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 150,000 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.)
Last week Jimmy Fallon assumed the throne of the Tonight Show, making him the sixth host of the show in its sixty-year history. The program is a storied institution that has been a part of the culture for as long as most people can remember. It has been rocked by scandals; it has made careers, and launched a million stars. Today we’re zooming in on a piece of Tonight Show history in the form of another host’s first time. We’ve previously looked at the first episode of the series, hosted by Steve Allen, and sadly Johnny Carson’s first only exists in audio form, so we move our gaze to the oft forgotten host of Tonight: Jack Paar, host from 1957 to 1962.
Before the Tonight Show, Paar was mostly a journeyman television/radio host. He was the host of several game shows, appeared on Ed Sullivan as a comic, and hosted a version of CBS’ The Early Show, which was less like the show it is today, and more like a late night show. Meanwhile, on NBC, Steve Allen had left The Tonight Show for prime time, and the network introduced a few different shows including Tonight! America After Dark, a news program. It failed terribly, and many stations across the country dropped it. As a result, the decision was made to return back to the Tonight Show that Allen had created with a new host in the form of Jack Paar. We’ll look specifically at his first night behind the desk in a moment, but first, let’s talk about his tenure at 11:30.
Five years as the host of a show is a long time, but it’s even longer when you remember that during this time, the Tonight Show was an hour and forty-five minutes stretching from 11:15 (some stations chose to do a fifteen minute news segment instead of the full half hour) to 1am. That’s an incredible amount of content to fill. He did so with a combination of humor, but he also believed in the power of authentic conversation. While watching episodes from his run, it’s easy to forget that there’s a live studio audience watching because there isn’t constant applause and laughter from the crowd as there is today. But, they seem fine with that. They were as engaged and emotional as their host was.
It’s that emotion of Paar’s that got him into a bit of trouble a few times with the show as well. 1959, after interviewing Cuban leader Fidel Castro, many were upset with Jack for having him on the show and “promoting” a Communist. Later that year, Paar kicked Mickey Rooney off the show, live on the air, for being visibly drunk. And then there’s the big one: the censors cut a joke without telling him. The joke, which is insanely harmless and outdated today, involved the abbreviation “W.C.” meaning “water closet” or bathroom. The next night, Jack sat down at the desk, and said, “I am leaving The Tonight Show. There must be a better way of, uh, making a living than this,” leaving his announcer Hugh Downs to host the show. Three weeks later, after NBC apologized, Paar returned quipping, “When I walked off, I said there must be a better way of making a living. Well, I’ve looked… and there isn’t.”
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to July 29th, 1957, the evening of the first Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar. The show begins with the face of Franklin Pangorn, an odd, mustachioed fellow, he nervously exclaims, “The National Broadcasting Company and it’s affiliated stations from coast to coast present the new Tonight Starring Jack Paar and it’s all live from New York.” Pangorn would be fired a few weeks later and be replaced with Hugh Downs after it was decided Franklin wasn’t enthusiastic enough. After the, to be fair, not all that enthusiastic introduction, we cut to a brief video introduction which was designed to give the backstage crew some time on camera. Jack Paar floats on an inflatable raft in an in-ground pool, typing on a typewriter as each of his producers, writers, and copy editors dive in, swim beneath him, and climb out of the pool in front of the camera, until the final person named knocks him into the water.
The first thing that’s missing from this version of the Tonight Show is the monologue. When we cut back from the filmed piece, Jack already sits behind the desk. He thanks the crowd, tells a couple of non-topical jokes, and then introduces the guests for that evening, a number of performers from the hot new Broadway musical, My Fair Lady. And then, in a decision that feels rather spontaneous, he decides to open with a song from Helen O’Connell. Helen, a former mainstay on The Today Show, sings a song called “Let’s Get Away From It All” from a set designed to look like a travel agency. It seems elaborate just for a song, but so be it. Then, I guess just because they could, a monkey, dressed in a formal suit, jumps up onto the counter in front of her for her to sing to. (Yes, you read that correctly.) His name is Kokomo Jr., and he was at that time also a co-host of The Today Show, the second chimp to do so. (You read both of those statements correctly as well.) WFMU DJ “Dave the Spazz” interviewed Kokomo Jr.’s trainer and it is fascinating read. During the song, Kokomo is not very well behaved. He immediately picks a pen up out of the inkwell and puts it in his mouth. He jumps up and down excitedly, reaches up into the air, and pulls the boom mic into frame. O’Connell handles it like a pro, doing her best to settle the little guy down, giving him a tiny suitcase to busy himself with, but never misses a word of the song.
Paar joins the two of them over at the set following the song and asks Kokomo to perform one of his favorite tricks. “Walk like a producer!” he commands. Kokomo then holds his hands behind his back and walks, looking just a bit worried. Kokomo then makes a break for it, over to Paar’s desk and grabs at something. Paar intervenes. “No no no! That’s the ad-libs!”
Jack says goodnight to Kokomo and Hellen and returns to the desk. He reads a few telegrams from friends and peers in the industry, wishing him luck with the show, before launching into the first true comedy bit. “If you’re going on a steam ship make sure you have a reputable travel agent. We’re going to visit a less than reputable one that I’ll translate for us all.” The premise is simple: the soon-to-be unemployed Franklin Pangorn stands over at the travel agent set and tells the camera about an amazing Caribbean vacation they can take for just $86. At the conclusion of each sentence, Jack Paar appears in the corner of the screen to tell you what it’s actually going to be like. For example when Pangorn is listing the ship’s merits and gets to the ship’s doctor, Paar breaks in. “He’s a disbarred veterinarian. Disbarred because he treated a Persian cat for asthma for three years before he realized it was just purring.” Some jokes you see coming a mile away, like when the agent tells us that at the ports you can pick up many interesting things, and Paar clarifies, “like yellow fever.” But others are a bit more unexpected and maybe even a little daring for the time. “Travel and meet the girl of your dreams,” says Pangorn. “And if you don’t,” interrupts Paar. “The captain just happens to have an evening gown.” The final joke, in which Paar explains that we’ll hear language we’ve never heard before “if you meet Ernest Hemingway in Havana” is included in this article now just because it’s weird to remember that the Tonight Show was on television while Ernest Hemingway was alive. Sometimes history blends into your TV and it can be a bit of a surprise when it does.
Next, Paar interviews Stanley Holloway, an Englishman, about his experiences performing in My Fair Lady. The conversation is mostly devoid of laughs. For the most part it is a genuine conversation about what it’s like to act in the “hot” Broadway show in town, its impending move to England, and the show’s star Rex Harrison. The fact that it is such a serious conversation makes it all the more surprising when one of Jack’s genuine statements turns out to be a joke. “Someone asked me what I am like [as a person]. I have known Stanley for about a month. We’ve had tea together, I have smoked a cigar with him, we’ve had a drink or two together.” Jack pauses. “And never once have I asked for tickets to My Fair Lady. That’s class.” Whether he’s nervous about his first night as host or not, Jack’s comedic timing is spot on.
After five years of hosting, TV Guide described Jack as being “bone tired” of the work. After signing off he didn’t fade away, though. He hosted his own Friday evening show each week on NBC for three years before deciding to move on. He would host the occasional special, was a rotating host on ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment, but this was the end of Jack Paar the regular host. While he may not be as well remembered as the other Tonight Show hosts, after seeing him in action, one thing is certain: Jack Paar was worthy of that honor.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His new webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title.