Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The 100th Anniversary of Jack Paar's Birth

It was 100 years ago today that Jack Paar was born in Canton, Ohio. Of course, today Jack Paar is best known as being the host of NBC's The Tonight Show in the late Fifties and early Sixties. In fact, although the show had debuted in 1954, it was Jack Paar who more or less transformed The Tonight Show into the show we know today.

Tonight debuted on NBC on September 27 1954 with Steve Allen as its original host. Steve Allen left the show in 1956 for his own prime time show on the network.  Rather than replacing Mr. Allen with a new host, NBC changed the format of Tonight, giving it a new title: Tonight! America After Dark. Tonight! America After Dark could perhaps best be described as a night time version of NBC's morning show Today. Viewers did not particularly take to the new format and many NBC affiliates simply dropped the show. NBC realised that they had to change the format of the show very early in the run of Tonight! America After Dark.

They found a new host in the form of Jack Paar. Jack Paar's career had originated on radio and he later made the transition to television where he worked for CBS. Mr. Paar hosted two game shows, Up to Paar in 1952 and Bank on the Stars in 1953. For a time he was the host of CBS' early morning show (appropriately titled The Morning Show) and later his own late morning TV show. Jack Paar jumped ship from CBS to NBC, beginning his stint as the host of The Tonight Show on July 29 1957.

With Jack Paar as its host, Tonight returned to its original talk/variety format. That is not to say that Jack Paar's Tonight Show was precisely the same as Steve Allen's Tonight Show. In fact, with Mr. Paar as host, the show began to take shape as the show we know today. The show went from a more or less typical variety show to a show with a greater emphasis on chatting with guests. A gifted monologist, it was Jack Paar who elevated the monologue to the level of importance it has had to this day.

Jack Paar proved incredibly popular sd the host of Tonight. Affiliates who had dropped Tonight! America After Dark picked Tonight back up with Jack Paar at its helm. So popular was Jack Paar as the  host of The Tonight Show, that after 1959 it was called The Jack Paar Tonight Show or, more simply, The Jack Paar Show. Jack Paar had his own cast of regulars or semi-regulars who appeared on the show. These included Cliff Arquette as his character Charlie Weaver, comedy actresses Eggy Cass and DodyGoodman, author-illustrator Alexander King, and  Tedi Thurman ( Miss Monitor from NBC Radio's show Monitor).

Such was Jack Paar's popularity that he effectively ended gossip columnist Walter Winchell's career. In his column Winchell had earlier claimed that Jack Paar was having marital problems and refused to retract the item. Naturally this did not sit well with Mr. Paar. It was on Tonight that society hostess Elsa Maxwell, who appeared frequently on the show, began mocking Walter Winchell. She claimed that he waved the flag while never actually having voted. Having no love for Walter Winchell, Jack Paar naturally joined in joking about the gossip columnist. The Tonight Show would have to issue a retraction for Miss Maxwell's remarks (Winchell had actually voted), but Jack Paar was not finished with him yet. He continued to attack Walter Winchell in his monologues. Walter Winchell's career was already in decline and it was Jack Paar who ended it. Walter Winchell was not the only individual with whom Jack Paar had a feud. He also had feuds with Ed Sullivan and Dorothy Kilgallen as well.

One significant difference between Jack Parr and many hosts before and even after him was that he was known for more intellectual guests than are often seen on talk shows even todeay. He interviewed both John. F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. He discussed religious matters with Billy Graham. William F. Buckley was a guest on the show. Jack Paar invited controversy when he interviewed Fidel Castro. While Mr. Paar had plenty of movie stars, TV stars, and comedians, his guests included politicians, political commentators, religious figures, and other important personages.

Jack Paar was known for being emotional and would even cry on screen. At one point he actually booted Mickey Rooney off the show (they later made up). It was on February 10 1960 that Mr. Paar's emotionality would lead to the most famous incident in his stint as host of The Tonight Show. That night Jack Paar told a joke about a woman writing a vacation resort about the location of a W.C., by which she meant "water closet", only to have those responding to her thinking she meant "wayside chapel". Although the joke was innocent by the standards of the day, NBC's Broadcast Standards replaced that portion of the show with news coverage without informing Jack Paar. After discovering this, on February 11 1960, Jack Paar left The Tonight Show in the middle of the programme. His announcer Hugh Downs had to finish the show without him (Jack Paar had told him that he was leaving the show, although Mr. Downs had thought he was joking).  It was Jack Paar's friend, comedian Jonathan Winters, who convinced him to return to the show. Jack Paar returned on March 7 1960.

Jack Paar left The Tonight Show permanently in March 1962. This is not to say that he would be off the air anytime soon.  In the fall of 1962 he received his own prime time show on NBC, The Jack Paar Program. It rain until 1965. Afterwards he would occasionally appear on specials on NBC until 1970. Starting in 1973 he hosted his own one-week-a month show, Jack Paar Tonite, on ABC. He left the show a year later, complaining the schedule of the show made it so that even his mother did not know when he was on.

Jack Paar certainly had his flaws. He was emotional and he could be volatile. From his feuds we know that he was capable of holding a grudge. There is a chapter in his book My Sabre is Bent that today would be considered homophobic in the extreme. At the same time, however, he was an extremely talented man who transformed late night, network television forever. It is quite possible that without Jack Paar, The Tonight Show might have ended in the mid-Fifties. In an interview on The Larry King Show not long after Jack Paar died, Dick Cavett (who worked with Jack Paar on Tonight) said of him, "He's an immense, giant talent that was not duplicatable in any way, and whatever his neurosis and quirks were, they were great entertainment for us and I hope they weren't too painful for him."

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