Bye-Bye, Steverino

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Steve Allen

Are we in agreement here? The '50s were the decade of crucial change in American popular culture. Rock 'n' roll, lurid comic books, the Beats, Brando, teenage-werewolf movies and the mainstreaming of black performers signaled a transformation from old to young, smooth to raw, upper-class to underclass. But there was another '50s culture that ran parallel to this one, sometimes interacting with it but often commenting skeptically on it. One culture was hot and angry, the other cool and comic. One was the geyser, exploding with sexuality; the other the mainstream, flowing unroiled. One was radical, the other liberal. And if the cool, liberal mainstream had a spokesman — an artist and ironist — surely that fellow was Steve Allen.

Steve Allen... Readers under 50 are drawing a blank here, unless they think of a mild-mannered gent with a muskrat toupee who was recently seen fulminating on the lack of standards in contemporary TV (We know, we know, the kids say — it's not nearly gross enough). Perhaps it is natural for every forerunner to become a fossil if he lives long enough. Allen didn't live quite long enough; he was just 78 when he died last Sunday, and was still producing books, songs and impudent opinions at an exhausting rate. But this longtime talker will be remembered — and damnit, kids, remember this — as the creator of "The Tonight Show." Emerging from free-form comedy radio in the early '50s, Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen, the son of vaudevillians, became the father of the modern talk show.

For a few years — say, 1954 to '56 — he was everywhere. Besides hosting "The Tonight Show" Allen starred in the bio-pic "The Benny Goodman Story;" he wrote the songs (including "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" and "Impossible") for a TV book-musical "The Bachelor;" he recorded some spoken-word fairy tales with hipster lingo that became hits and a book (the still-funny "Bop Fables"); he published a collection of short stories ("Fourteen for Tonight") and a study of TV comics ("The Funny Men"); he wrote the lyrics for movie themes ("Picnic," "Bell, Book and Candle"); and he started a Sunday-night variety hour, "The Steve Allen Show." By then he was so busy he let Ernie Kovacs host "The Tonight Show" on Mondays and Tuesdays. Kovacs ascended to his own level of TV-comedy immortality, and Jack Paar took over "Tonight" in 1957. Then Johnny Carson and Jay Leno — 46 years of the longest-running entertainment show on network TV.

The earliest episodes established a format that has varied hardly at all in "The Tonight Show" or most any other late-night talkfest: the theme song (Steve's own "This Could Be the Start of Something Big"), the bantering band leader (Skitch Henderson), the announcer (Jack Lescoulie), the opening monologue, the host's desk and the guest's couch, the featured spots for singers (Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, Andy Williams) and comics (including Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman).

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 of Louis Nye ("Hi-ho, Steverino!"), Don Knotts ("No!"), Bill Dana ("My name, "Jose Jimenez"), Dayton Allen ("Why not?") and Tom Poston (an eloquently vague "_______"). One famous night, when disappointed by the flat response to his monologue, Allen went into the audience, started a conga line that eventually included the entire crowd, led them onto the street, then ran back in, locked the studio doors and performed the rest of the show for only the band and crew.

Some of his stunts were wacky or zany (two words best applied to the '50s) and would be punctuated by the two forms of the Steve Allen laugh. One was low and desert-dry ("Eh eh"), the other high and hysterically musical ("Ee! Ee! Ee!"), as if a coloratura were being goosed. But Allen was no more wacky and zany than Steve Martin (who parodied Allen's song "Impossible" by singing "It's impossible/To stick an airplane up your nose/Yes, it's impossible") was wild and crazy. Few comics did Steve Allen impressions; his demeanor was too straight, too assured, abnormally normal. He needed glasses, so, what the heck, he wore glasses. They became not just his trademark but, on the covers of many books and albums, his logo. They suggested the high school teacher aura he projected, the hidden pedagogue who unmasked himself in his more didactic later years.

For all his verbal facility (he was the quickest ad-libber in the business) and openness to edgy comedians like Sahl and Bruce, Allen was no radical. He was the ideal host: a mediator, a moderator. When he wasn't talking, he actually listened to his guests. When he wasn't being funny, he could be resolutely serious; "The Tonight Show" occasionally devoted entire evenings to one guest (Carl Sandburg) or discussion of one topic (civil rights). Unlike most modern hosts, Allen wasn't shy about trying to edify people. He didn't pretend to be stupider than he was. Or younger. On his prime-time show, he presented kids' stuff with a cushion of irony. He'd dead-pan the lyrics to "All Shook Up" as if it were a Shakespearean sonnet. When Elvis Presley appeared at the apex of his first notoriety, Allen had him sing "Hound Dog" in a tuxedo — to a real hound dog.

Like Elvis and so many other trailblazers in the pop-cultural jungle, Allen had a couple of early, defining years, followed by decades of lower-level maintenance. He played himself in "The Sunshine Boys" and "The Player," and in fictionalized biographies of Jack Kerouac and Jerry Lee Lewis. He continued to indulge his polymathic talents and appetites. It wasn't that he was terrific at everything he tried; most of his efforts would earn a B-plus to B-minus. But he tried so many things — and so much of them!

From Allen's Alley came 50 or so books, nearly 8,000 songs (why?), a clever if starchy Great Men of History chat series called "Meeting of Minds" and a few more incarnations of the "Tonight" format (including a syndicated show in the late '60s that profoundly influenced David Letterman). He kept up the productive pace, but for smaller, older audiences — the remnants of the pop intelligentsia he had helped form. If Mensa had a nightclub for its senior members, he'd be the lounge act.

The books were no longer best-sellers, but that didn't stop Steve. He wrote a series of murder mysteries whose main characters were lightly fictionalized clones of himself and his wife, actress Jayne Meadows. He wrote books on how to be funny and why Americans are stupid ("Dumbth"). At his death he writing a book on the moral and artistic degeneration of TV culture since — guess when? — the '50s.

Actually, Allen didn't "write" any books; he dictated them into his ever-handy micro tape recorder. After 50 years in show business, as an author and polemicist, Steve was still doing radio — still hosting a talk show, even when no one else was talking and his only audience was a stenographer. He became a relic of his time, a bespectacled version of a '56 Coupe de Ville. It took his death to remind people that, like that old Caddy, Steverino was a classic.