Question: If you had to credit one TV host with inventing the talk show as we know it, who would it be? I would name Jack Paar, but my wife says no. What do you say? — George T., Spotsylvania, Va.
Televisionary: Sorry, George, but I've gotta go with your better half on this one, even though she's hedging her bets by simply shooting you down without offering a name herself.
If I had to name one guy who's most responsible for today's nighttime talk-show format, it'd have to be the late, multitalented Steve Allen, original host of The Tonight Show. Allen handled those duties from September 1954 to January 1957; Paar took over six months after Allen departed to concentrate on his own The Steve Allen Show (he'd been hosting both shows up until then).
Among other innovations, Allen was the first to bring the audience into the show, asking them questions and answering theirs, challenging them to request songs the band didn't know and doing a nightly back-and-forth with announcer Gene Rayburn and his bandleaders.
All that got started when Allen was a DJ on a local L.A. radio station in the late '40s and early '50s. "I was playing fewer and fewer records and talking more and more," he explained to TV Guide in 1967 (what, you thought Howard Stern was the first to go that route?). "One night, my guest, Doris Day, didn't show. I picked up a big heavy microphone stand, never designed for portability, and carried it out to the audience, where I proceeded to interview the people."
With that move, he established a style that would serve him and his successors well and came up with a set of ground rules that still apply. A key trait of the most successful hosts of the time — himself, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Paar, — Allen said, was their everyday-guy quality. "We don't seem to have been in show biz," he said. "We're apparently non-show-biz types. The viewer thinks we're just plain folks, just like himself." Other requirements for the job included being likable (which was more important than being funny), being interested in even the dullest interviewee, being at ease (or at least appearing to be so) and being willing to play second banana to your guest — never try to top anyone.
All of that may seem obvious now, when Leno, Letterman and Conan make it look easy, but occasionally someone who can't pull it off (Magic Johnson, Chevy Chase) serves as a reminder of how hard it can be.
At the time, Allen's brand of comedy was new, too. As opposed to the more manic humor of, say, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar or Jackie Gleason, Allen's was more offbeat. "To begin with, he doesn't tell many jokes," a TV Guide writer observed in 1955. "He just talks — and chortles once in a while at his own wry observations.... For many of his laughs, Allen relies on the program's guests. Once a guest on Allen's Tonight turned up with a couple of live ducks in a wading pool, and they all went wading. Allen's humor doesn't look funny in print, but it has a down-to-earth quality that somehow seems very funny late at night."
Mind you, putting together and hosting a good talk show was but one of Allen's many talents. He also wrote books and songs and was a bandleader, recording artist, stage and film actor, lecturer, publisher, sculptor and businessman in addition to playing the piano, clarinet, tuba and trumpet. And he was a man of opinions, many of them on political matters (capital punishment, criminology, addiction, mental illness, nuclear disarmament, migratory farm labor... you name it).
Sometimes his opinions got him in trouble with bosses and his ideas didn't fly, such as the time the NBC Broadcast Standards killed Allen's plans for a roundtable discussion on crime and punishment with actors playing St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Darrow, Dostoyevsky, Freud, Hegel, Montaigne and Socrates because it was too "controversial." (That concept eventually became PBS's Meeting of Minds). Of that decision, Allen said: "NBC would have preferred that I function in an intellectual vacuum, restricting myself ot making audiences laugh rather than think."
But perhaps his most dangerous opinion, from the point of view of network suits trying to sell their medium, was that of TV itself. "I watch little television because there are better ways to spend one's time," he said.
Good thing for the biz that one didn't catch on.