The word “failure” was never associated with the brief, Conan O’Brien version of the Tonight Show. Pundits and fans were, instead, chirping about whether Jay Leno somehow forced O’Brien off the show and himself back on it. It became a debate about personalities, not ratings or content.
No, if you want to apply “failure” to any Tonight Show, it unquestionably describes a version that you likely never saw—the seven-month-long fiasco that was Tonight!—America After Dark.
Our story begins in 1956. Steve Allen had been not only hosting Tonight, but was warring (on and off camera) with Ed Sullivan on a Sunday night show for NBC. He was spelled off by Ernie Kovacs on Monday and Tuesday nights as of October 1st. But the following month, the trades announced Allen was leaving and Kovacs would be dropped if a new format met with sponsor approval. (Something was found for Ernie. In a truly misguided attempt all around, NBC slated Jerry Lewis for a 90-minute show the following January. Lewis refused to work more than an hour so Kovacs was shoved in to fill the remaining 30 minutes. Someone decided there would be no dialogue for the entire Kovacs show. It wasn’t well received).
The new format wasn’t really new at all. It was what NBC programming chief Pat Weaver had envisioned for the Today Show when it began in 1952—cut-ins in from anywhere and everywhere, about anything and everything, anchored by a “communicator.” That’s what the network decided to try in late night. And as the host, the job was handed to Jack Lescoulie who, no doubt, was anxious to get out of the shadow of Today “communicator” Dave Garroway and be the number-one guy.
The format was aptly described in this TV column from The Knickerbocker News of January 26, 1957.
Gala Sendoff Planned For the New ‘Tonight’
National Broadcasting Company's answer to the popularity of top feature films on Late Theaters in key markets all over the nation will be unfolded Monday when Tonight takes on its new "America After Dark" look. Jack Lescoulie and a battery of leading newspaper columnists will take over from Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs as Tonight reshuffles its format completely in an effort to regain its once lofty ratings.
A three-city party — in New York, Chicago and Hollywood — will be held in honor of the new Monday-through-Friday show and televised as a portion of the premiere program.
Actress Jayne Mansfield will join in the celebration from Hollywood where Paul Coates, columnist for the Los Angeles Mirror-News and Vernon Scott of the United Press will play hosts to many film stars at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Singer Roberta Sherwood will participate from Chicago where Irv Kupicnet, Chicago Sun-Times columnist, will host activities at the famous Pump Room, Comedian George Gobel will be seen from New York's Harwyn Club where celebrities will be greeted by columnist Hy Gardner of the N. Y. Herald Tribune and Earl Wilson of the New York Post, in addition, Bob Considine, sixth man of the team of columnists will report from Topeka, where Kansas’ 96th anniversary celebration will be in progress. Former Presidential Candidate Alfred M. Landon will be Considine’s guest.
Tonight cameras also will invade the Mount Sinai Hospital maternity ward in New York City on the opening snow, as well as dropping in at the Argonne National Atomic Laboratories in Chicago and the poker houses on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
Norman Frank, one of the original producers of Wide Wide World, will use many of the techniques of NBC's alternate Sunday show in his new assignment. Frank said the “main concentration” will be to capture the tempo and pacing of nightlife throughout the country.
“The format will remain flexible enough to allow our cameras to go anywhere for live coverage of newsworthy events and specialties dealing with ‘Nighttime USA’,” Frank said.
"We will make backstage visits to theaters and nightclubs to talk with top personalities. We'll showcase new talent, attend parties and venture into any phase of nighttime activity that is technically feasible”.
Lescoulie will go from one extreme to another as host of the new program. For the past five years, Lescoulie has been leaving his bed at 3:43 a. m, to be in time for his duties as Dave Garroway's right-hand man on the Today show. In his new schedule, Lescoulie will not get up until 11 a. m.
Thus the new Tonight Show premiered on January 28, 1957. Critics hated it. Perhaps the best part of the show was something that would never, ever happen in the all-too-thoroughly screened late night talk shows of today—the unexpected, courtesy of Dean Martin. This column from the Philadelphia Inquirer was published January 30, 1957.
New 'Tonight!' No Fun After Dark
By HARRY HARRIS
ON MONDAY at 11:15 P.M., NBC's "Tonight" acquired an exclamation point. It also acquired some new features that rated a /*%/ to go with the !
To replace the civilized fun of Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs, the network shoveled together a bewildering assortment of stuff culled from “Today,” “Wide Wide World” and “Stork Club.”
Most of these items were repeated, a couple of minutes at a gulp, three or four times during the 105-minute duration of the East Coast telecast. This mineing of material was obviously intended to impress anybody who tuned in, however briefly, with the fact that the show's six newspaper columnist cohosts were widely scattered.
The only trouble is that zero divided by three or four is still zero, and that constant repetition of "Let's go to Hollywood" and "Let's go to Chicago" quickly suggested a better idea: "Let's go to sleep." Despite this inclination, we stayed with it to the last dismaying moment.
WITH Jack Lescoulie watching the store while his newsmen colleagues were digging up stories and Constance Moore along for no perceptible reason except to keep Lescoulie company, the program kept bouncing in and out of New York like a rubber ball attached to a paddle board.
At dull-looking parties in New York, Chicago, Beverly Hills and Topeka, enough names were dropped to stock a suburban telephone book.
Even for television, the small talk was almost unbelievably small. Jayne Mansfield, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joan Crawford, Roberta Sherwood, Marion Marlowe, Alf Landon and a trio of mayors were among the burblers.
Dean Martin's talk was small, too, but in a different way. Asked to discuss a magazine article by his ex-partner, Jerry Lewis. Martin lashed out with snarling comments like these:
“Everything was full of lies but one thing. He wrote it . . . I could do a write-up on Jerry, but not even ‘Confidential’ would print it . . . Get back together with him? Ha! Not even in the same country! They'll put him away for a while, but he'll get out.”
It was a shocking exhibition of no fun after dark, but it served one devastating purpose. It had the harsh sound of truth, and exposed most of the program’s conversation for the contrived oohing and ahing it was.
THERE were some interesting sequences—robot-manipulators of radioactive materials in action; a California “poker club,” where in effect the gamblers rent the premises; Dr. Karl Meninger opining, in a discussion of don't-give-a-damn pills, “I'm not so sure tranquillity is the aim of life; maybe we need some do-give-a-damn pills.” But these were given relatively short shrift and added up to mighty few nuggets amid all that garbage.
Of the six newspapermen involved, only two—Paul Coates, in Los Angeles, and Irv Kupcinet, in Chicago—displayed any authority before the camera. Hy Gardner, an old hand at local telecasting, looked up from his notes long enough to take exception to Edward G. Robinson's comment, “You're not going Mike Wallace on me.” “I gave Mike Wallace lessons in this,” Gardner said sharply.
The other newsmen participating were Vernon Scott, Earl Wilson and Bob Considine.
"Entertainment" during the 105 minutes consisted of a few pallid gags by George Gobel, a "reading" by Robinson, a song by Miss Sherwood.
Of course, it was a premiere, and so ambitious a project deserves time to iron out the bugs. But “Tonight!”—complete with exclamation point—is as buggy as they come.
At the risk of being repetitious, let’s pass on the opinion of Herald-Tribune syndicate columnist John Crosby, published February 2nd.
Top Columnists Present Pretty Terrible TV Show
From Beverly Hills by long distance telephone came the menacing voice of an actor I know. “We're all waiting, Crosby,” he snarled, “to see whether you're going to be as rough on these newspapermen as you'd be on us actors if we had stunk up the air the way they did.” There was no point in asking him which program he meant. There could only be one—the new “Tonight” or, as it's subtitled, “America After Dark.”
There are a whole mess of newspaper columnists involved in this terrible enterprise—Earl Wilson and Hy Gardner of New York; Irv Kupcinet of Chicago; Paul Coates and Vernon Scott of Hollywood, and Bob Considine who I guess, represents America at large—and the kindest thing I can say about them is that they would be among the first to denounce the program if they weren't on it.
I've seen two “Tonights” and I can best describe them by picking out a few highlights. On the first one, Dean Martin was persuaded to talk about an article written about his former partner Jerry Lewis: “That article is full of lies. Only one thing true about it and that is that he wrote it.” There was lots more, all rather horrifying. In Kansas, Alf M. Landon told Bob Considine of the Democrats who finally elected a governor in Kansas: “Well, they're eating pretty high off the hog now but by 1958 they'll be up salt creek.”
In Hollywood, Jayne Mansfield, in a sepulchral whisper that may have been her dying breath or may on the other hand have been the way she thinks busty blondes have to talk, confided to Scott that she was going to build a heart-shaped house and a heart-shaped pool and a heart-shaped bathtub for two. Kupcinet broke in from Chicago to ask about her weight-lifting and what it did for her. “It's brought out quite a few of my finer points,” murmured Miss Jayne. “It straightens things and puts things in the right places.”
In New York, a baby was born within camera range of Hy Gardner. The baby sensibly clammed up but Gardner didn't. “You've certainly proved one thing, that certain people do get born in New York,” cried Gardner. “And now back to Jack Lescoulie.”
All They Did Was Drink
The second night of “excitement and gayety and glamour” (Mr. Lescoulie's words, not mine) was not quite so dull and tasteless and pointless as the first night, largely because it just wasn't possible. Lescoulie interviewed Eli Wallach about movie acting and this was interesting and could have gone on longer. Later, Wallach did a reading about the joys and torments of acting and this was offbeat and absorbing, Kupcinet landed on the Merchandise Mart in Chicago in a helicopter and we learned a little about Chicago's growing helicopter taxi service.
‘Those Bloody Parties’
But then we got back into one of those bloody parties from Hollywood. Among the glamorous, gay, exciting people there were Jolie Gabor, Linda Darnell and Ann Miller, and mostly they all talked at once. This was a lucky thing because the few coherent lines that emerged from the babble will not be quoted in all the anthologies. This bit closed with a lecture on what every young mother should know from Mama Gabor which was totally unintelligible and may conceivably have been delivered in Hungarian.
The best part of the two nights was a visit with Paul Coates to a legal gambling joint in California where bored housewives play poker. I didn't know such joints existed and Coates, an old pro at this sort of thing, brought out the salient features of the place and the people who run it and inhabit it.
But then just as my spirits started to lift, we were wafted back to New York and George Gobel asking Joan Crawford if she slept in pajamas. And the next night, Earl Wilson got his hair dyed red in a beauty parlor, setting back journalism 200 years.
NBC knew it had a disaster. Executive Producer Dick Linkroum told Variety in a story dated February 4th that format changes were coming and that it would take about two months to iron out the show. The first thing he did was dump producer Norman Frank (the press was told he’d be gone on another assignment for six weeks; he never returned) and took the job himself. Whatever changes he made didn’t work. The network’s brass met in mid-May and decided to keep Tonight but with some undisclosed format changes. Within days, Earl Wilson resigned and it was announced Lescoulie would be returning to the second banana’s job on the Today Show. On June 5, 1957 Variety announced the new format—a variety show starring Jack Paar with “a 12-piece orchestra, three guest stars nightly, an additional recording star and a comedy panel.” Gardner, Scott, Coates and Kupcinet were fired. (NBC had planned to use the 11:15 to 11:30 p.m. slot as a news commentary lead-in, but affiliates rejected the idea and it never happened).
Paar hadn’t done an awful lot since Jack Benny plucked him from nowhere and decreed Paar to be his summer replacement on radio in 1947. His radio variety show fizzled, there was a stint as a game show host, a failed morning show on CBS, a failed daytime show on CBS, and a fill-in job for Ed Sullivan which resulted in the lowest ratings of the season. In fact, Paar was announced in June 1956 as Allen’s permanent Monday-Tuesday replacement on Tonight but, for some reason, Linkroum decided instead to go with rotating hosts, including Paar, until Kovacs was hired. By June 1957, Paar was languishing in what was left of network radio, over at ABC doing a late morning show.
The seemingly out-of-nowhere Tonight job was an incredible break for Paar, and turned out to be a brilliant decision by NBC, even though some affiliates initially dropped his show in favour of movies. He debuted July 29th. The Station Relations department somehow convinced stations in Nashville, Boston and St. Louis to carry Paar. More affiliates followed. So did advertisers. By the end of October, the Paar show brought in close to one million dollars in new business for the network. On November 8th, Tonight piled up $4,200,000 in gross new business, a single-day record for NBC. Paar was a hero. Paar saved the day. And Tonight.