The audience isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. That’s why it was unconscionable for Jack Paar to walk out on his Tonight Show audience on February 11, 1960.
It wasn’t as if Paar was the first emcee to have problems with NBC. Fred Allen famously feuded with a certain cadre of the network executive and, one night, was cut off the air. Allen never threw a tantrum and stormed out during his show. He knew the audience is the only thing. Bruised egos aren’t. Allen was quickly rewarded for his professionalism as scorn and ridicule was piled on NBC, which was embarrassed by the resulting universal bad publicity.
(As a side note, if you want to hear a blistering satire of Paar, check out any of Bob and Ray’s routines involving Hack Park and Eustace Dove, a thinly-veiled reference to Paar’s announcer, Hugh Downs. The B & R shows were broadcast on CBS radio around this time).
I stumbled across John Crosby’s take on all this; he may have been TV’s most celebrated critic by this point. This was his column for February 15, 1960. The opening reference is to the quiz show scandal. Paar, for some reason, continually used the phrase “dear hearts” on his show. “I kid you not” was a Paar-ism as well.
Never a dull moment, eh, dear hearts? We just get Charles Van Doren safely laid to rest when Jack Paar takes what may be the most celebrated walk since Alfred E. Smith’s. Mercifully, the medium is never static and its effect on personality is devastating.
My own position in the affaire Paar, in the remote event that anyone cares, is that Jack Paar is an exciting personality, a man of conviction who restored a bit of television’s gee-what’s-going-to-happen-next? quality. But — let’s face it — Paar is also an emotional infant. In walking out on his own show, he was acting like a 6-year old.
The particular joke that caused all the rumpus is not worth the excitement —- at least the version I heard, though Paar has a way of making dirty jokes even dirtier — but the frank fact of the matter is that NBC had to draw the line somewhere and they elected to draw it there. NBC has a responsibility in this matter. Paar’s material has been getting pretty blue. The network has been getting complaints.
“In the exercise of its proper responsibility to the public, NBC deleted this passage because they considered the passage in bad taste.” You can’t quarrel with that statement. The final responsibility is NBC’s. The network would be remiss if it had evaded its responsibility. While NBC might have picked a better line to get tough about, it could not properly back down, having once taken a stand, and I think Paar was wrong to make an issue of it.
Still, it’s easy to be sensible on the sidelines. The pressures of this business are monumental and Paar managed to keep his show operating week in week out for 3 years. No wonder he blew his top. An hour and three quarters a night. It’s a frightening job and the measure of Paar’s ability to do well can be best gauged by the fact that nobody else did it half so well when he took a vacation.
Some prickly, electric, vibrant quality dropped out when he was away—even though it was largely the same show, and largely the same people. Paar always assumed everyone was after him; he never let down his guard—and he had a tongue like an adder—and this meant everyone else kept his guard up while he was on the premises. Meanwhile, the pressure, the fame, the attacks in the press (many of them justified, many of them not) were beginning to unsettle him. He was—as Frank Sullivan once said of John O’Hara—“the master of the fancied slight.” He could detect an insult where none was intended at 5 miles.
I caught only the very end of the act as Paar was beginning to choke up and say that NBC had been “swell” to him and he’d been pretty wonderful to NBC too. “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it,” I fell to thinking, largely because it was so magnificently inappropriate. “To throw away the dearest thing he owned as ’twere a careless trifle.” Well, that part’s true enough. Paar always does that. He gets so high in the world and then he kicks himself in the teeth.
If this issue hadn’t cropped up, he’d have created another one. He’s a thin-skinned guy. “Dear hearts, I kid you not.” — but he sure as hell kids himself.