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.
"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."
"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."
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."
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 1989, but Fox canceled "The Joan Rivers Show" after two seasons. 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.)
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.
"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."
But one magnetic personality aimed for a more personal way of engaging with his guests, one that put them on equal ground. Arsenio Hall, who in 1989 became the first Black host to helm a late-night talk show, sat with his guests on couches and leaned in close 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 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."
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.
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."