At the end of the 1960s, when I was a student at Berkeley, I took breaks by traveling down to Los Angeles to sit in the audience of the Steve Allen Show. This was the second of two syndicated late-night shows that Allen hosted through the '60s, a nightly, 90-minute showcase for his rowdy, improvisational comedy. Shows would typically open with some unscripted bit, and one night everyone in the audience was handed foam-rubber bricks and bats and told that, in honor of the campus unrest making headlines, when Steve ventured into the crowd, we'd erupt into an "audience riot." Since I had just come from real riots in Berkeley, it was hard not to feel, even then, that Steve Allen was already passing into nostalgia.
Yet when he died last week, at 78, it was apparent that of all the pioneers of TV's first generation, Allen remains the most relevant, one of the half-dozen indispensable people in the medium's history. When he became host of a new late-night broadcast on NBC called the Tonight show in 1953, he was a revolutionary. The infant medium was still feeling its way, adapting the formats of radio and vaudeville and the Broadway stage. Allen, who had honed his skills in local radio and TV, seemed to understand the medium in a new way. He relaxed in front of the camera, gabbed with his announcer and bandleader, ad-libbed easily with guests and brought to TV a new sense of intimacy and informality. Amid the high-pitched show-biz artifice of most TV around him, Allen seemed to dial back the medium's whole metabolic rate and get it in sync with the viewer at home. He made television part of the nation's lifeblood.
On the Tonight show (1954-57), a prime-time variety show on NBC (1956-60) and two late-night talk shows in the 1960s, Allen invented the style that TV hosts from David Letterman to Craig Kilborn are still developing. He looked for comedy in everyday trivia, taking a mike into the audience or turning on a camera outside the studio and simply commenting on people coming in and out of the Hollywood Ranch Market across the street. In one recurring bit, he would pick up a copy of the New York Daily News, don a cornball press hat and read angry letters to the editor, with all the vehemence the unseen correspondents would have wanted. He loved concocting wild physical bits, which got their fizz from the sight of this urbane, bespectacled, Brooks Brothers gentleman jammed into a pair of tights on a trapeze or dunked in a vat of Jell-O. "Can you imagine what people just tuning in now are thinking?" he liked to say when the chaos was at its height. That was the point.
As a verbal comic, Allen was the fastest gun in the business, and a true heir to Groucho Marx for his inventiveness with language, constantly pirouetting around the tired cliché or the pretentious phrase. Yet he had an infallible internal censor that kept his wisecracks from ever being cheap, or risqué, or mean. He kept a police whistle at his desk, which he'd blow whenever a line or bit of business crossed the line. He remained old-fashioned that way, as well as in his stubborn refusal, unlike Carson and almost everyone that followed, to do "savers" when a joke bombed. He might strip to his shorts onstage for an ice-water bath, but he never lost his dignity.
He invented comedy bits that others copied (Allen's Answer Man become Carson's Carnac the Magnificent). He discovered or introduced talents like Don Knotts, Bill Dana and Tom Poston, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. He gave Elvis Presley his first national TV exposure, even before Ed Sullivan. He was, as the obits reminded us, a renaissance man who played jazz piano, composed thousands of songs (but only one hit, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big"), wrote a couple of dozen books and even dabbled in politics. Though a lifelong liberal a union man to the end, opponent of the death penalty and nuclear proliferation in recent years he embarked on a vocal crusade to restore "family values" in television. This was a little uncomfortable for those of us who remember Allen as the irreverent kid who liked to turn the studio upside down. But this too was consistent with his keen professionalism and his respect for a medium that he helped define and liberate, in ways he could no longer quite recognize. Especially just tuning in now.