The Sign of a Truly Confident Late-Night Host? Guest Hosts

Jimmy Kimmel is a brave man, or just a confident one.

Or maybe he’s had such a good run on ABC that he simply isn’t concerned about his showbiz future anymore.

Whatever the reason, Kimmel is the one late-night host who seems to have little or no hesitation about upholding what was once an institution in late-night television: the planned, embraced, celebrated “guest host.”

When Stephen Colbert had a serious scare from a ruptured appendix last year, his Late Show aired repeats for three weeks while he recovered. Jimmy Fallon has had co-hosts, but his Tonight Show also aired repeats when he missed two weeks with a gruesome and painful finger injury.

Sometimes hosts have swapped shows—Jay Leno and Katie Couric, Fallon and Kimmel—but that doesn’t really count.

What Kimmel is doing with guest hosts is pretty unprecedented. He isn’t just having an occasional guest host; since 2020, he’s having entire summers of them.  

Because he wants to live a semblance of a normal life, as a husband and father of small children, Kimmel has taken to a seasonal work schedule (of sorts). When his kids have no school, he takes off himself.

His show does not go dark, however; it goes on with a replacement host. It’s a sort of multiple throwback: not only to late night’s guest host tradition but also the summer-replacement series. That’s what networks once did in the summer months when their regular shows were out of production: insert a summer-replacement show.

Every theater nerd surely remembers the tradition of “summer stock”—repertory companies of up-and-coming kids traveling the nation putting on a show.  This is kind of like that, only with big-name stars instead of wannabes.

Last Thursday, Jimmy Kimmel Live! announced that Martin Short, who has filled many a late-night stage with his effervescent, highly caffeinated talent, will kick off the show’s summer run this week. 

Among other guest hosts lined up for future weeks: Anthony Anderson, Hugh Jackman, Ryan Reynolds, Kathryn Hahn, Jeff Goldblum, and RuPaul. 

Besides having many late-night guest appearances in common, what this group also shares is probable disinterest in ever replacing Kimmel permanently.

And that surely sets this reintroduction of the regularly scheduled guest host apart from its most prominent iteration of the past: the frequent, essentially compulsory reliance on guest hosts during the long run of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.

Alone among long-running late-night hosts (at least until Kimmel), Carson was utterly untroubled by the prospect of some fresh-faced star Wally Pipp-ing him while he was off playing tennis. Nobody else in show business had Carson’s stature.

When NBC was trying to leverage Carson into more work in 1980, the network floated the idea that it would hire Richard Dawson—the guy from Family Feud and Hogan’s Heroes—to succeed him. Carson didn’t so much as blink. NBC gave him even more time off.

Hence: more need for guest hosts. Peter Lassally, Carson’s showrunner/producer, once told me that one of the banes of his working existence was the constant search for guest hosts to fill in for Johnny. 

NBC bent the knee by allowing Johnny 15 weeks off and a three-day-a-week schedule: Fresh shows Mondays featuring a “permanent” guest host and Tuesdays with repeats.

This heavy reliance on guest hosts was Carson-centric, but guest hosts were not new to The Tonight Show. Ernie Kovacs was a frequent fill-in for Steve Allen and Jack Paar, and Carson himself burnished his own credentials filling in for Paar.

The burnishing became a showbiz way of life under Carson, as opportunity to fill in for him began to be seen as a launching pad. Carson’s most frequent early guest host was Joey Bishop, who sat behind the desk a record 177 times. Bishop parlayed that into a shot at competing with Carson in an ABC late-night show, one of the earliest examples of the folly of challenging Carson. It flopped and was gone in two years.

That set a standard though: guest host for Carson, do it well, and somebody might give you a show. David Brenner got a syndicated late-night show—briefly—after filling in for Carson 70 times. David Letterman won the hour following Carson on NBC after 51 guest-hosting appearances. With Carson’s blessing (and a token interest in Dave’s show for Carson Productions.)

Joan Rivers, Carson’s first permanent guest host, famously moved to Fox and took on Carson to her ultimate (and quick) regret.

She was replaced at The Tonight Show first by a duo of Jay Leno and Garry Shandling, but Shandling dropped out to concentrate on his Showtime sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.

Jay took the guest host shot all the way, or course, ascending after Carson’s retirement.

Among the Carson traditions Jay did not retain: guest hosts. Nor, for that matter, did Letterman. Or pretty much everybody else who ventured into late night. Later in his run, Letterman was compelled by heart surgery and then a case of shingles to insert guest hosts. But by then he was too big to worry about a guest host outshining him.

Jay took possession of the chair behind the desk to extremes. Not only did he not have guest hosts, he took less vacation time and even asked NBC if they could hire back-up writers and staff while the regulars got some rest so he could host 52 weeks a year. NBC declined.

One notable guest-hosting experience—and example of seizing the shot—took place on The Daily Show in 2013 when star Jon Stewart took eight weeks off to direct the film Rosewater. The show inserted one of its top “correspondents,” John Oliver, to guest host and he was, in a word, a smash. So much so that he immediately began to be called the “heir apparent” to Stewart. 

Almost incomprehensibly (one top TV executive told me this was the single dumbest decision in television history), Comedy Central had not signed Oliver to a long-term contract before giving him The Daily Show trial run, which left him open to being grabbed by HBO for his own—now much-celebrated—late-night show, Last Week Tonight.

Oliver has never had a guest host, either.


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  1. Sharon J says:

    I’m not sure that Colbert’s absence when his appendix ruptured really fits. In that case, his time off was unplanned. However, in Kimmel’s situation, his time off is schedule in advance, thus giving the show to plan ahead and arrange for guest hosts.

    1. Jed Rosenzweig says:

      Probably the better example would be when both Colbert and Kimmel both got Covid in April/May of 2022. Kimmel brought in guest hosts. Colbert did not.