Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Spinning in Their Graves

Some of the greatest comedic geniuses are probably spinning in their graves.
Conan "My Parents Should Have Snapped My Neck at Birth" O'Brien is taking over The Tonight Show. Given O'Brien's overwhelming inanity, his complete lack of comic sense, and his overall stupidity, it's just a matter of time until The Tonight Show is dead and gone.
The original host of what would become Tonight was Steve Allen (1921-2000), a gifted comedian, writer, composer, and actor who has been credited with developing much of what defines modern variety shows. Allen hosted the show from it's 1954 debut until 1957, assisted by sidekick Gene Rayburn (who, in turn, went on to host numerous other shows, such as Match Game). Allen pioneered the "main in the street interview," still a staple of late-night television.
One of Allen's guest hosts was a little-known comedian named Johnny Carson.

In 1956, NBC offered Allen a chance to do a weekend show as well. He remained as host of Tonight Wednesdays through Fridays, with comedian Ernie Kovacs taking the Tonight reins on Mondays and Tuesdays. Kovacs, who died in 1962, was an innovator in television comedy; one of his greatest "inventions" was the Nairobi Trio - three gorillas in derby hats and long overcoats. The trio's extraordinary rendition of Solfeggio is a classic.
In January of 1957, Allen left the show permanently and NBC dropped Kovacs' participation, changing Tonight to a news-magazine format, which only lasted six months.

After the ill-fated news format, Tonight returned as a variety show with Al "Jazzbo" Collins as host for a month or so. Collins was a well-known jazz DJ who did stints on New York's WNEW radio from 1950-1960, 1981-1983, and again from 1986-1990 (when I used to listen all night, every night, working the graveyard shift on the PD). Collins' version of "Little Red Riding Hood" (adapted by Steve Allen) is well worth a listen.

Jack Paar took over in July of 1957, beginning a five-year stint as host. It was under Paar's stewardship that Tonight really became the entertainment phenomenon that it remains today.
Paar's guests tended to be more than just actors hucking their latest films, with folks like Peter Ustinov, Peggy Cass, and Zsa Zsa Gabor showing up regularly.
One of the (inadvertently) funniest bits ever to appear on television came in 1960, when studio censors cut a joke. Paar walked out in the middle of a broadcast, leaving announcer Hugh Downs to finish the show. A month later, Paar ambled out on stage and a famous line: "As I was saying before I was interrupted...I believe the last thing I said was 'There must be a better way to make a living than this.' Well, I've looked...and there isn't."
In March of 1962, Johnny Carson began his 30-year reign as the King of Late Night. Carson's era was not without turmoil, however: notable spats occurred with folks like guest host Joan Rivers, psychic Uri Gellar, Wayne Newton, Don Rickles, and Truman Capote. On the flip side, though, Carson also gave us some of the most enduring and iconic characters in American broadcast history, such as TV host Art Fern and Carnack the Magnificent.
Conan "My Parents Should Have Snapped My Neck at Birth" O'Brien made his name, so to speak, by writing for Saturday Night Live (during of its periodic tediously boring periods) and The Simpsons (Fox's horrendously miserable, poorly-animated fart fest). O'Brien -- whose hair bears a suspicious similarity to that of Jimmy Neutron, is -- to use a line from the late great Molly Ivins -- is about as funny as a heart attack.
Yes, there may be people who think Jimmy Neu-- err, O'Brien is a worthy successor to Allen, Kovacs, Paar, and Carson.
But I'm not one of them.
I think he's going to kill the show forever.


  1. You forgot Jay Leno's gig running the Tonight Show.

    On the other hand, maybe that was on purpose?

    -- Badtux the Snarky Penguin

  2. Yup, I did in fact leave Leno out by mistake. I don't think he did as good a job as Carson or Paar, but on his WORST day, he was MUCH better than O'Brien could hope to be on is best.

    I don't know how I could have forgotten the human chin, but I did.

    My apologies to Mr Leno when he reads this.

  3. I'm always glad when I see someone mentioning Ernie as a past "Tonight Show" host.

    Right before O'Brien took over last year, NBC had put up a timeline showing all the past hosts. They left Ernie off. We started a campaign to try to get him added on to the list. It didn't work, and in light of how everything turned out I'm not sure whether to be upset or not.

    I enjoyed your post. Their are a couple of posts concerning Ernie's time on "Tonight" over on our EK blog.

    The Ernie Kovacs Blog