Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno, who have been at each other's throats of late, had very different approaches to hosting the Tonight Show. But one thing remained the same: For the interview portion, both hosts sat at a desk on the right side of the television screen, with their guests on the left. In fact, virtually all late-night hosts have used this right-screen setup—Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and even the fictional Larry Sanders. Why do hosts always place their desks to the right?
Because it makes them seem powerful. In Western culture, we read from left to right, and we watch theater and television that way, too. Our eyes end up on the right side of the screen—where the host sits (also known as stage left). In the theory of stagecraft, it's understood that a rightward placement telegraphs royalty. So no matter how famous the guest may be, sitting to the left makes him or her seem subservient. Late-night hosts also sit slightly upstage (farther back and slightly elevated) from their guests, which likewise reinforces the notion of a power imbalance.
Stage designers hold that guests make a stronger impression if they enter from stage left, crossing in front of the host and shifting the audience's focus ever so briefly. Perhaps that's why David Letterman—famous for the occasional cutting takedown—makes his guests march in from the weaker stage right. Colbert plays with this dynamic most self-consciously. Guests wait in the interview area while Colbert makes his entrance. He keeps the focus on himself at all times.
Alternative interview formats can telegraph more nuanced power dynamics. On The View, for instance, the hosts sit grouped around the same table, with the guest at the center, signaling a more egalitarian (and feminine) atmosphere. On Politically Incorrect, host Bill Maher sat between rival guests—a setup that emphasized his role as moderator and the importance of argument among ideological opposites.
The basic visual grammar of late-night talk programs was established largely by Steve Allen, who hosted the Tonight Show from 1954 to '57, out of New York's Hudson Theater. Because the Hudson's wings are too shallow to hide much, guests waited on a loading dock on the stage-right/left-screen side. This arrangement may have factored into the decision to seat Allen to the right. When Jack Paar took the reins of the show, he kept most of the visual details, including the desk placement, as did Johnny Carson, who made the setup iconic.
The few hosts who've deviated from the right-side desk arrangement haven't fared well. Dick Cavett, who started out as a morning and midday host, tried to import the non-desk interview setup he'd used in other time slots to his namesake late-night show. It never approached the popularity of Johnny Carson's TonightShow, and eventually ABC phased Cavett out. More recently, Jay Leno's nondesk prime-time show was a ratings failure. Carson Daly initially bucked tradition by placing his desk on the left side of the screen for LastCall With Carson Daly. The show has since shifted to an outside-the-studio, man-on-the-street format.
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Explainer thanks Benjamin Alba of DePaul University, James Bundy and David Chambers of Yale University, Jim Hoskinson and Mark McKenna of The Colbert Report, and Allison Silverman.
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