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Jewish World Review Nov. 9, 2000 / 11 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

Steve Allen: Smart TV -- IT'S NO SURPRISE that the obituary columns about Steve Allen have had a rueful air about them. Allen, who was 78 when he died late last month, was active and ubiquitous until the very end. But his heyday, if that's the word for it, was long ago.

Everybody agrees that Steve Allen invented most of the conventions of late-night television talk shows -- sardonic host, opening monologue, desk and sofa, mixture of stunts and variety acts -- and launched the careers of innumerable performers. But our world is very different from the times in which Steve Allen flourished. He last appeared in Washington just a few months ago, speaking at the National Press Club on his latest theme: The decline and fall of measures of decency in television. There was a certain irony in this. For decades Steve Allen was a reliable "liberal" voice in opposition to "conservative" presumptions; but at the end of his life, surveying network fare, he had found common cause with the kind of people he would have lampooned in his heyday.

Most of the published memories about Steve Allen concentrated on the style of his work, in contrast to the tone of contemporary TV. It's a valid complaint. Analysts tend to put this down to a collapse in standards, but it seems to me intelligence is involved as well.

I am old enough to remember Steve Allen, and consider myself a reasonably sophisticated fellow, so it's difficult to compare then and now and not feel discomfort. Steve Allen played jazz piano on the air, told relatively arcane jokes, toyed with language, and flattered the intelligence of his viewing audience. There was a complete absence of one-liners about flatulence, masturbation, erectile function or dysfunction, breasts and buttocks -- all staples of ontemporary humor. In Steve Allen's late-night show of the early '60s, I remember a camera panning the sidewalk outside the studio, and settling on a young man with slicked-down hair and tweed jacket: "F. Scott Fitzgerald used to write about guys who look like that," he said. Would anyone in Jay Leno's studio audience understand the reference?

Still, time has a way of playing tricks -- even on comedians. Provided that my homework was finished, I was a devoted viewer of Steve Allen's Sunday night variety show of the late 1950s. (For some reason, Ed Sullivan was persona non grata in our household.) And while it's nice to remember the many pleasures of that program -- the dry humor, Broadway tunes and signature lines ("Hi ho, Steverino!"), Don Knotts' nervous man in the street -- it is useful to recall that it was 40-plus years ago. The banal rock 'n' roll lyrics he would recite as if they were lines from Tennyson are now considered classics of contemporary culture. Steve Allen is as remote from us today as the First World War was from 1958. And just as audiences of the Eisenhower era laughed at women in bloomers on the beach, or winced at the corny jokesters of vaudeville, the Steve Allen Show now seems dated, even quaint.

The question is whether this represents improvement. Looking at the old kinescopes of Steve Allen in action, he was clearly a figure from the early postwar era. His horn-rimmed glasses, Brooks Brothers suits, Dave Brubeck compositions, and gentle mocking of togetherness, suburban tract houses, teenagers, beatniks and Madison Avenue make him as much an emblem of his time as a flapper or a bearded Civil War general. And yet, there was something distinctive about Steve Allen which speaks across the decades: An intelligent humor, a comic range that never lapsed into coarseness.

In television, as with so much else, we tend to idealize the past. "I Love Lucy" was every bit as witless as anything now on the air, Milton Berle was incurably vulgar, and live dramas from the Golde Age of Television were just as pretentious as "The West Wing" or "NYPD Blue." The only difference is that, with the passage of time, the jokes have gotten dirtier and the plots more predictable. What is regrettable is the near-total disappearance of anything or anyone resembling Steve Allen.

There are exceptions, to be sure: "The Simpsons" remain sharp, and David Letterman is not quite a show business caricature like Jay Leno. But while technology continues to develop and amaze, content seems to grow more vapid and pedestrian -- evolution without progress. Brains are devoted to delivering, not creating, the product. The truth, of course, is that TV is a mass medium, and standards are adjusted to the lowest common denominator. But television was not exactly a rarified atmosphere in the 1950s and early '60s, and yet somehow there was room on the tube for Steve Allen.

Maybe that's the point. Television isn't destined to invent people like Steve Allen. They generate themselves, and if we're lucky, they're squeezed in between the classics and commercials.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, Philip Terzian