Night Watch: Part Two with Steve Allen

Steve Allen may have invented late night, but by the time I spoke with him in 1992, at the age of 71, he rarely watched it anymore.
This excerpt from that conversation was unearthed for a book on late night TV I am in the process of writing. If you missed Part One of my talk with Allen you can jump to it here. This post focuses mainly on Allen’s comments about David Letterman, who was about to switch networks from NBC to CBS at the time.

Bill Brioux: David Letterman says he stole every idea about how to do a talk show from you.

Steve Allen: I’ve always appreciated David’s kindness and fairness in acknowledging that. I’ve been told he used to watch every night, when he was going to college, a show I was doing of that same sort in the early -’60s–’62, ’63, ’64–I don’t know where I picked up the information, I might have read it someplace, but he said, “Boy if I ever got into television, I’d like to do a show like that.” I understand he got into doing weatherman work and eventually is doing a show like that. It’s nice of him to mention my name in that connection.

BB: When you watch Letterman’s show, you can see him doing a lot of the physical stuff you used to do–the tea bag suit in the dunk tank, that sort of thing.
SA: His staff must be of an age when they can remember a lot of the actual routines that we did on our show and they’re just repeating them.

BB: What do you see as the major difference between Letterman’s late night show and your own?
SA: Well, I don’t see much difference other than the personalities of the two hosts, and that’s neither to praise nor blame either of us, but we’re quite different. Other than that I don’t see any particular difference. The emphasis on comedy was much stronger during my 13 years of talk show duty. It was indeed a talk show and it was the first of its kind but the primary emphasis as I say was on comedy.

BB: A few writers have suggested recently that Letterman’s ironic style of comedy was better suited to the ’80s than the ’90s and thst the age of irony is over. Do you agree?
SA: I don’t really know. My own approach had nothing to do with the factor of irony, We did satire on my shows as well as my own prime style scripted shows. I’d have to give this some thought.

BB: The main arguement was made in Esquire, suggesting that it is now a kinder, gentler society and that Letterman’s sometimes flippant style of comedy doesn’t connect as well with the times.
SA: I would hope that this was true and if David had never been born it’s nothing really directly to do with him, I however do not so evaluate society myself at present. As a matter of fact, it seems to me daily to become a more cruel, more harsh, more vindictive, more litigious and more unstable (world). I do not know who wrote the piece in Esquire but I would much prefer that he be right and I be wrong.

BB: Do you watch much late night television?
SA: As a matter of fact, no. It’s not that I distain it, its just that I am usually asleep by 11-oclock and when I am able to stay up late its often to watch whatever Ted Koppel might be doing. So I haven’t probably seen The Tonight Show in its entirety in, oh God, in six months and unfortunately I’m missing what I’m sure are a lot of good Letterman broadcasts but as I say I’m asleep.

Leave a Reply