The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
On the March 9th, 2012 episode of Studio 360, a public radio show hosted by Spy Magazine’s Kurt Andersen, there was a segment in which they interviewed sociologist Max Kilger who believes that you can tell a person’s politics by the type of television that they watch. For example, liberals prefer comedies because the characters are often confused and the storylines are often chaotic, conservatives like crime dramas because there is closure and structure and moderates like shows about ghosts because the idea of magical rules can be appealing to someone without rock-solid structures behind their political mindset. It’s all pretty fascinating. Advertisers are increasingly aware of these political biases and, according to the segment, are creating shows that align with their network’s identity. It’s becoming more and more commonplace for networks to program shows that will target a specific demographic, rather than “reach across the aisle” and try to speak to all of America.
Today we’re going to look at an item from television history that reflects the exact opposite of this mindset. On Sunday, September 21, 1958, at 8PM, The Steve Allen Show changed it’s format slightly and was less of a variety show, and was more of a giant advertisement for NBC’s fall schedule. The atmosphere throughout the hour-long program was one of a giant party, where all of NBC’s biggest stars were hanging out together, and they wanted you to come along. The intention was clearly to unite, and let you know that all were welcome under NBC’s big tent.
And all of these TV/political analogies were just as relevant in ‘58, as the entire show starts with a man at a podium announcing the beginning of The NBC Election Convention. A giant marching band pours in and the audience is made up to look like delegates at a political rally. The lavish dance number, set to an original song that featured lyrics like “If you wan the best/in com-e-dy/Cast your vote/For NBC!” with a heavy use of the classic NBC chimes. Then the “chair” recognizes the “delegates” for the new season’s line up. (That’s what they called it in the bit. Basically, the fake party leader announces what celebrities from Monday night programs were there, and so on, throughout the week.) All of this hoopla eventually ends as Steve Allen bursts through the giant paper NBC logo in the middle of the stage and does his monologue.
Before we go too much further, I suppose we should talk a little about what this show was when it wasn’t an hour-long commercial. As you remember, Steve Allen was the original host of the Tonight Show, which started in 1954. After the success of that show, in 1956 Allen was given a Sunday night comedy/variety show in an effort to go up against CBS’s long-running Ed Sullivan Show. So, on Monday and Tuesday nights, Ernie Kovacs would host The Tonight Show and Allen would host Wednesday through Friday. But in 1957, NBC ordered Steve to focus just on the variety show, paving the way for Jack Paar to step in.
The show featured a few sketches throughout the night; some good, some dismal. For example, after his monologue Allen says that Bob Cummings is here tonight with Hope, Berle and Cuomo. When the curtain comes up, Bob stands with three swimsuit-clad women. He explains that they are Barbara Hope, Genevieve Berle and Lucille Cuomo. When asked what his wife thinks about Bob’s interaction with the women on his show, he says that she is actually on set right now, and the camera cuts to a crazed looking woman gagged and bound to a chair. But on the plus side, he shows a clip from his show and it features a young Ann B. Davis, so that’s kinda fun!
There’s a very brief appearance from Groucho, who does a bit as an audience member that Steve Allen has to reach over in order to interview the woman he’s sitting next to that’s over all to soon. Milton Berle makes a completely forgettable appearance, dressed as a fly, that’s far too complicated to describe to be worth getting into.
To me, the most interesting thing about the whole Fall Preview special was how this show serves as a time capsule for the changes that were going on in TV during that time. If you were working in television during this time, it’s clear from this program that if you wanted to keep working you’d have to create a western. As a sign of the times, comedian George Gobel (ever see that clip from Carson where Dean Martin keeps flicking ashes in some guy’s cup whenever he looks at Johnny? That was Gobel.) tells the audience about the breakdown of the genres of shows they can see on NBC that year. It’s 20% variety, 20% special events, 30% mystery/drama/adventure, 15% westerns and 15% comedy. Just a few years earlier, that western section would have belonged to comedy. And just a few years later the American public would be completely burned out on that Western 15%.
At the very end of the show, Bob Hope comes out and does a bit of a monologue. His wry humor and cynical sensibility is no doubt the most contemporary segment of a show that is otherwise filled to the brim with optimism and inclusiveness. Hope touches on the Western takeover, and claims that he is one of the few NBC stars that doesn’t carry a gun and that on these shows “they keep shooting at Indians, but they’re burying comedians.” This segment also features a gay joke, which I couldn’t believe got on the air. It is, of course, offensive, and plays into stereotypes, but I simply couldn’t believe that this topic was fair game for television back then. Still talking about Westerns, Hope says that there’s going to be a new show called “The Gay Caballero.” “Other cabbos wear high-heeled boots. This one carries the purse.” Other than this black mark, the monologue is fun and light, and rapid fire.
Today the Fall Preview seems to have been replaced by movie theater first looks and the thousands of commercials hyping up the new shows over the summer. But quite frankly, with the reality television explosion that’s been happening for almost a full decade, the fall premiere is becoming more and more irrelevant. New shows can constantly premiere when they can be produced as quickly and cheaply as most reality shows. Why wait until September when something can grab the attention of just as big an audience in July? From stem to stern, Steve Allen’s 1958 Fall Preview is a much different animal than anything that we would see on television today, and a perfect time capsule for what television used to be like, warts and all.