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Jewish World Review Jan. 29, 2004 / 6 Shevat 5764

Steve Young

Steve Young
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Talk may never be the same: Jack Paar's talk wouldn't be loud enough for today's audiences | Jack Paar died this week. His world of talk died long before.

Jack Paar didn't invent the television talk show but he did make it his own. Taking the reigns from the Father of Late Night Talk, Steve Allen, he ruled late night TV from 1957 to 1962. He sat at a chair without a desk and talked. He brought on guests and still, he talked. He asked questions too, but above all, he talked...and most of all, we cared about what he talked about.

Funny, the day Paar died, Dennis Miller took to the air with his brand new CNBC talk show. It's Miller's third talk show but to in any way describe it as you might as anything like Paar's type of talk show would be... well, it would be like trying to compare Jay Leno's Tonight Show to, say, Johnnie Carson's Tonight Show. To be honest, Miller's show is meant to be a politically oriented show and would more likely be compared to Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" or his latest, "Real Time," on HBO. But this, in fact, is part of what talk shows have become.

Paar was an anomaly. Unlike today's hosts, was never a comedy club standup, but he could make you smile. He was charming and known to even tear up when sharing a yarn. 'Cept in the aftermath of 9/11 can you picture Letterman blubbering on the air?

In the early days of television, talk shows were as much about the host as they were about any other element of the shows. Back then, in fact, the hosts were the show. Today the hosts tend to look for the big joke more than draw out the great conversation. Paar made small talk big — important. We would be talking the next day about what Jack said the night before. Think you'll be standing around the water cooler tomorrow retelling something Wayne Brady or Ryan Seacrest said today? No one turns on Jay, David, Dennis, Bill, Wayne or Ryan to find out what they might say. They did with Jack. They did with Steve. And they did with Johnnie.

Today, do people watch the Tonight Show because they love Jay? Nice guy. In another lifetime he worked for me. I never found him to be anything other than a sweetheart who on the live stage was nothing but hysterical. But my guess is, Jay's presence itself isn't the driving force behind the continued ratings success of the show. On Jay's Tonight Show, it's whatever cache Johnnie imbedded into the franchise along with everything else Leno builds around him that draws rating's wins..

It doesn't seem like most of the today's hosts trust themselves to be as funny as their material. Today it's the jokes. The produced bits. Jack, Steve and Johnnie had material written for them and they participated in sketches, but the real humor came from outside the bits; from their extracurricular comments, the asides from the hosts who trusted who they were. How many times did you hope for Johnnie to have a joke fall flat? For when it did you knew whatever reaction he would have to the misfire would be funnier than as if the joke had actually worked.

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And while there can't be something humorous found in some biting material, you rarely found maliciousness in the humor of Jack or Steve or Johnnie. A maliciousness that's had its residual affect on all kinds of talk; an evolution of sorts. Not evolution as in we're able to walk on two legs and breath air. That would be advancing the genre. What's happened has been a television and radio revolution that has inverted the cultural and political landscape. The airwaves aren't broadcasting talk as much as they are blaring it. Controversy, much of it contrived, has become the centerpiece of most shows. Yelling over one another has replaced debate. Demonizing your adversaries has replaced discussing your differences. Pompous bullying has replaced charismatic hosting.

I wonder if looking on, those originals, those virtuosos of talk — Jack and Steve from above, Johnnie from Malibu — would be happy with what has befallen the extraordinary gem they left to us.

My guess is that they would, in the least, want to talk about it. I kid you not.


JWR contributor Steve Young, Prism Award winner and Humanitas Prize nominee for his television writing, is film correspondent for BBC radio. He is the author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful: Mistakes, Adversity, Failure and Other Stepping Stones to Success," "The 130 Tales of Winchell Mink," Harper Collins (Winter, 2003) and the director/writer of "My Dinner With Ovitz." His website is Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Steve Young