Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Tonight For the First Time

By all rights, the debut of the “Tonight” show on September 27, 1954 should have been a smooth success. After all, it didn’t just pop onto the screen. It had been hyped by NBC’s president for seven months. It had been on the air in New York for over a year as “The Steve Allen Show.” Allen and his people simply picked up and moved over to the network, adding an hour at the end and five minutes at the beginning. What could possibly go wrong?

An awful lot, it appears.

Some of it was out of the control of Allen and his production team. Stations across the network joined the show in progress, much like they did on the “Today” show which made for multiple, and awkward, sign-ons. Getting affiliates to sign up for “Tonight” had been difficult and time-consuming (local stations had already spent money on old movies they could run instead and not share any commercial revenue with the network). And Knickerbocker Beer, the main sponsor of Allen’s local show in New York, demanded a local show. So Allen was forced to do 15 minutes on WBNT before going on the network and taking WBNT along with him.

New York Herald Tribune writer John Crosby watched the network debut and outlined every failure in his syndicated TV column. As a side-note, Wally Cox appeared on Martha Raye’s show on NBC the following evening. Raye was supposed to appear on the “Tonight” debut to plug her season-opener but never showed up.

Allen in Dark But He Makes ‘Tonight’ Shine

NEW YORK, Oct. 6—“Tonight,” the latest of Sylvester L. Weaver's brain children, exploded all over the midnight air from here to Omaha the other night and from the exasperated noises emitted by its proprietor, Allen, I guess everything went wrong that could go wrong. Still, if Allen can be that funny when things get fouled up, I hope they never them straightened out.
“Tonight” (NBC-TV, 11:30 p. m. to 1 a. m. EST Mondays through Fridays) is the companion piece of “Today” and “Home” and like those two shows it embodies what Mr. Weaver is wont to call the magazine concept of selling. In brief, that means that instead of being assaulted by one sponsor, we are assaulted by about eighty-three. As a matter of fact, “Today” in 1953 did have exactly eighty-three sponsors ranging from General Motors to Appian Way Pizza Pie Mix.
Allen's Humor.
At the very outset Mr. Allen, looking decidedly harassed, announced: “Boy, have we ever been making last minute changes around here. I admit that's not funny in Omaha. We were going to show you the Empire State Building. The Hudson River was going to flow the other way—but somebody goofed. This is ‘Tonight’ and I want to give you the bad news right now. This show is going to go on and on and on, forever. This is the Hudson Theater. I think it sleeps 800 people. This show—well, it’s not a spectacular. It’s kind of a monotony. And if this show is anywhere near as successful as ‘Today’ and ‘Home,’ they’re going to put on another show called ‘Son of Tonight’.”
That's the kind of humor Allen has—a sort of late at night, earthy, “Aaah, the hell with it” kind of humor that is entirely suitable to that hour. Apparently, NBC had sent out a Cadillac with a remote unit aboard that was supposed to bring in something or other but the driver got pinched or something. “This is the first network that ever got a ticket.”
Stations kept either latching on to the program or dropping it at fifteen minute intervals and Allen kept hopelessly saying hello to the newcomers and goodbye to the others and trying to explain what it was all about to the new arrivals. “I’ve never done such a confusing program in my life. I think we started about noon.” And he tried to explain again to the people in the midwest about that Cadillac, concerning which we in the east were already hopelessly confused. “We’re all going to hold hands and have a community sleep. Synchronize your sleeping pills.”
Long Schedule.
Allen had a long, impressive schedule on a clipboard which he kept riffling through to find out what was supposed to be happening at that precise moment—but none of the things that were supposed to be happening were happening. His guest star, Wally Cox, appeared with his copy of the schedule and said: “I’ve been looking at this schedule and I guess I better leave.” Cox started to walk off but Allen got him back. “No, that would be giving you short shrift,” said Allen. Then he added: “Short shrift—that’s a good name. General Foods ought to put out something called Short Shrift. Buy a box of Short Shrift.
“Or you could buy a box of Long Shrift and have it shortened,” suggested Cox—and then went into his “Gee, what a crazy guy routine which is about as funny as anything can be.
Every so often, the out-of-town stations dropped the show for one minute to sell things and this left Allen with one minute of time and his New York audience and nobody else. It’s a tough assignment, one minute. “I’ve got some 34-second jokes,” he announced. “And I’ve got a dance that takes 42 seconds. But I haven’t got any 57-second jokes.”
During the rest of the hour and a half, Allen played the piano; a girl singer named Pat Marshall sang “Fine and Dandy;” Gene Rayburn gave the news and participated in a sketch with Allen; and there was an interview with Willie Mays, the most interviewed man since Charles A. Lindbergh. But mostly it was just Allen. At one point, wandering through the audience, he asked a young lady if she wanted to wave at anyone at home.
“No, I guess they're all asleep,” said the young lady.
“Thanks,” muttered Allen. “Thanks a lot. There goes a $4,000,000 advertising account.”
For future shows we are promised big name stars, and interviews with theatrical folk, and service features—and, oh, all sorts of things. I expect eventually everything will be neat and tidy and run like clockwork. But it won’t be nearly so much fun.

Whether everything was eventually “neat and tidy” and “run like clockwork” is a matter of definition. Allen’s “Tonight” show didn’t become the homogenised, overly structured late night show that you see today. It was organised—even live TV has to have some organisation—but always spontaneous, meaning just about anything could happen. Incidentally, “Tonight”’s long-time director under Allen, Bill Harbach, was interviewed about his career by Kliph Nesteroff on his Classic Showbiz site. You can read all three parts HERE.

You may be wondering why critic Crosby didn’t mention the Man on the Street interviews or sketches involving his stock players. That came later, when Allen went into prime time on Sundays against Ed Sullivan. Next week, we’ll hear from one of those stock players.

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