Diahann Carroll in 1954. Just a few years later, in 1959, Ms. Carroll would be the first Black performer to sit on the coveted Tonight Show couch when original host Jack Paar was hosting the show. Notice that I said “sit on the couch” - not merely be a guest. Believe it or not, there was a time when it was considered normal for Black guests not to sit on the couch at The Tonight Show. Sure, they could perform and stand as they talked to Mr. Paar, but sit? For years, many believed that the comedian and activist Dick Gregory was first, but he did not appear until 1961. Mr. Paar wrote in his 1983 memoir, “I suddenly realized that in our year or more on The Tonight Show, while there were black performers on, I had not actually sat down with one and talked. This may seem a strange thing to say now, bt I do it only in the historical context. It just had not been done on any program or panel show that I knew of.” Ms. Carroll would go on to appear more than a dozen times during Mr. Paar’s tenture, and it was where Richard Rodgers spottedherfor the first time and felt compelled to call her immediately with an unforgettable opportunity: a chance to star in a Broadway musical. That musical would be “No Strings,” the 1962 show that earned Ms. Carroll a Tony Award. Photo by Ipol Archive/ipol/Globe Photos, Inc.
Jay Leno says that the most poignant “Tonight Show” moment for him was welcoming John F. Kennedy Jr. to the set.
Reaching the end of his 17-year run as the host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno can’t pinpoint a favorite guest, monologue or interview. He does, however, have a most poignant moment. That was when John F. Kennedy Jr. walked onto the set in Burbank.
The date was May 14, 1998 – six years into Leno’s tenure on the late-night show. Both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were interviewed by Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show” in 1960, the year John F. Kennedy Jr. was born.
Leno, who grew up in Massachusetts, was 13 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.
“I remember sitting in the living room of my parents’ house and watching the funeral on TV and my mother crying just hysterically,” Leno told a group of TV critics during a telephone conference. “And I remember when they showed little John-John – little John Kennedy in that little outfit – saluting the casket, my mother just was hysterical. And when you’re a kid and your mom’s crying, it’s like an unnatural thing. And I didn’t know what to do. I was totally lost. I’d look at the TV and I’d look at my mom. And I didn’t know how to fix the situation.”
Flash forward 35 years, and John F. Kennedy Jr. is booked as a guest on “The Tonight Show.”
“I’m in the dressing room and I’m talking to him, and it didn’t hit me,” Leno said. “And we had a nice talk. I introduced him on ‘The Tonight Show,’ it still didn’t hit me. But when he came around the camera and I shook his hand, I looked up in the monitor, and I saw me shaking hands with John F. Kennedy Jr. And I immediately flashed to my mother just being hysterical.
“It was kind of an emotional moment. I wasn’t bursting into tears, but never in my life did I think I would go full circle with that problem. I almost wanted to say to my mother, ‘Look, he’s right here. He’s fine. It’s OK.’ But it really caught me off-guard for a moment. That was one of the more emotional moments for me on the show.”
May 2, 1961. Stan Freberg appeared on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar performing a satirical song from his comedy record Stan Freberg presents the United States of America. The tune, Take an Indian to Lunch, was a satiric look at shameless white politicians who placate Native Americans strictly for their own, selfish, political means.