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The Midnight Special (TV series)

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The Midnight Special
GenreMusic variety show
Created byBurt Sugarman
Presented byVarious guest hosts (1972–1975, 1976–1981)
Helen Reddy (1975–1976)
Narrated byWolfman Jack
Opening theme"Midnight Special" performed by Johnny Rivers
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes350[1]
Executive producerBurt Sugarman
Production locationNBC Studios in Burbank, CA
Running time90 min
Production companyBurt Sugarman Productions
Original release
ReleaseAugust 19, 1972 (1972-08-19) –
March 27, 1981 (1981-03-27)

The Midnight Special is an American late-night musical variety series originally broadcast on NBC from 1972 to 1981, created and produced by Burt Sugarman. It premiered as a TV special on August 19, 1972, and then began its run as a regular series from February 3, 1973, to March 27, 1981.[2] The 90-minute program aired on Saturday mornings at 1 a.m. ET/PT after the Friday night edition of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.[3]

Like its syndicated late-night cousin Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, the show typically featured guest hosts, except for a period from July 1975 through March 1976 when singer Helen Reddy served as the regular host. Wolfman Jack served as the announcer and frequent guest host. The program's theme song, a traditional folk song called "Midnight Special", was performed by Johnny Rivers.

The Midnight Special was noted for featuring musical acts performing live, which was unusual since most television appearances during the era showed performers lip-synching to prerecorded music.[citation needed] The series also occasionally aired vintage footage of older acts, such as Bill Haley & His Comets. The program also featured occasional performances of comedians such as Steve Martin,[4] Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, and George Carlin.


Johnny Rivers (pictured in 1975) performed the theme song for The Midnight Special, which is a rendition of Midnight Special (recorded in 1965), which the show is named after.

In 1972,[5] producer Burt Sugarman pitched the program as a means for NBC to capitalize on a potential audience. "Our aim was to reach for the 18-33 age bracket, the young married and daters who attend concerts and movies but don't watch much television," Sugarman said.[6]

At the time, none of the Big Three television networks had programming on after 1:00 am Eastern time, as common practice by most stations was to sign off after the final program. Despite a lack of competition in that timeslot, NBC initially rejected the idea. The rejection led Sugarman to buy the air time for the premiere on his own as a brokered show, convincing Chevrolet to become the show's first sponsor. It premiered with ratings high enough for NBC to reconsider its decision, and the network subsequently bought the program.[1] NBC also reasoned that the additional weekly hour and a half of programming would allow NBC to recoup some revenue lost as a result of the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which banned the advertising of tobacco on television effective January 1, 1971.[7]

The pilot for the series aired on August 19, 1972. It was presented as a 90-minute special encouraging young people to vote in the upcoming Presidential election. Nielsen ratings for the premiere episode were a success, with 4.4%, or approximately 5 million television sets "tuned in", and 32% of those watching TV during that time period were watching The Midnight Special.[8] Several months later, on February 3, 1973, it premiered as a weekly series.[9] Initially, it was scheduled to run 26 consecutive weeks.[10] Within eight months of its premiere, The Midnight Special had proven that programming in the later time period was viable, and NBC would expand its programming in the time slot to five days a week with the addition of the talk show Tomorrow, hosted by Tom Snyder, the other four nights.[citation needed]

The Midnight Special's original time slot was on Saturdays from 1:00 to 2:30 a.m. in the Eastern and Pacific time zones (Midnight to 1:30 a.m. Central and Mountain).[11] When The Tonight Show's run time was shortened from ninety to sixty minutes in September 1980, The Midnight Special was moved to 12:30 a.m. (ET/PT)/11:30 p.m. (CT/MT), maintaining its 90-minute run time.[12]

In 1978, at the height of the disco craze, the set was changed to resemble a disco nightclub complete with a platform dance floor. Wolfman Jack stood behind an elevated DJ booth. By fall 1979, as the genre's popularity waned, the disco set was replaced.[12] The show was canceled in March 1981 and remained on air in reruns until May 1981.[13][14][15]

Guest stars[edit]

Joan ,Baez

The Bee Gees performing on The Midnight Special, 1973.
Chuck Berry as guest host, November 2, 1973.
Marty Robbins performing on The Midnight Special, 1973.
Ike & Tina Turner (pictured in 1973) hosted The Midnight Special in 1974.
Helen Reddy in a promotional image for The Midnight Special, 1975.
Announcer Wolfman Jack in 1979.

Some notable guest stars and hosts included:


The show was parodied with a song by comedian Ray Stevens in 1974 called "The Moonlight Special" playing Mr. Sheepdog (Wolfman Jack), whose guest included Mildred Queen and the Dipsticks (Gladys Knight), Agnes Stoopa (Alice Cooper and his pet chicken (From the 1969 "Chicken incident" in Toronto)), and Jerry Joe Henly Jimmy (Jerry Lee Lewis).[17]


The series was canceled by NBC at the request of Dick Ebersol as part of a deal for him to take over the then-ailing Saturday Night Live.[18] Because there was no time for NBC to develop a new show from scratch in light of the urgent SNL situation, The Midnight Special was replaced by SCTV, a weekly Canadian sketch comedy series performed by members of the Toronto satellite of Chicago's The Second City improvisational troupe. That program, in turn, would later be replaced with another music show, Friday Night Videos, in 1983, also produced initially by Ebersol.

DVD release[edit]

In 2006, a DVD collection entitled Burt Sugarman's Midnight Special was made available by Guthy-Renker through television and radio infomercials. In 2014, an 11-DVD collection entitled The Midnight Special was released by Star-Vista through standard retail channels.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Robertson, Ed (1997). "The Midnight Special". Ed Robertson.com. Archived from the original on February 21, 2001.
  2. ^ "Helen Reddy Hosts A.M. Show". The Macon News. February 1, 1973. pp. 5C.
  3. ^ Martin, Bob (February 9, 1973). "'Midnight Special' Bows at 1 a.m." Independent. Long Beach, California. p. 22.
  4. ^ "Ep 5 - The Midnight Special | March 2, 1973". The Midnight Special – via YouTube.
  5. ^ Sugarman, Burt (2006). "Special Features: Heeeere's Midnight". Burt Sugarman's The Midnight Special: Legendary Performances (DVD). Gunthy-Renker Entertainment. Event occurs at 01:25.
  6. ^ Thomas, Bob (August 16, 1972). "'The Midnight Special' Is NBC Experiment". The Memphis Press-Scimitar. p. 28.
  7. ^ Tom Snyder on Later, 1994
  8. ^ Zito, Tom (January 2, 1973). "TV tunes in to rock". The Record. Bergen County, New Jersey. Washington Post News Service. p. A19.
  9. ^ "Television Review: 'Midnight Special' Series". Daily World. February 9, 1973. p. 3.
  10. ^ Sharbutt, Jay (February 9, 1973). "'Midnight Special' Airs Again Early Saturday". The Daily Advertiser. p. 18. story continued
  11. ^ Gardella, Kay (February 7, 1973). "NBC-TV Midnight Special A Fine Groundbreaker". Daily News. p. 35.
  12. ^ a b TV.com. "The Midnight Special". TV.com. Retrieved 2013-09-22.
  13. ^ Deeb, Gary (March 21, 1981). "'SCTV' to Replace 'Midnight Special'". Dayton Daily News. p. 24.
  14. ^ Boyer, Peter J. (March 13, 1981). "Is TV Turnabout Fair Play? Don't Ask NBC, Critic Says". Herald and Review. pp. B6.
  15. ^ Gardella, Kay (April 11, 1981). "'Saturday Night' Tries for Fresh Start". The Bradenton Herald: 14.
  16. ^ Fan's detailed website focused just on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
  17. ^ Lyrics to Ray Stevens' "The Moonlight Special" - accessed October 14, 2023.
  18. ^ Dick Ebersol, from the Museum of Broadcast Communications


  • McNeil, Alexander M. (1980) Total Television, New York: Penguin Books, Ltd. ISBN 0-14-004911-8

External links[edit]