CNN's 'Story Of Late Night' Salutes Steve Allen
STEVE ALLEN: What is your name, sir?
TV AUDIENCE MEMBER: Fred Tollis, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
STEVE ALLEN: That's a rather long name. Where are you from Mr. Michigan?
CNN's Story Of Late Night promises a wonderful look at all of our favorite late-night television stars: David Letterman, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, James Corden, Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers and others.
And it all started with my favorite TV star who's rarely mentioned on the airwaves today, Tonight show creator Steve Allen.
Allen hosted the first Tonight show on Sept. 27, 1954. He invented the format still used almost 70 years later – opening remarks, chat with bandleader, comedy sketch, chat with some audience members, celebrity interviews, musical performance – as well as many of the late-night comedy staples.
Allen made fun of audience members on camera. He took cameras outside to find comedy decades before Leno's "Jaywalking" interviews. He jumped into Jello before Letterman leaped onto a Velco wall. Allen read funny newspaper stories before Leno was old enough to read headlines.
Before Johnny's "Carnac the Magnificent" Allen was the "Question Man."
ANSWER: Buffalo Bill.
QUESTION MAN: When you buy a buffalo, what do you get at the first of the month?
Decades before Letterman was lowered into a huge water vat wearing an Alka-Seltzer suit, Allen was covered with tea bags and submerged into warm water. The Story Of Late Night – which repeats 10 p.m. this Saturday, May 8 – airs a clip of Allen showing the proper technique for smashing a cream pie into a mannequin's face. A stage hand then volunteers to do it, but instead slammed the pie into Allen's face. So Allen chased him into the studio audience, where everyone tossed a pie at him.
"Steve Allen was the first guy to do everything," Fallon says on the CNN show. "I mean, everything that you think is innovative now, it's like, it's been done."
CNN's Story Of Late Night is a six-week series produced by Bill Carter, the former New York Times TV critic who wrote The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night and The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.
Telling the story for CNN is a Who's Who of TV: Hosts Fallon, Kimmel, Meyers, O'Brien, Noah, Corden and Dick Cavett; producers/writers Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live), Dave Pollock (Steve Allen Show); Hal Gurnee (Tonight Show starring Jack Paar); Robert Smigel (Late Night with Conan O'Brien); Rob Burnett (Late Show with David Letterman ) and Merrill Markoe and Robert Morton (Late Night with David Letterman); comedians Byron Allen, Lewis Black, Whoopi Goldberg and W. Kamau Bell; Syracuse University TV and pop culture professor Robert Thompson; authors David Bianculli and Kliph Nesteroff; NBC late-night executive (and Miami University alumni) Rick Ludwin; Carson nephew Jeff Sotzing; and Bill Allen (Steve's son).
The first episode repeating Saturday notes that TV stations in the early 1950s signed off after the late news. NBC executive Pat Weaver, who launched the Today show in 1952, is credited with expanding TV into late-night and sanctioning Allen's free-wheeling format to fill the void on Tonight.
Allen, who died in 2000 at age 78, was a comedy genius. In my opinion, he ranks right up there with Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, Groucho Marx and Gary Burbank. He was an ad-lib master. In the 1950s, the first decade of television, someone once asked Allen if they got his show in Boston.
"They see it, but they don't get it," he replied instantly.
Once on his show someone offered him a Japanese drink called the Pagoda. He took a sip and said, "Pagoda hell."
Allen's Tonight show was so popular that NBC asked him to do a Sunday night primetime show in 1956 against CBS' hugely popular Ed Sullivan Show. His primetime program helped launch the career of comedians Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Bill Dana, Buck Henry and Tim Conway. NBC's Tonight show carried on with Ernie Kovacs, Jack Paar, Carson, Leno, O'Brien, Leno again and Fallon.
Allen was more than the quickest wit on TV. He was a real Renaissance man. He composed more than 6,000 songs, including "This Could Be The Start Of Something Big," "South Rampart Street Parade," the Tonight Show theme and his Grammy-winning "Gravy Waltz" with Ray Brown.
He also wrote 46 books, both fiction and non-fiction; poetry; and the Peabody Award-winning PBS television series called Meeting Of The Minds in which historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Cleopatra and William Shakespeare argued philosophy. Allen played piano, trumpet and clarinet; starred on Broadway; and appeared in 50 TV shows and movies, including The Benny Goodman Story.
Most everything he wrote was by dictation.
"Ideas come from your head anyway," he told me in a 1985. "This way it no longer has to go through the fingers."
He dictated letters, too. When I mailed him a copy of a 1994 Enquirer story I wrote about him, Allen sent back a letter that began: "Dear Mr. Kiesewetter. And if you've ever had your keys wetted, you know how awkward that can be …"
Allen once told me he couldn't explain how his mind worked, and why he felt uneasy about being praised for his prolific versatility.
"It's to me like being praised for sweating. I have no understanding of why some part of my brain could write, if you wanted, 50 songs right now."
Allen also didn't feel honored or impressed that the Tonight Show had lasted so long when I interviewed him during the TV critics' 1994 Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles a few months before the 40th anniversary of the Tonight Show. Did he expect the show to last so long?
"I did not anticipate it. But it's understandable," said Allen, then 72.
"Almost anybody can do a talk show. If there's an assignment in history itself – much less television – that is easier than hosting a talk show, I honestly don't know what it is."
Inventing the Tonight Show was no big deal to the man who wrote "This Could Be The Start Of Something Big."
"It seems to me that having invented the talk show is a little bit like having invented the paper towel. The paper towel is important. We'd suffer without it as a people. But it's not to be equated with writing a great opera or coming up with a cure for AIDS."
So how did he want to be remembered? He didn't care.
"Either I won't be anywhere at all, or I'll be very busily occupied. So given those two alternatives, who the hell cares what they say about you in Cleveland after you've cut out?"
CNN's The Story Of Late Night premiere repeats 10 p.m. Saturday, May 8. The second episode airs 9 p.m. Sunday, May 9.