular “SNL” cast member Jimmy Fallon takes over for Conan — hello, “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” (NBC).
June 2009: “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” (NBC) debuts to pretty great ratings, but that doesn’t last long — things will get even tougher when “The Jay Leno Show” bombs.
September 2009: So, “The Jay Leno Show” launches five nights a week at 10 p.m. and quickly gets miserably low ratings. Yeah, this was a terrible idea.
October 2009: In the middle of everything, David Letterman admits he had affairs with staff members over the years, leading to a sensational story of a blackmail plot that winds up with a CBS producer in jail.
November 2009: While all of this madness is going on, George Lopez shows that late-night TV can exist without drama — he starts “Lopez Tonight” on TBS. A motto of sorts, amid Conan’s low ratings and rumors he might be replaced with Jay Leno: “Welcome to ‘Lopez Tonight,’ where nobody gets fired.”
2010: Everything blows up, Part 2.
January 2010: “The Jay Leno Show” (NBC) is a failure and NBC has an idea: Squeeze a half hour of Jay in at 11:35 and bump “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” (NBC) to 12:05. Conan balks and announces via a “People of Earth” letter that he will not host “The Tonight Show” at 12:05 a.m. NBC buys Conan out of his contract and makes Leno the new host again of “The Tonight Show.” Again. Internet wars rage with fans taking sides. (Team Coco > Team Leno, for the most part.)
March 2010: “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” (NBC) comes back on the air, but lots of folks are still pretty mad at Leno. Sensing a need for reputation rehab, Leno even goes on “Oprah” to clear the air. Eventually, the heat dies down, and “The Tonight Show” starts winning in the ratings again.
November 2010: Conan O’Brien takes his talents to TBS, where “Conan” launches to much fanfare. That dies down, but he’s existed in his happy TBS world ever since.
2011 – 2012: Drama is simmering under the surface, but there’s a fragile peace.
November 2011: “Lopez Tonight” is canceled — no hard feelings and it’s definitely not about Conan’s show.
January 2012: Pleased by the success of Andy Cohen‘s “Watch What Happens: Live,” Bravo expands the show (mostly used to promote its “Real Housewives” series) to five days a week. Before long, even Oprah is a guest.
August 2012: Stepping into the late-night game, FX debuts “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell,” giving the comedian his own weekly show.
2013-2014: Everyone wants a late-night show.
January 2013: Thanks to some viral videos, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (ABC) has been blowing up in the last year or so, and ABC goes in for the kill, moving Kimmel to 11:35 p.m. so he can directly compete with Leno and Letterman.
April 2013: Surprise — Jay Leno announces he will retire (for real this time) in a year. Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the past, NBC immediately says that Jimmy Fallon will take over.
May 2013: NBC also doesn’t waste much time to announce Fallon’s replacement: That would be another “SNL” alum, Seth Meyers.
September 2013: “Totally Biased” (FX) goes daily.
September 2013: E! tries out “Hello Ross” weekly on Friday nights, starring its red carpet correspondent Ross Mathews.
September 2013: Oh hey, look who’s back! “The Arsenio Hall Show” is brought back to life in syndication.
October 2013: Conan’s show on TBS gets paired with a new one at midnight: “The Pete Holmes Show.”
November 2013: FX surprises everyone by canceling “Totally Biased” soon after pouring money into making it a daily program.
2014: The year late-night news never stopped.
February 2014: Jay Leno actually signs off for good; “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” (NBC) launches during the Winter Olympics.
February 2014: “Late Night With Seth Meyers” (NBC) begins.
March 2014: Chelsea Handler starts burning bridges left and right, making it known she doesn’t want to stay on E! after her contract is up this year. Negotiating tactic? Probably, but not a great one.
April 3, 2014: David Letterman takes everyone, including CBS, by surprise and announces he will retire in 2015. People start weeping backstage.
April 10, 2014: Not wanting to pull an NBC move, CBS doesn’t waste time and installs Stephen Colbert as the new “Late Show” host, taking over for his hero, Dave. No word on who will replace him, as “The Colbert Report” (Comedy Central) will end this year.
April 27, 2014: Yet another contender in the weekly late-night series competition: “Last Week Tonight,” hosted by former “Daily Show” correspondent John Oliver.
April 28, 2014: Craig Ferguson doesn’t want to miss out on the fun, and announces he will be stepping down in December — no replacement for him yet, either.