Paar kept us up late

Appreciation

January 28, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Jack Paar, the high-strung and openly emotional talk show host who invented the late-night format for which Johnny Carson is often credited, died yesterday at 85.

Paar, whose conversational derring-do propelled The Tonight Show into national consciousness in 1957, died in his Greenwich, Conn., home after a long illness, son-in-law Stephen Wells told the Associated Press. At his side were wife, Miriam, and daughter, Randy.

While his tenure at The Tonight Show lasted only until 1962, he put it on the map -- using intelligence, wit, topicality, edgy guests and his own exposed nerve ends to make late-night TV part of America's bedtime ritual. In the process, he made a fortune for NBC, only to be jettisoned by the industry once he was deemed too unpredictable.

When Paar took over The Tonight Show on July 29, 1957, shortly after Steve Allen left, it was on the verge of cancellation due to lack of sponsors. Most NBC stations were unwilling to even carry The Tonight Show, because its audience was so small. But with Paar behind the desk, the number of stations carrying it went to 120 from 61 within a year.

"Jack invented the talk show format as we know it," Merv Griffin said yesterday. "He had the ability to sit down and make small talk big."

With sidekick announcer Hugh Downs, Paar had a stable of semi-regulars during his years with Tonight that included Washington hostess Elsa Maxwell, British humorist Alexander King, French chanteuse Gene- vieve, actor Hans Conried, and actresses Peggy Cass and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Paar was a conversationalist who could bring the very best out of this urbane group -- even Gabor -- just by chatting them up. Listening to Paar and this cosmopolitan crew was like eavesdropping on a group of impossibly sophisticated adults who believed the children were already in bed.

But the real energy of the show was the conversation Paar seemed to be carrying on with himself in full voice for millions of Tonight Show viewers to hear. Paar's monologues -- which usually opened with his catchphrase, "I kid you not" -- in no way resembled the joke-joke, scripted and rehearsed opening remarks of Carson, Jay Leno or David Letterman today. They were earnest, intense, sometimes angry, stream-of-consciousness riffs with Paar talking to the camera as one might talk to a psychiatrist.

The drama was that one never knew which emotional boundary Paar was going to bounce off once he got going. He would cry, insult others, giggle, laugh, celebrate and sometimes seem so exhausted by it all that one wondered whether he would return after the next commercial break. In terms of persona, he was the upper-middle-class suburban, two-martini man in the gray flannel suit grappling with American life in the Age of Anxiety -- and often losing.

"The secret of Paar's success was that he lived his life on television," Michael Macari, one of Paar's producers, said in a 1991 PBS documentary on Paar.

But The Tonight Show was far more than just witty conversation and the sum of Paar's neuroses. He took on everything from politics to religion to race.

Before the presidential election of 1960, Paar's guests included candidates Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. This was 32 years before pundits hailed Bill Clinton for going on The Tonight Show and The Arsenio Hall Show and plowing what conventional wisdom thought of as virgin ground.

In one of his most controversial political moments, Paar in 1961 took a film crew to West Berlin to visit the Berlin Wall shortly after it was erected. The press savaged him for getting involved in international politics.

It was the event that led to his eventual resignation from Tonight on March 29, 1962. On that final night, he sat in a seat in the empty theater where the show was taped and talked to the camera about his feelings. At his side in the next seat was his German shepherd. Paar never stopped holding the dog for emotional balance.

But Paar had been talking resignation for two years -- since Feb. 11, 1960, when he walked off The Tonight Show set in the middle of a taping over a joke that had been deleted by an NBC censor from the previous evening's program. The joke, silly and inoffensive by today's standards, included the words "water closet" another term for toilet.

During the next day's taping, Paar said he was tired of fighting with the network and the press. After saying a tearful goodbye to the studio audience, he walked out. It was a month before Paar returned to the anchor desk. Almost every night for the next two years was a drama.

There was little in Paar's background to suggest the intelligence and sense of style he would bring to late-night TV.

Born in Canton, Ohio, in 1918, he quit high school in his sophomore year and went to work for a radio station in Jackson, Mich., at age 16. After a series of announcing jobs throughout the Midwest, Paar was drafted in 1942. He was assigned to Special Services because of his show business background, and started appearing as a comedian.

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