Wednesday, January 28, 2004

"I kid you not."

When Jack Paar was in his television prime with The Tonight Show (1957-62), I had not yet arrived on the scene. Even when his prime-time series, The Jack Paar Show, left the airwaves in 1965, I was barely two years old--and I wasn't allowed to stay up past 10 o'clock until I was five or so. (Rimshot!)

So my familiarity with the man comes from mostly archival sources, clips from the 1957-62 series. I watched him on an NBC special that was a tribute to his program, and an American Masters from PBS, "Jack Paar--As I Was Saying..." I saw him on Letterman one night and was impressed in that he seemed to be one of the few guests Dave was in complete awe of. I even caught him on a Password repeat on the Game Show Network one time, which I thought was bizarre. (Though not nearly as bizarre as seeing G. Gordon Liddy on the 1980s revival of that game show--that was truly my Tom Lehrer "satire-died-when-they-gave-Kissinger-the-Nobel-Peace-Prize" moment.)

I guess the closest I've come to experiencing the talent that was Paar was listening to a couple broadcasts of his radio show, which was a situation comedy that replaced The Jack Benny Program during the summer of 1947 on NBC. Benny had "discovered" Paar while entertaining troops at Guadalcanal in 1945, and took such an interest in Paar's career that he even produced Paar's show, enlisting his own writers to assist with the show's scripts. On Benny's last broadcast of the 1946-47 season, he had Paar on as a special guest to give him the proper send-off, and according to Milt Josefsberg's book The Jack Benny Show, Jack asked his other guest, Fred Allen, to take it easy on the young newcomer, particularly when it came to some of Allen's patented barbed ad-libs. (Allen acquiesced, cracking "With you around, Jack, whom else do I need to poke fun at?")

Paar's radio show was the feel-good hit of the summer, and returned in the fall on a new network, ABC. By that time, Paar had developed the famous temperament for which he would become later associated with on The Tonight Show. He fired many of his writers (one of them was M*A*S*H's Larry Gelbart) and gave an unfortunate interview to Time magazine, remarking that he wanted to get away from the "old-hat" comedy practiced by Benny and Allen. (Fred sent Jack a copy of the Time article with a note that read: "Dear Jack—I'm so happy that you told me not to make any ad-libs at the expense of this nice kid.")

In the early 1960s, Paar was engaged in a heated, well-publicized feud with Ed Sullivan, ostensibly over the amount of money that each man was paying for talent to appear on their shows. Benny, making an appearance on Paar's program, chided his host for squabbling with Sullivan, pointing out—in a twisted bit of logic—that had it not been for Sullivan, who gave Benny his break on radio on his interview program in 1931, Benny would not have been able to treat Paar in the same fashion. Both Paar and Sullivan later kissed and made up.

Yesterday, Jack Paar gave his final curtain call and passed away at the age of 85, leaving behind a show business legacy to which I only wish I could have had more exposure. R.I.P, Jack. You will be missed.

No comments:

Post a Comment