11 fleeting, forgotten late-night shows of the 1980s

Heeeeere's… Joan? Jerry? Jimmy?

Image: The Everett Collection

In the 1980s, networks threw just about every idea at late-night. Well, except for NBC, who sat comfortably with their kings Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Elsewhere, all sorts of shows were tried after primetime — news, chat, sketch comedy, concert, music videos, reality. For the most part, these attempts failed miserably, with some shows lastings mere weeks. 

But, despite their brevity, many of these shows are rather fascinating in hindsight. Some were edgy prototypes for our modern television. A few featured big names from other arenas. Others provided a vehicle for rising talent who would later rule late night. Let's turn the dial back a few decades.

1. Fridays

1980–82

ABC's belated answer to Saturday Night Life — which aired a night earlier, obviously — remains notable for two reasons. First, this was the show that featured the infamous "Andy Kaufman incident," when the enigmatic comedian appeared as a guest star and seemingly sparred with cast members and producers on live television. Much later, we learned, like so much of his life, that it was a stunt. Secondly, Fridays became the sort of launching pad for Seinfeld, as the show featured Michael Richards (upper right) and Larry David (lower left), as well as writer Larry Charles.

Image: The Everett Collection

2. The Last Word

1982–83

A onetime titan of daytime, Phil Donahue tried out the wee hours with this ABC series which tried to hold onto the Nightline audience. "We are exhausted by the number of people who are on television talking about their last movie or their next movie," he explained to People magazine in 1982. Instead, celebs like Paul Newman and Charlton Heston would debate nuclear armament. Donahue taped his segments in Chicago, while his co-host, Greg Jackson, worked live out of a New York studio. It lasted about half a year. Long distance relationships never work.

Image: The Everett Collection

3. Thicke of the Night

1983–84

The sitcom dad and theme-song genius (see: Diff'rent Strokes, The Facts of Life) at least had a name for late-night with Thicke of the Night, though puns rarely bode well for sustained comedy. Trying to take on Carson, this syndicate chat show aimed younger. Thicke welcomed the television debut of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example. It struggled, and mid-season retooling, which roped in Thicke's wife, Gloria Loring, failed to lure sleepy eyeballs.

Image: The Everett Collection

4. The Jerry Lewis Show

1984

After the cancelation of Thicke, producer Metromedia gave Jerry Lewis a shot. The veteran slapstick man welcomed bosom buddy Frank Sinatra as the first guest of his trial episode. The two waxed nostalgic about working nightclubs in 1947 and bemoaned the youngsters of the day. Alas, Vegas vibes were not enough in 1984. The Jerry Lewis Show did not last more than a week.

Image: MGM / UA

5. Jimmy Breslin's People

1986–87

Longtime journalist and columnist Jimmy Breslin was a legend of newsprint. A champion of the working class, he wrote a column about the gravedigger after JFK's assassination. ABC gave the writer a shot at similar telejournalism in the fall of 1986. A sort of predecessor to This American Life, the meatier People failed to make it far past the new year.

Image: ABC

6. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers

1986–87

Few comedians had the experience of Joan Rivers when it came to hosting a late-night talk show. She was a preferred substitute for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show when he was away. (On a side note: We miss the days of substitute hosts.) No wonder the fledgling Fox network gave Rivers a desk and sofa. In fact, The Late Show was the first program made for the new Fox Network. It became a bone of contention with potential affiliates. One station near Carson's hometown refused to pick up the Fox Network if it meant taking on competition to The Tonight Show. Sheesh. But the show remains historically significant, not just as the first Fox offering, but as the first showcase for host Arsenio Hall, who got started on this series.

Image: The Everett Collection

7. Nightlife

1986–87

Comedian David Brenner was the most frequent guest on The Tonight Show in the 1970s and 1980s. No wonder ABC tried to lock down the observational stand-up artist with a permanent spot in late night. Well, not too permanent. This Tonight Show clone lasted a little less than a year.

Image: The Everett Collection

8. Keep on Cruisin'

1987

With a title a decade past its sell-by date, Keep on Cruisin' featured hosts Stephen Bishop (pictured) and Sinbad. A Dick Clark production for CBS, the performance-based Cruisin' showcased bands (New Edition, Oingo Boingo) and comics. For six months. But Bishop did rock some stylish spectacles.

Image: The Everett Collection

9. Top of the Pops

1987–88

Just because it is an institution in another country…. Top of the Pops remains a cultural touchstone for the British people. The BBC series shined a spotlight on charting acts for four-plus decades in the U.K. Countless musicians recalled finding their inspiration in the program. However, the U.S. adaptation bombed. Hosted by Nia Peeples, the American edition even recycled some performances (well, lip-syncings) from Britain. It never quite found an audience on CBS, despite some hot jams from both Sting and Run D.M.C.

Image: The Everett Collection

10. The Wilton North Report

1987–88

The most fascinating failure on this list, The Wilton North Report simply existed two decades ahead of its time. Blending news with comedy, this Fox experience essentially invented the template for The Daily Show. Oh, and it also featured young writer Conan O'Brien, who would also warm up the crowd, as thankfully documented on YouTube. As the show struggled, it mutated, transitioning from news-comedy to a sort of Real People–like show with short segments on real people. A lot of what we see in late night today started here.

Image: Fox Television

11. The Pat Sajak Show

1989–90

Hosting a talk show was just out of his Wheel-house. The beloved game show host took his shot at Carson at the close of the decade for CBS. Chevy Chase, who would soon have his own short-lived talk show, was the first guest. But the Sajak show's biggest stumble was guest-host Rush Limbaugh, who argued with the crowd in an uncomfortable episode in March 1990. The show was axed two weeks later.

Image: The Everett Collection

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