Bill Maher once said that, “Everybody who ever has done a talk show should pay a royalty to Steve Allen.”
Allen would probably have agreed. He was the first host of NBC’s Tonight Show, starting with a local New York version in 1953 and then launching the series nationally in September of 1954.
David Letterman, Jay Leno and many other comedians grew up watching Allen. “To me there is nobody more influential or funnier,” said Billy Crystal.
I had the good fortune to interview the late night TV pioneer in 1992 when I was working at the Canadian edition of TV Guide magazine. Allen, who died at 78 in 2000, was a little intimidating, letting me know right away he wanted the conversation to be recorded. He was also very modest about being the first, suggesting anybody who happened to be picked for the job would have come up with the very same desk-monologue-celebrity char formula.
Maybe so, but Allen can’t downplay his own quick wit or his eye for surrounding himself with talented house players, including Jonathan Winters and Louie Nye in “Man on the street” sketches or singers Andy Williams, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. He could pull jokes from anywhere — newspaper clippings, studio audience members, even his announcer, Gene Rayburn (later of Match Game fame).
The topic of conversation with Allen in 1992 was the handoff in late night from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno on Tonight and the launch of David Letterman’s CBS Late Show series. On this same podcast, you’ll also hear my 1997 conversation with Jack Paar, the man who eventually succeeded Allen as host of The Tonight Show.
Paar, who passed away at 85 in 2004, really warmed up to his favourite subject — himself! I had no problem with that. I was calling, after all, to talk about an American Masters two-hour special about the comedian. Besides, who better to talk about Paar’s famous walk-out half way through a 1960 monologue, or his interviews with Fidel Castro, Albert Schweitzer or Zsa Zsa Gabor.
The remarkable thing about Allen and Paar is that they only had two or three other writers helping them through their Tonight shows. (One of Allen’s was future M*A*S*H executive producer Larry Gelbart.) Each episode lasted 105 minutes a night. Compared that to the army of Harvard grads staffing 60-minutes long late night episodes today.
I recorded both Allen and Paar by phone on cassette tapes that have sat un-played in boxes in various basements for 25 and 30 years. Thanks to podcast producer Phil Hong, the audio quality is surprisingly good.
If you’re into the history of The Tonight Show or late night TV in general, I think you’ll be in for a treat. To listen, simply click the blue and white arrow above. Look for at least one more “From the Vault” episode at brioux.tv before fresh interviews linked to a busy fall season hit the schedule in September.