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.)
When we last saw Steve Allen on From the Archives, it was 1964 and he was broadcasting the an audience-less version of his long running Steve Allen Show for the last time. The father of NBC’s Tonight Show, and perhaps the biggest television comedian since Sid Caesar and Milton Berle, Steve Allen was a powerhouse of comedy, but the time had come for him to stand aside for a little bit. While he never completely disappeared from television, appearing on a wide variety of programs such as Get Smart, The Jerry Lewis Show, and Love, American Style, his days of hosting a regular program seemed to be over.
However, all of that changed at the end of 1980 when NBC decided to go back to their original star, Steve Allen and launch The Steve Allen Comedy Hour: a weekly variety program. The program premiered on October 18th of 1980, when the Carter/Reagan campaigns were in full swing. The easiest way to describe the format of show would be to call it The Tonight Show without the interviews or music. Steve does sketches, a couple of stand-ups perform, and Steve carries over a few of his classic Tonight Show bits such as his classic “Man On the Street” interviews, and the thing where he would turn the cameras on outside and make fun of the people on the sidewalk (I don’t think there’s a catchy title for that bit). The unfortunate truth is that the fact that this feels like a Steve Allen Tonight Show episode, minus music and interviews, means that it feels like it’s 30 years out of date.
Now, to lay my cards on the table and be perfectly fair, I’m judging a program from 1980 by 2013 standards. I wasn’t around in 1980, so it’s hard for me to say for sure whether or not a TV show is truly of its time. However, I feel as though I’ve written enough of these articles to have a sense of how comedy styles have evolved over the years, and frankly, it doesn’t appear to me as though Allen’s did evolve in this case.
Some of the stuff works though, so let us focus on the positives moments first. One of the first sketches in the show featured Steve Martin playing his own brother Billy, a tradition that would later be carried on by Zach Galifianakis and his brother Seth. However, this time it was sort of a satire, making fun of Jimmy Carter’s outspoken, Southern-accented, Billy beer-pitching brother, Billy Carter. Billy Martin’s first words spoken are the same that become a constant refrain throughout his piece: “What the hell is this? Who the hell are you?” And then, lifting Steve Allen’s tie, “what the hell does that do?” The basic game of the scene is that Billy Martin is really stupid, is nothing like Steve, and is not all that interesting an interview. When asked if he realized that there was a famous baseball manager with his same name he responds, “Really? What’s his name?” When asked what Steve Martin was like when he was growing up he responds: “He was real short. It seems that the younger he was, the shorter he was. When he was born, he was the type of person you would not consider tall.” After Steve Allen realizes that he isn’t going to learn anything of worth from Billy about his famous brother, he asks him a few questions about himself, such as the one about his drinking problem. “I got treatment. I still drink. I just don’t consider it a problem.” He then loudly announces that he has to go to the bathroom, and then attempts to pee in his pants on stage, before he’s stopped by Allen and kicked off the stage.
Another piece that works particularly well is a brief sketch in which Tom Leopold, future Seinfeld and Cheers writer, speaks for the writers on the program. Throughout the short piece, Leopold maintains unwavering eye contact with the camera, continuing to type on his typewriter as he speaks and even noticing a mistake and fixing it with correcting fluid without looking at the page.
There were two other similarly short sketches that were rather entertaining, the first was a commercial that began as what seemed like a tourism commercial for Cleveland, Ohio before revealing that the city was bankrupt, and devolving into an “everything must go” piece in which the mayor tantalizes its viewers with the promise of being “the first kid on your block to own your block!” The second sketch was a commercial for a Western film (which I don’t believe was that popular a genre in 1980) entitled “The Day of Reckoning.” In it, two cowboys stare off into the distance and trade very short sentences with the other, saying things such as, “reckon it’ll rain?” “Reckon so.” Or, “You reckon we’re going to get any more laughs out of this same stupid routine?” “Reckon not.” And so on. “Day of Reckoning.” Get it? I might be alone on this one.
One other sketch of note, that I didn’t find particularly funny, was interesting for featuring an appearance from Lucille Ball in her later days. The first quarter of the sketch is all setup, with a doctor addressing his patient, explaining how fragile he is, how he must not be disturbed, how he’s going to give instructions that the entire wing of the hospital must be kept quiet. WHAT COULD GO WRONG? Then Lucy bursts in loudly, carrying on about her sick husband, manhandling him and shaking him around before leaving, promising to visit him tomorrow. That’s it. It felt like kind of a waste of a comedy legend, but who knows? Maybe that’s all she was up for at the age of 69.
I won’t dwell on the material that didn’t work because I believe that in some cases my assessment is colored by having the ability to look on the material with hindsight. For example, I could see where Steve Allen reads the lyrics from the song “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer as if they were deep, meaningful poetry could have been funny back in 1980, especially since he reads the entire song, so maybe it was utilizing the “do it until it’s not funny and keep going until it’s funny again” method.
Another piece that didn’t work for me was Steve Allen’s “Man On the Street” segment. In this incarnation, and when he did the bit on his previous shows, Allen would pretend to interview the average American on different topics, who are portrayed by comedians. The great Catherine O’Hara, who was also a writer on this show, appears in this segment as a strange dental hygienist with a weird speech impediment, but is generally wasted here. She is joined by Bill Saluga who portrays his best known character, a cigar chomping, tough guy named Raymond J. Johnson, Jr. Prior to this appearance, the only information I had about this character came from Krusty the Klown in The Simpsons episode “Krusty Gets Kancelled” in which he says that the only bad show he ever did was the one that Johnson co-hosted. “‘You can call me Ray, or you can call me J.’ That thing was funny for about three seconds.” This may have colored my perception of his performance here, as I was inclined to agree with the cartoon clown.
Ultimately the American public and NBC decided that that bad outweighed the good and The Steve Allen Comedy Hour was cancelled after six episodes. This would be Allen’s final TV series that he would host. While this would be the last time television viewers would be able to regularly watch Steve Allen, his legacy as a comedian, and his impact on the art form carried on long after, and does so to this day, every time Leno goes Jaywalking or Nathan Fielder helps a normal person out with their business. This may have been a misstep in the career of Steve Allen, but lucky for him, he had hundreds of checkmarks in the “win” column to balance this one out.