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The death of Johnny Carson was a major story all over the English-speaking world, as a Google search indicates. Yet he had been off the air for 13 years. He had become invisible—an amazing feat for anyone with a face so recognizable. The BBC asked for written comments, some of which it published a couple of hours later. I submitted this:
In 1955, I was 13. At 6:55 a.m., I would watch Johnny Carson, the very funny weatherman, on local Los Angeles television. The show was broadcast only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and lasted five minutes. Then I ran to catch the school bus, which arrived two blocks away at 7:05. It was worth the risk.
I think I am right about the two-days-a-week schedule. But I can find no reference on the Web to his brief career as a local weatherman. It was part of the morning show, “Panorama Pacific.” My memory of Carson’s weather report, which was comedy more than weather, has never faded. Neither has my memory of my twice-weekly race to get to the school bus pick-up on time.
Carson’s “Tonight Show” was an institution. On “The Today Show,” which did a long segment on Carson on January 22, Matt Lauer said that at one stage, “The Tonight Show” brought in 20% of NBC TV’s revenue. That got me to thinking. Carson inherited the show in 1962 from Jack Paar, who was not funny. Paar had inherited it in 1957 from Steve Allen, who had invented the format. Allen was very funny. I want to talk about Steve Allen, and the example he set. Some things we should copy. Others, not.
OH, NO, STEVERINO!
In 1950, I had my own bedside tabletop radio. I was supposed to go to bed around 8. But I would sometimes wake up around 11 p.m. and turn on Steve Allen’s KNX radio show. I was eight years old.
By then, Allen’s show was the #1 nighttime show in Los Angeles. Nobody watched TV that late. He had begun with a half hour of music and chatter, but he began to reduce the time devoted to music. Ratings grew. People began showing up at the station. The show’s producer moved Allen to a studio where people could watch it being broadcast.
The show went to an hour, but KNX refused to pay him more money when it doubled his time slot, so he thought of a way to fill the time with less preparation. He began to invite Hollywood celebrities to come on the show for an interview. They came to plug their latest movies or records. His audience grew even more. One night, Doris Day failed to show up. Allen had 30 minutes to fill. He picked up his microphone and went into the audience. He began to interview people at random. He thought very fast on his feet, and he made the interviews funny. He did it again another night. It became part of his show’s format. Because the show was taped, he could cut out weak stuff if he had to. This was basically his “Man in the Street” format, which he used to great effect with comic actors in the late 1950s: Don Knotts, Louis Nye, and Tom Poston.
He moved to New York City in late 1950, which disappointed me. He created “The Tonight Show” as a local TV program in 1953, and in 1954, NBC took it national. For three years, Allan perfected the format: celebrity interviews, a live band, comics performing routines. The format was perfect for his skills. He was a master improviser. In mid-1956, he launched a weekly variety/comedy show, opposite Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights, “The Steve Allen Show.” For six months, he did both shows. I cannot imagine how he did this. Then, in early 1957, he resigned from “The Tonight Show.” His weekly show survived longer than most comedy shows: four years. A comedy show eats up scripts. It also eats up talent. The public eventually gets bored. Bob Hope recognized this early and did only specials. Allen’s career as a comedy star ended no later than 1960. He did other shows and used other formats, but nothing ever achieved the popularity of what he had done in the 1950s.
He never stopped working. He wrote over 50 books, none of them a best-seller. He wrote about 9,000 songs, which got him into the Guinness Book of World Records,
but only one became a hit: The McGuire Sisters’ 1956 version of the theme from “Picnic.” He wrote the lyrics, but only after the instrumental version had become a hit.
(“South Rampart Street Parade” also did OK.) He once wrote 400 songs in one day at a music festival in Michigan (http://snipurl.com/ca26 —radio interview). His work ethic was remarkable. In this sense, he is a role model for anyone who values sheer output.
But, in 1957, he walked away from an entertainment format that he invented, brought to national TV, and bequeathed to his heirs. As an entrepreneur, he blew it. But he was also an artist, and I think his desire to extend his comic abilities led him to abandon his own creation, in which he was highly gifted. He had grown up in Vaudeville, and his comedy show returned to his roots.
Beginning five years after Allen quit “The Tonight Show,” Carson turned the format into a cultural phenomenon. Who knows if Allen could have achieved this? Frankly, I doubt it. He was cerebral—an intellectual. I’m not sure he could have held the attention of the nation for three decades. I’m sure that the format couldn’t have held his attention. His decision to walk away from a show that became an enormous revenue-generator and a cultural phenomenon turned out to be the equivalent of a track line spur that moves an engine into the boondocks: a sidetrack. Allen never got back on track. It’s one thing to wind up like Dick Cavett when you start out as a joke writer for Carson, as Cavett did. It’s something else to begin as the equivalent of Carson and then wind up like Dick Cavett.
Don Knotts got his start on Allen’s show as one of the men in the street Allen interviewed each week—the nervous one. “Are you nervous?” Allen would ask. “No!”
Knotts would respond, terror in his eyes. That weekly skit led to the role of sheriff’s deputy Barney Fife. By 1967, Knotts was one of the most famous comedians on television, a four-time Emmy winner as best-supporting actor. Allen was not quite forgotten, but he had faded from the scene. Few people ever have the talent that Steve Allen had. Of those who do, few ever get the opportunity to prove it. Almost no one invents a format that is not only perfect for his own abilities but persevere after his departure.
Hardly anyone’s invention produces a flow of revenue comparable to what “The Tonight Show” has produced, let alone its spin-offs and imitators. Carson made a huge fortune and quit while he was on top, as he had been for 30 years. He spent the rest of his life on his yacht, seeing places he wanted to see, and avoiding crowds, which he hated. That makes sense to me. But Allen’s departure seems to me to be one of those bad decisions about which I plan to write my book.
One of the most powerful dramatic dialogues in movie history was Marlon Brando’s plea with Rod Steiger in the back seat of the car in “On the Waterfront.” His character, a broken down ex-prize fighter, wails: “I coulda been a contender.” He had thrown a fight on command by his older brother, and he never got another chance at the big time. Maybe he could have been a contender, but probably not. He thought he could have been one, and this sense of loss weighed heavily on him. That sense of loss weighs heavily on a lot of men, I think. It’s why that scene gets shown, along with his “Stella!” wails, whenever there is a TV show on Brando’s career. Men identify with it. (Women are more likely to identify with the Stella wail. Note: his famous phrase, “What do ya got?” he never actually said. A character in “The Wild One” repeats what he had said off-camera.)
Steve Allen was more than a contender. He was more like a heavyweight champion who surrenders his belt in his prime, loses twenty pounds, becomes a light-heavyweight, does well, but finally retires after a long series of exhibition fights at state fairs. What Allen and Carson did, what Jack Paar did, and what Jay Leno says he will do in 2009—retire from “The Tonight Show”—most men cannot imagine doing. “Why quit while the money is rolling in?” One reason is economics: So much money has already rolled in, and so much time has rolled out. The trade-off between money and time moves in favor of time.
I never got the impression that Allen looked back at what might have been. He probably did. But it did not affect his output. He kept producing books and songs and scripts. The doing meant more to him than the winning. This is a good attitude. I regard it as a morally correct attitude. It keeps productive people at their work even when measurable success doesn’t come. It keeps a truly productive person from becoming paralyzed by the might- have-beens of life.
It’s obvious that Carson never looked back. He wanted out of the spotlight on his own terms, and he achieved it. He escaped the cameras and the crowds. I think Carson made the right decision. I think Allen made a mistake. Carson had developed an existing format, as well as his own skills, to a level beyond which more creativity was unlikely to make any visible difference. He maxed out.
Allen, in contrast, had invented the format. He was just getting started in 1957. He chose instead as the format for his talents the weekly TV comedy show, which Ed Sullivan had adapted from Vaudeville, and which would eventually fade as an entertainment medium. Bob Hope saw its limitations from the beginning. In 1956, Milton Berle had quit: the first headliner to become a headstone for the weekly variety show format. No one was ever to survive that meat grinder of comedic talent. It’s not that Allen missed out on great wealth. He was in it for the laughs, including his own. He was legendary for breaking up in fits of laughter on-camera.
But what he created became a unique entertainment format, one that has spread all over the world. He had at least one eight-year-old kid listening in at midnight in 1950.
He had tens of millions of viewers watching in 1956. He had a gift for making guests join in. And he could do what Carol Burnett did decades later: interact with the audience and get laughs. Allen invented the format, developed it, got a huge audience for it, and abandoned it. I hope he didn’t worry about his career’s might-have-beens.
THAT OTHER MIGHT-HAVE-BEEN
What hardly anyone knows is that there was a fifth figure in the history of “The Tonight Show,” a shadowy figure. Jack Paar was not NBC’s first choice to replace Allen. The initial replacement was a sacrificial lamb from the sports division, who could not handle it. He bombed. His name is so obscure that it belongs in Trivial Pursuit. Even I don’t remember it. But he was not the shadowy fifth man. NBC executives went on a hunt to find a replacement for Allen. They sent headhunters all over the country.
One of them discovered a radio broadcaster in Cincinnati who seemed promising. The headhunter made him an offer to come to New York, which he did. NBC offered him Allen’s job. But there was only one snag. They had recruited Jack Paar from CBS TV’s news show at noon. Paar was supposed to be given his own show. This never worked out. NBC had him under contract, so they offered him “The Tonight Show” as a kind of honorable mention. They didn’t think he would take it. They were wrong.
This left the Cincinnati guy out of the running. He had quit his job in Cincinnati. He liked New York, and he thought he would stay. He got a job at WOR radio: a late- night monologue talk show. His name was Jean Shepherd (http://www.bobkaye.com/sheptale.html). Jean Shepherd is not a household name outside of New York City, but he gave us a phrase that we all know: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” He wrote and narrated A Christmas Story (1983). He did the most creative radio show I ever heard, 45 minutes a night, five nights a week, commenting on everything under the sun. I used to listen in the mid-1960s when I lived near Philadelphia, and again in the early 1970s, when I lived 20 miles north of New York City.
Night after night, he verbally re-created a boys-eye-view of northern Indiana during the Great Depression. What Shepherd did for Hammond, Indiana, Bill Cosby did for Chicago. Cosby used his stories as a launching pad for a billion-dollar career. Shepherd never rose to Cosby’s financial heights. If I were to name America’s greatest humorists, the list would be short: Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Jean Shepherd. Dave Barry would be fourth. Barry is very funny, and a great critic of contemporary nonsense. But Shepherd was more than funny. He re-created a world that had been lost by 1960, a boys’ world that centered around kids’ radio shows and buddies and pick-up ball games.
Television and video games have destroyed that world. What we read in In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories is gone forever. It was a good world. I know of nothing that preserves it better than the best of Shepherd’s stories. A lot of his radio shows are for sale (http://snipurl.com/c9jd). They should all be in the Library of Congress. If Shepherd had gotten “The Tonight Show,” he might have made it work. Carson would not be remembered, nor would Paar. But then we would not have the stories of Flick and Schwartz and Scott Farkas and the Bumpus family. I’m selfish. I’m glad he didn’t get “The Tonight Show” (www.flicklives.com).
When you think about it, what do we have left of “The Tonight Show”? A few vague memories of Carson’s eye- rolling. A few lines from Karnac, a routine that had been created by Allen in 1958: “The Question Man.” A few classic scenes. He came into the living rooms and then the bedrooms of tens of millions of people for three decades.
He absorbed more time of more people than anyone in mankind’s history. What does mankind have to show for it? Yet in his final radio broadcast, in late 1999, as a guest on Alan Colmes’ talk show, Shepherd made it clear that he didn’t think much of his own radio work. Like many highly talented people, he had regrets. He did not seem to appreciate just how much joy he gave to his audience, and what a unique cultural contribution his stories had made for those who listened to him. It wasn’t what he hadn’t done that constituted his regret— “The Tonight Show”—but the work that he had done, which he regarded as of marginal value. That’s a sad end to a great humorist’s career in a medium that was perfect for him. Radio allowed him to create verbal images of the past in the same way that actors did for Little Orphan Annie in Shepherd’s youth. There was no TV screen to intrude on our far more creative imaginations.
Allen got second and third chances. They never panned out as “The Tonight Show” did for his successors. Shepherd missed his big chance at fame and fortune, but got his radio show. In retrospect, this did not impress him, but it impressed a lot of us at the time. Allen did not let his decision paralyze him. Shepherd in 1999 was still looking forward to new projects, which were not fulfilled. He died in 2000. Both of them kept writing. Each of them was determined not to let his talents atrophy. Neither of them looked back at what might have been, as far as the public could tell. Because of this, their early successes were not first chances. They were stepping-stones. But stepping stones can go in directions that we do not foresee. That’s basic to stepping-stones. That’s basic to entrepreneurship. Some people, myself included, see Allen’s stepping stone in 1957 as a sidetrack. I don’t see Shepherd’s missed opportunity as a sidetrack. The point is, the past really is past. We know this intellectually, but emotionally, we have trouble coping. Allen coped very well. So did Shepherd.
If you can fit your talents into a format that makes you a skilled practitioner, and if you really like what you practice, you are a success. If you think you can do better, as Allen thought in 1957, then you may want to take on an uncertain future and change tracks. Allen did one thing really wisely: He tested the new track. He did “The Steve Allen Show” for six months before he quit “The Tonight Show.” This was sensible. It’s also a rare opportunity. Most people must choose one or the other.
Men who quit their day jobs for a shot in the dark are rolling the dice. I don’t recommend it. If you can test the waters on evenings and weekends, it’s wiser. But I do recommend making the change if you feel stifled. If you think your present job is holding you back, then it’s time to start making plans to get out. However, do this first. Vow to yourself beforehand that if you fall flat, you won’t look back in regret.
Falling flat once is not the same as failure. But looking back after falling flat is a sure-fire program for both failure and lifelong regret.
No matter who you are or what you do, you are making an impression. It may not seem to be much, but it contributes its bit to the sweep of history. Regrets are basic to life. “Woulda, shoulda, coulda” haunts us all. But our regrets should be guidelines to better decisions next time. They should teach us lessons. If they don’t, then they are excess baggage. Forget about it.