These Memorable Late Night Talk Show Moments Stand Out Above The Rest

Late-night talk shows have been a delight for decades. There’s something special about being snuggled up in bed while watching your favorite celebrities joke around with a clever host. From series that are still going strong like The Tonight Show, to ones we’ll always miss like The Dean Martin Show, these programs had a certain edge compared to their daytime counterparts. Whether it’s Grace Slick’s profanity slip-up to Zsa Zsa Gabor playing Twister with Johnny Carson, there are some late night episodes that were too good to forget. Read on for some of the most memorable moments in late-night talk show history.

Sonny And Cher On The Mike Douglas Show

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Group W Productions
Group W Productions

Sonny and Cher rose to prominence in the ’60s and were such a famed duo they even had their own variety show in the early ’70s. Their 1979 appearance on The Mike Douglas Show holds a special place in fans’ hearts.

The couple and musical pair had divorced in 1975, leaving some stunned and worried they might not perform together again. When they were featured on the late-night show and performed together, everyone knew their connection was still a happy one.

Grace Slick On The Dick Cavett Show

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ABC, PBS
ABC, PBS

Leave it Jefferson Airplane to slip in a profanity on national television. That’s what happened when the “White Rabbit” band performed live on The Dick Cavett Show. It was right around the time that Woodstock happened, so of course, the band was feeling a little edgy.

Lead singer Grace Slick didn’t censor her lyrics to the song “We Can Be Together.” As a result, networks found themselves scrambling to sensor future performances, but it made the episode one of the most memorable.

Joan Rivers Hosting The Late Show

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Fox Broadcasting Company
Fox Broadcasting Company

Joan Rivers made a name for herself on late-night talk shows, first through appearing on The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson was her mentor and after years of proving herself as a performer, Joan made history.

In 1986, she became the first woman to host a late-night talk show. While on The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, audiences started to pick up her phrase “Can we talk?” Before long, it became the hostess’s catchphrase. The comedian later said that she didn’t even realize how often she said it.

Zsa Zsa Gabor On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

Nowadays, Twister is one of the more well-known party games out there. Part of that could be due to The Tonight Show. The same year that the game came out, Johnny Carson played it with Zsa Zsa Gabor on the show.

Zsa Zsa was known for being the lead in the 1952 version of Moulin Rouge, so audiences delighted to see the lovely actress tangled up with Johnny. Naturally, Twister sales shot up in the months following the episode.

Deana Martin And Tina Sinatra On The Dean Martin Show

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NBC
NBC

The Dean Martin Show had a ton of memorable moments, particularly for those who loved members of The Rat Pack. One of the most eyecatching episodes, though, was the one that featured Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra’s teen daughters.

Deana Martin and Tina Sinatra joined their dads to perform “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. Audiences loved seeing the ladies’ men in their fatherly roles and admired their talented offspring. Around the same time, Frank’s other daughter, Nancy, stepped into the limelight with her hit “These Boots Are Made For Walking.”

Janis Joplin On The Dick Cavett Show

Janis Joplin on The Dick Cavett Show 1970.
ABC, PBS
ABC, PBS

Janis Joplin’s natural talent made any appearance on talk shows one to remember, especially when she would perform. One of her most memorable interviews was her last, which she did on The Dick Cavett Show.

Janis performed “My Baby” and “Half Moon” in between answering questions. Audiences are still amazed today at how the performer could turn on her soulful voice on a dime. It was as though the music was simply a part of her.

Joan Crawford On The Merv Griffin Show

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NBC, CBS
NBC, CBS

Joan Crawford was such a major name in Hollywood in the early ’60s that she received a standing ovation the minute she walked out on The Merv Griffin Show. The actress had just wrapped up filming for What Happened to Baby Jane?, the 1962 psychological thriller.

Ironically, she was later discovered to have had a thriller sort of home life. Her adoptive daughter revealed a different side to her award-winning mother in a best-selling memoir. It later became the movie Mommie Dearest, making Joan’s interview disposition all the eerier.

Elizabeth Taylor On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

Elizabeth Taylor was a massive movie star from a young age. Her early performances earned her a $1 million contract to play the title role in Cleopatra, an amount that was unheard of at the time.

Her success made it all the more surprising when the actress stepped away from the limelight. She changed her mind when she joined the cast of Giant alongside fellow stars James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Dennis Hopper. Her interview on The Tonight Show proved that the household name was her to stay.

Bette Midler On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

Johnny Carson’s last night as the host of The Tonight Show was spent alongside movie star guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler. Bette showered the legend with love, singing multiple songs for him and even sharing a kiss.

The memorable show even won an Emmy for being so captivating and fun to watch. To top it off, Bette was promoting her upcoming film, Hocus Pocus. The movie has since become a classic and a staple yearly watch during Halloween.

Judy Garland On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

The second host of the renowned The Tonight Show was radio comedian and actor Jack Paar, who had the honor of interviewing Judy Garland in 1962. The actress had been a child performer and studied alongside such legends as Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor.

Judy was animated as ever as she talked about her childhood and early career. Since she is best known for her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, her stories were especially fascinating. Judy would go on to host her own variety show, though it would only last one season.

Suzanne Somers And Fred Astair On The Mike Douglas Show

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Group W Productions
Group W Productions

To clarify, Mike Douglas is not related to the younger actor Michael Douglas. In fact, his last name is actually “Dowd.” The big band singer became even more famous when he got his own talk show and had greats like dancer Fred Astair on.

In one memorable episode, Fred and actress Suzanne Somers talked about how they stay in shape. Suzanne was famed for playing the ditz on Three’s Company, so viewers appreciate both performers’ fitness advice.

Charo On The Mike Douglas Show

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Group W Productions
Group W Productions

Before Sofia Vergara, there was Charo, a comedy bombshell with a thick accent and thicker hair. Charo’s birth name is Maria Rosario Pilar Martinez Molina Baeza, so it’s no wonder she went with a simpler stage name.

Charo’s catchphrase, “cuchi, cuchi,” could be heard on some of the most famous talk shows of the time, including The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and The Tonight Show. People loved Charo’s high-spirited personality and flamboyant outfits.

Jay Leno On Late Night

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NBC
NBC

Before David Letterman became the host of Late Night in 1982, he established himself by filling in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Ironically, it would later be Jay Leno, who David Letterman used to interview, who took over for Johnny Carson in 1992.

Jay got the job after decades of establishing himself as a comedian through stand-up, film, and television. His early interview on Late Night is still a memorable moment in light of the way everything worked out with the late-night hosts.

Dolly Parton On The Joan Rivers Show

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Fox Broadcasting Company
Fox Broadcasting Company

We already mentioned that Joan Rivers was the first female late-night host, and her outlandish personality made every episode stand out. However, there was one episode that especially stood out because it featured the country sweetheart Dolly Parton.

The two women were independent superstars, but they otherwise are total opposites. Joan is an edgy comedian, and Dolly is a Southern belle country music star. But both women could hold their own and come up with clever comebacks, making each all the more irresistible.

Robyn Hilton On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

Robyn Hilton wowed audiences everywhere she went, and the same was true when she appeared on The Tonight Show in 1974. Robyn’s good looks could sometimes be a curse as interviewers questioned the validity of her career.

Her experience handling these questions was apparent when Johnny Carson suggested that her success was built on being a beauty pageant contestant. Robyn shot back that she doesn’t even believe in beauty pageants, a refreshing take from such a lovely lady.

Marlo Thomas On The Phil Donahue Show

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Multimedia Entertainment
Multimedia Entertainment

When actress Marlo Thomas appeared on The Phil Donahue Show, the chemistry between her and Phil was clear as day. The episode was especially memorable because the pair went on to get married!

Phil complimented Marlo’s beauty and good conversation. Marlo commented that whoever Phil was seeing was a “lucky lady” to have such a compassionate man by her side. The two ended up giving a relationship a try, and they’ve been married for decades now.

Farrah Fawcett On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

Though Farrah Fawcett was only a Charlie’s angel for one season, the show is still what she’s most known for. That’s why her appearance on The Tonight Show after Farrah quit was such a memorable one.

The actress poked fun at the show’s scandalous depiction of women and talked about looking forward to spending more time with her husband at the time, Lee Majors. Lee was famed for being the lead in the series The Six Million Dollar Man, making him and Farrah a dream couple.

Yvonne Craig On The Merv Griffin Show

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NBC, CBS
NBC, CBS

Yvonne Craig was known for playing Batgirl in the series Batman, which aired in the late ’60s. Yvonne immediately stole the audience’s attention when she showed up on The Merv Griffin Show in her full Batgirl costume. The actress wasn’t just being silly, though.

She used the opportunity to voice her support for the second-wave feminism movement, which focused on women’s rights in the workplace. She even did a commercial where she refused to help her teammates Batman and Robin because of their unequal pay rates.

Elvis Presley On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

Steve Allen was the original host of The Tonight Show and remained in the position until 1956. That’s why it was so memorable for early audiences when Steve returned as a guest host to interview none other than the famous Elvis Presley.

Elvis performed “Hound Dog,” which was a smash hit at the time. To top it off, the King was fresh off of a military break, so audiences were especially riled up to see him.

Judy Landers On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

Judy Landers was a dream girl in the ’70s, but when she appeared on The Tonight Show in 1979, she revealed something surprising about her dream guy. The actress admitted that she had a crush on host Johnny Carson.

That wasn’t the only unexpected news that Judy delivered. At the time, she was playing the role of Stacks in BJ and the Bear, which prompted Johnny to inquire about Judy’s driving abilities. Much to the host’s surprise, the bombshell revealed she could drive a big rig.

Madonna On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

Madonna’s first appearance on The Tonight Show was one that audiences wouldn’t forget. The “Material Girl” singer gave Johnny Carson a run for his money. Though the host has had numerous beautiful performers on his show, none were quite like Madonna.

The singer flirted with Johnny to an extent that even he couldn’t quite handle. While it’s usually Johnny making his guests blush, Madonna took the steering wheel in her interview. It was great publicity for her upcoming Who’s That Girl album.

Donna Summer On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

Donna Summer was not afraid to assert her feminist views when she appeared on The Tonight Show in 1979. Though Donna noted that she was a massive fan of Johnny Carson when she was growing up, she was quick to correct him on one thing.

The host noted that the performer was not only the “Queen of Disco,” but that she also knew her way around a mechanic shop. When Johnny insinuated that women aren’t as inclined in that department, Donna was quite to clarify that anything men can do women can do too.

Ann-Margret On The Tonight Show

NBC
NBC

When Ann-Margret went on The Tonight Show in 1972, she expressed her amazement at being nominated for an award. The actress was typecasted early in her career as a beauty and a love interest, but her talent was about more than being a pretty face.

Ann would go on to win five Golden Globes, which makes it all the more heartwarming to see how humble she was while talking to Johnny Carson. She was far from being entitled, and just grateful to be in that position.

Whitney Houston On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

Shortly after Jay Leno took over for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, he got to interview the late and great Whitney Houston. The episode was especially memorable because the singer had just beaten The Beatles’ record of number one hits.

They talked about her huge success and rise to being one of the most successful singers of the time. Whitney blew the audience away with her live performance of “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” a hit from her 1990 album of the same name.

Susan Anton On The Merv Griffin Show

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NBC, CBS
NBC, CBS

When David Brenner guest-hosted The Merv Griffin Show, he had the chance to speak with the beautiful Susan Anton. Though the actress hadn’t appeared in a major motion picture, she was so well-known for her commercials that audiences still recognized her well.

Her radio appearances, print work, and guest star roles on shows like The Love Boat and Baywatch made Susan a sought-after late night guest. Her infectious personality made it a delight to see her interviews, especially since she wasn’t in more major productions.

Carol Wayne As The Matinee Lady

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NBC
NBC

Fans of The Tonight Show who have been devout watchers from the start will remember the Matinee Lady, aka Carol Wayne. Though the actress had appeared in films, she was better known for her role on the late-night show.

Carol was a part of the Art Fern Tea Time Movie sketches, which went on for years. When the show was trimmed down to an hour, though, the segment had to go. Audiences now look fondly back at Carol’s long-running act.

Connie Stevens On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

Connie Stevens was best known for playing the role of Cricket on the detective series Hawaiian Eye. She also emerged as a recording artist, and was the voice behind the hit “Sixteen Reasons.”

The actress admitted that she was more popular overseas, but her appearance on The Tonight Show help spread her name in the states. Even more memorable was that her host was Glen Campbell, filling in for Johnny Carson. That singer was well-known at the time for his hit “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

Goldie Hawn On The Tonight Show

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NBC
NBC

Plenty of people knew about Goldie Hawn by the time she appeared on The Tonight Show in 1969. The actress had risen to prominence on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and in the film Cactus Flower, which came out that year.

Like many actresses on the show, Johnny Carson regarded their success first and foremost through their beauty. Goldie would prove to him and the viewers, though, that she was much more than her blue eyes and big smile.

Shari Belafonte On The Merv Griffin Show

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NBC, CBS
NBC, CBS

Shari Belafonte was oftentimes stuck in the shadow of her father, the legendary singer, actor, and activist Harry Belafonte. That’s what made it so memorable when Shari arrived on The Merv Griffin Show to promote her own career as a performer.

Shari had started her career off by working as a publicist and production assistant, but everything changed when she landed the role of Julie in Hotel. The soap opera enabled audiences to see her as more than Harry’s daughter, as did her conversation with Merv.

Cher As Co-Host Of The Mike Douglas Show

Cher Portrait
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When Sonny and Cher split up, Cher made a point to establish herself as a force just as strong in the entertainment industry solo as she was when in the duo. Part of the power shift came when she landed a week-long stint as co-host of The Mike Douglas Show.

The opportunity enable Cher to show off her independence and perform multiple solo songs. To top it off, she even had Sonny on as a guest!