By MitchellOne 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, but when Steve Allen hosted Tonight he had Ernie Kovacs as the permanent Monday-Tuesday guest host; Ernie even had his own cast and format. Joey Bishop parlayed his guesting gig into a show of his own (after its cancellation, he returned to the Carson stable); Joan Rivers, who became Carson's permanent guest host, bolted to Fox for her own star turn (unlike Bishop, she and Carson never reconciled). Carson would have guest hosts for a week or two at a time; some, like Jerry Lewis 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.
Maybe 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); perhaps it's just a matter of pure economics (it's easier and cheaper to show reruns than it is to hire a guest host). 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, the Tonight show's schdule 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 Leno or O'Brian.
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!