That Old Feeling: Paar Excellence

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His entrance was modest — not the Canyon of Heroes strutting and glad-handing that accompanies Jay Leno’s appearance at the start of his show. His monologue, delivered as he perched on the edge of his desk or on a stool, was gentle, discursive and memorized from his own handwritten notes — no cue cards. He actually conversed with his celebrity guests — not the ritual of telling a rehearsed anecdote and showing a clip from the movie to be plugged. There was lots of talk about politics, but it was usually modulated — not the braying and balls-breaking of today’s cable news channels. And while the guests had their foibles, it was the host who was the real eccentric — not the ironic moderator but the neurotic innovator. In other words, Jack Paar — host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” (later retitled “The Jack Paar Show”) from 1957 to 1962 — made late-night television history by helping to fashion a format that every subsequent host would adopt and adapt, and hardly anyone would learn from.

Paar’s death this week, at 85, brought home this contrast with a special poignance. There are plenty of smarties on late-night TV, but in emotional nakedness, in educing unexpected answers from distinguished people, in creating a volatile environment for insomniac entertainment, none of them are up to Paar. That’s another way of saying: he made me nervous. I was in my early teens in Paar’s heyday (heynight?), and Paar’s defensive, gently irascible style got on my nerves even as they provided a showcase for his. And in turning post-primetime into a psychodrama with jokes, he made me a compulsive watcher. Bob Newhart, a guest on last night’s “Larry King” tribute to Paar, said of “The Tonight Show” under Paar: “You couldn’t afford to miss it, because you never knew what was going to happen.”

What was going to happen, you could be sure, was that mercurial Jack would cause a commotion. Granted, that was easier to do in the buttoned-down 50s. Remember what Murray Kempton wrote of John Lindsay — that “he is fresh and everyone else is tired”? Well, Paar was jittery when everyone else was calm. If people talked about him at a coffee break each morning, and millions did, it’s partly because he’d acted as if Paar had consumed too much coffee the night before.


He’d been in radio for decades. He entertained troops during the war. He got an RKO contract and proved himself an affable supporting player in comedies (including “Love Happy,” opposite the young Marilyn Monroe). He was a summer replacement for Jack Benny. On TV, he’d been the host of CBS’ perennially cursed morning show. For two decades, his career movements were crablike, sidewise. But he did well as a substitute host for Steve Allen, who’d hosted “The Tonight Show” since 1954, and NBC picked Paar to replace Allen in 1957.

Many of the elegies for Paar suggest he worked in a vacuum, created the talk-show format. This is nonsense. It does not diminish his contribution a jot to mention David Susskind, whose “Open End” filled Sunday nights with earnest, erudite conversation; Mike Wallace, who grilled luminaries like the Grand Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan on his local, then national interview show; and especially Steve Allen.

Steverino, as I wrote here when Allen died in 2000, was the undisputed father of the modern talk show. The earliest episodes of Allen’s stint established a format that has varied hardly at all in “The Tonight Show” or most any other late-night talkfest: the theme song, the bantering band leader, the announcer, the opening monologue, the host’s desk and the guest’s couch, the featured spots for singers and comics. These were not innovations; the variety format was long established in radio, and hosts like Arthur Godfrey had successfully transplanted it to TV. But Allen tweaked it with an audience-participation routine before the first guest spot — he’d play Stump the Band, or sit at the piano and invent a song from words suggested by the audience. He did “remotes” from outside the theater: the Man on the Street interviews that later became treasured schtick with his own comedy troupe. And when he wasn’t being funny, he could be resolutely serious; he occasionally devoted entire evenings to one guest (Carl Sandburg) or discussion of one topic (civil rights).


The Steve Allen “Tonight Show” had everything Paar and his successors had. (In fact, it had more — Paar dropped the skits and, I believe, Stump the Band.) What it didn’t have was Paar. He was what was different about his “Tonight Show.” In place of Allen’s team of second bananas (Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Don Knotts, Dayton Allen), Paar developed a kind of rep company of guests: actors Cliff Arquette, Hans Conreid, Dody Goodman, Peggy Cass and Betty White, comedy writer Selma Diamond, party maven Elsa Maxwell, theater and cabaret personality Hermione Gingold, the chaunteuse Genevieve, pianist-misanthrope Oscar Levant. Paar booked guests for his show as you might invite guests to your home. His regulars were bright friends with beguiling personalities and good stories, not stars with a movie to push. (You can find many of these antique celebrities in a 1998 Paar video collection called “As I Was Saying” — if you can find it. The link says the tape “usually ships within 1 to 2 months’!)

Paar’s popularity was wonderfully contagious. Unknown raconteurs, when allowed to shine in Paar’s spotlight, became best-selling writers: Alexander King with “Mine Enemy Grows Older,” Jack Douglas with “My Brother Was an Only Child” and Cliff Arquette, whose down-homey Charley Weaver character generated “Letters from Mamma.” One more: Paar himself. His “I Kid You Not” was another best-seller. Paar’s secret was: “Don’t make it an interview. Make it a conversation. Interviews have clipboards.” With a segment slot of 12 to 15 mins. instead of the five or six on a modern talk show, Paar had the chance to relax his guests (who were much less schooled in the TV interview because there were so few venues for it). His interview method was to coax rather than pummel. Let’s take it easy, his manner suggested; we have all night. Only in his monologues and asides was his agitated, anguished, aggrieved — the famous, notorious Paar.


Steve Allen would go outside the studio for his Man on the Street interviews and other mid-Manhattan japery. Paar went out of the country. He flew to Cuba after the Batista overthrow to see what this new bearded guy, Fidel Castro, was really like. He did a show from Hawaii after that island territory had become America’s 50th state in 1959. Two years later the Soviets erected a wall to separate East from West Berlin — and Paar had to be there, whatever the State Department thought of his ambassadorial ambitions. But the most adventurous flights were to the interior of that strange continent known as Jack Paar. that strange land side the host’s roiling mind and heart. He sat behind a desk while his guests took the couch — they’d bump one another down the divan as new ones arrived, still encouraged to join in the conversation.

But, really, he should have been there in a way, because the show was his couch, the camera his shrink. In a decade when psychoanalysis was all the rage, and navel-gazing an epidemic, Paar paraded his neuroses, nearly nine hours each week, for his audience of 7 million. Though he famously said, “It is almost impossible to dislike me because I do nothing,” he did do something: he worried in public. His talent was fretting. With a soft, spaniel face that would have typecast him as the jilted lover if he’d stayed in movies longer, Paar was a world-class worrier.

And his gift for intimacy, combined with a brazen belief that his private thoughts would be more fascinating to his audience than embarrassing to himself, led Paar to confessional ecstasies. Sometimes they involved his wife Miriam (to whom he was married for 60 years) or his pre-teen daughter Randy; his monologue about the 10-year-old’s first training bra cued a predictable storm of oohs and ughs. I also remember his prudish castigation of the New York Times Sunday Magazine for running what he considered to be soft-core pornography, in the form of “crotch shot” lingerie ads.

If Paar was a good friend to the actors, comics and writers he made famous, he was an even better, bitter enemy to those he picked fights with. New York columnists Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen were two of his targets. About Winchell, the one-time liberal who later took his Commie-hunting marching orders from J. Edgar Hoover, Paar said he “wore the American flag like a bathrobe.” To guests on his show, he was typically affable, not not always. Dick Cavett, who wrote gags for Paar (including the host’s famous introduction of a bosomy movie star: “Here they are, Jayne Mansfield”), recalled on Larry King’s show that Paar had taken a disliking to the comic Fat Jack Leonard. He let Leonard bake in his silence, until Fat Jack finally said, “You know, my wife is an acrobat.” Paar’s quick and fatal riposte: “She’d have to be.”


Cavett, who in the 70s ran the one talk show that echoed Paar in his wide-ranging, highbrow mode (the program started on ABC, wound up on PBS), wrote a reminiscence of his old boss in Thursday's New York Times. “I asked Jack once, ‘What’s the formula for how to handle things when you don’t like a guest?’ He said: ‘You think of it as what you would do in real life. Smile, be nice and then suddenly kick ’em under the table.’”

But I remember a time when two guests on consecutive nights got under Paar’s skin. He was nice to them but kicked ’em after they’d gone. It was early 1962, and William F. Buckley, Jr., came on to trumpet, in his drawling mandarin fashion, the new conservatism. The following night the guest was Gore Vidal, Buckley’s mirror image on the Left, who poured the sour syrup of his Olympian contempt on the Yalie. Both were 36, both full of opinions and themselves, both master debaters, and both unafraid of making enemies to make a point — a tactic anathema in that timid age, when seeming to be like the average viewer was the first and most important step to be liked by him. Anyway, they provided two nights of terrific television. In the post-mortem, a befuddled Paar asked Downs what he thought. Downs, avatar of the complacent Center, described a circle with his finger and proclaimed that the far Right and the far Left bent so far that they eventually met.

Complacency had the last word, at least on the show. Yet Buckley’s appearance marked his media coming of age and hyped the circulation of his magazine, National Review, when he wrote about the Paar encounter. (I bought that issue, my first, and four years later I was writing movie reviews for it. Thanks, Jack.) And Vidal continued to find TV outlets for his elegant fulminations. It wasn’t till 1968, on the floor of the fractious Democratic convention, that the two finally came face to face; and the colloquy was as civilized as you’d expect. Buckley to Vidal: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-nazi or I’ll sock you in your Goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” ABC caught, and aired, it all.


Rude language occasionally found a home on 60s talk TV. In a November 1962 prime-time Paar show, Jonathan Winters made light mockery of fellow guest Bette Davis’ laryngitis, to which the great star bantered, “You go to hell.” And I could swear (though not in court) that when Jefferson Airplane played “We Can Be Together” on Cavett’s ABC show in 1969 or so, Grace Slick’s clear enunciation of the line “Up against the wall, motherfucker” made it past the snoozing censors and onto the air. 

Paar, like playwrights and screenwriters of the time, mostly toyed with innuendo. Comedy back then was suggestive, not subversive, and coy, not confrontational. On Wednesday, February 10, 1960, he told an anecdote (I believe a viewer had sent it in) in which the phrase “water closet,” or toilet, was confused with wayside chapel. For the record, here’s the routine, which can be found on the TV Acres website:

“An English lady, while visiting Switzerland, was looking for a room, and she asked the schoolmaster if he could recommend any to her.  He took her to see several rooms, and when everything was settled, the  lady returned to her home to make the final preparations to move. When she arrived home, the thought suddenly occurred to her that she had not seen a ‘W.C.’ around the place. So she immediately wrote a note to the schoolmaster asking him if there were a ‘W.C.’ around. The schoolmaster was a very poor student of English, so he asked the parish priest if he could help in the matter. Together they tried to discover the meaning of the letters ‘W.C.,’ and the only solution they could find for the letters was letters was a Wayside Chapel. 

The schoolmaster then wrote to the English lady the following note: “Dear Madam: I take great pleasure in informing you that the W.C. is situated nine miles from the house you occupy, in the center of a beautiful grove of pine trees surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 229 people and it is open on Sunday and Thursday only. As there are a great number of people and they are expected during the summer months, I would  suggest that you come early: although there is plenty of standing room as a rule. You will no doubt be glad to hear that a good number of people bring their lunch and make a day of it. While others who can afford to go by car arrive just in time. I would especially recommend that your ladyship go on Thursday when there is a musical accompaniment. It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the W.C. and it was there that she met her husband. I can remember the rush there was for seats. There were ten people to a seat ordinarily occupied by one. It was wonderful to see the expression on their faces. The newest attraction is a bell donated by a wealthy resident of the district. It rings every time a person enters. A bazaar is to be held to provide plush seats for all the people, since they feel it is a long felt need. My wife is rather delicate, so she can’t attend regularly. I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you if you wish, where you will be seen by all. For the children, there is a special time and place so that they will not disturb the elders. Hoping to have been of service to you, I remain, Sincerely, The Schoolmaster.” 

Paar might not have thought twice about the ecclesiastico-scatological implications of the story, but the NBC censors did, and, without informing their star, they cut the three minutes from the broadcast. The following night Paar appeared at the start of the show, and announced: “I’ve been up 30 hours without an ounce of sleep wrestling with my conscience all day. I’ve made a decision about what I’m going to do. I’m leaving ‘The Tonight Show.’ There must be a better way to make a living than this, a way of entertaining people without being constantly involved in some form of controversy. I love NBC, and they’ve been wonderful to me. But they let me down.” And he walked off, leaving a flummoxed Hugh Downs to carry on. In his absence, Orson Bean was the substitute host.

Paar returned three-and-a-half weeks later, on Monday, March 7th. He walked onstage, struck a Jack Benny pose and opened with: “as I was saying before I was interrupted...” The thunderclap of laughter and applause finally died down, and he made a totally Paar apology: “When I walked off, I said there must be a better way of making a living. Well, I’ve looked, and there isn’t. Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Radio City. Leaving the show was a childish and perhaps emotional thing. I have been guilty of such action in the past and will perhaps be again. I’m totally unable to hide what I feel. It is not an asset in show business. But I shall do the best I can to amuse and entertain you and let other people speak freely, as I have in the past. Any who are maligned will find this show a place to come and tell their story. There will be a rock in every snowball and I plan to continue exactly what I started out to do. I hope you will find it interesting.” We did. I did.


In May 1962 he deserted the late-night slot for the less onerous duties of a weekly prime-time show, Fridays at 10. Carson had been an occasional substitute for Paar, and NBC hired to fill the slot. But because Johnny’s contract as host of the ABC daytime game show “Who Do You Trust?” didn’t expire till the fall, the network put other hosts, including Merv Griffin, behind the desk. (Merv’s smart showing there got him a daytime chat show, whose geniality continues today in the Ellen DeGeneris talkathon.) Why did Paar he leave? “I’ve never really had a good answer to that,” said the man more comfortable asking questions than answering them. But five years was a long time in early TV, especially early late-night. Steve Allen had moved up to prime time after just three years running “The Tonight Show.” It was Carson who made the late-night slot a life appointment: 29 years. (Leno and Conan O’Brien have been at it 12 years, Letterman twice that long.) Recall too that, back in the day, Paar went from 11:15 to 1 a.m. When you factor in shorter commercial breaks, that’s twice as much air time per week as the new boys have to fill. 

“The Jack Paar Program,” Paar’s weekly skein, dispensed with the couch. Now the guests sat in individual chairs, with a stand-up mike to the side of each. The celebs were tonier, and often from politics. Paar had interviewed John Kennedy as a candidate in 1960; now brother Robert, the Attorney General, was on to talk about Dave Beck, the “thief” Teamsters boss. Richard Nixon, his political career apparently over after losing the California governor’s race (“You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more”), was asked if Kennedy was defeatable in 1964, and Nixon replied, “Which Kennedy?” He couldn’t have known that John would be assassinated within the year, or that in 1968 he would be deprived of running against Robert for President because of another assassin’s bullet.

Paar’s profligate curiosity led him into unexpected side streets. He was no lover of rock ‘n roll; though Steve Allen had booked Elvis Presley, Paar’s musical guests were invariably smooth thrushes and crooners. But on a 1963 visit to England he had noted the popularity of a certain rock quartet, and in January 1964 his “sociological” curiosity led him to introduce the Beatles to his audience. The clip, which he had bought from the BBC, showed the group singing “She Loves You.” It was the first time the Fab Four’s act had been seen on U.S. network TV. (They appeared live on “The Ed Sullivan Show” a month later — an event whose 40th anniversary we will celebrate in this column.)

Someone who invested so much emotional energy in his performance, who flayed himself to make better television — this hot wire in a cool medium — could never stay the long course. He later said that he had said everything he wanted to say, met everyone he’d wanted to meet. So at the end of his last “Jack Paar Program” in May 1965 he summoned his pet German Shepherd (who took a few disconcerting moments to heed his master’s command), started to walk offstage, came back and picked up his trademark stool and ambled into early retirement in the home for TV legends. Oh yes, legend. For Jack set a standard that seems even loftier today, when nobody would basically ad-lib his way through a long night of television. His fans would remember him as the fellow who split talk show history into two eras: Before Paar and Below Paar.