Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jack Paar to Jay Leno: Late Night Grows Younger

"The national broadcasting company and its affiliate stations from coast to coast present the new Tonight Show staring Jack Paar! And it’s all live from New York!”

Thus began, back in July, 1957, a rich legacy of late night comedy and conversation. Actually, the inventive Steve Allen came first, and before Allen, a primitive attempt to attract nocturnal viewers called Broadway Open House.

When Paar took over, I was soon there, too, riveted each night at 11:15 p.m. to our DuMont television set, for Paar was like no one else I had ever seen. Brilliant and witty, raw and restless and unpredictable. Daring to take risks born of his open-minded political views. His guests did not venture onto the set to pitch records or movies. Or more TV shows. They came on to talk because they had the gift of witty gab. Even Richard Nixon (remember him?) revealed a surprisingly humorous side on the Tonight Show when Paar hosted the man who would still be president.

Paar was restlessly himself, unable to be anybody else, and the sparks flew. He once asked Oscar Levant, “what do you do for exercise?“ ”Oh,” answered the semi-inebriated pianist, “I stumble, and then I fall into a coma.” It was like that a lot, trust me. And I could not ever get enough of goofy Dody Goodman.

In Havana shortly following the Cuban revolution, Paar gained an on the spot interview with Fidel Castro. It was a warm and intimate exchange between two human beings sharing the same planet.

When Johnny Carson replaced the departing Paar, who wanted out, I resentfully did not stay tuned, I was such a Paar loyalist. It took me years to appreciate Carson’s gracious and graceful style. And to bond with his remarkably enduring persona. At a party attended by a number of Hollywood insiders at a friend’s house in L.A. in the 80s, a few Tonight Show staffers were there. Super nice people. One of them, just before she left, said to me, “David, if you ever want to see Johnny Carson, just give me a call and I’ll get you tickets."

I will never forgive myself for not taking her up on the offer.

During the years since, I've checked out most of the late night hosts. Merv Griffin was a terrific interviewer. Pat Sajack, yes he too tried late night, had great potential, but his promising show suffered for lack of the right direction. Of late, the only new host that truly impressed me has been Craig Killborn, who walked away from CBS after only a few years. I saw five tappings of his show. He had so much going for him, and then got bored and/or hankered to be a movie star. That he has not achieved, languishing in small roles. Nobody writes about him anymore. Now, as for Conan O'Brien, I am dumbfounded to understand what it is about this guy that causes anybody to laugh. I gave his show several earnest tries -- in vain.

Good news for those among us of a certain age who are not so nocturnal anymore: Beginning tonight on NBC, comes an earlier Jay Leno, and I can’t wait. I can do 10 p.m. I don’t like doing 11:35 p.m. like I once did when I slept in until 11 or noon the next morning. Nor were either Leno or Letterman ever as riveting to me as the one and only Jack Paar. I think that Letterman is possibly the best comedy monologist ever, and so sometimes I stay up to watch his first fifteen minutes. The show’s lingering structural problem, as I see it, has been Letterman’s nerdy musical director sidekick, Paul Schafer, a guy from out of a loud '60s mentality who fails to provide a balancing contrast to the host.

Leno? I’ve always found him likeble and easy going, just not an interesting enough personality, like Letterman, to keep me up late night waiting. Now, I’m really looking forward. 10 p.m. is perfect. Many TV experts, however, are predicting failure in the prime time slot. If the popular Jay Leno can continue to deliver apace, I’m predicting he’ll have an audience.

Fifty two years ago last July, my all-time favorite late night host first appeared in a swim suit seated inside an inflatable raft floating in a swimming pool, peeking away over a typewriter in his lap.

If only he had never gone away. I still miss Jack Paar. He epitomizes for me the best of live television, not just during the relentlessly maligned black and white era that he dominated, but at anytime. TV in the fifties was not all Ozzie and Harriet or Roller Derby or Queen for a Day. It was Allen and Caesar, Bernstein and Serling, Gleason and Omnibus and Playhouse 90 and David Suskind’s Open End. It was live adaptations of great plays, such as Death of a Salesman and Waiting for Godot. And so many other great and stimulating things. And virtually all of those things appeared not between pledge breaks, but on the big three major networks.

Finally, I am returning to late night --- earlier. The time is right. Go, Leno, Go!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

David, I agree with you. I too miss Jack Paar. He was "one of a kind". That was a long time ago, but those were wonderful, exciting days, and I truly wish everyone could have experienced Jack Paar. He is the original "legend of late night talk shows", and I don't know of anyone who has been "on a par with Jack Paar" since then. I would say that "second best" was Johnny Carson.

Love remembering those great times!