Friday, November 16, 2007 11/16/07-Steve Allen

In today's excerpt--Steve Allen (1921-2000), originator and first host of The Tonight Show in 1954, the father of TV talk shows, and the man whose routines (including Carson's 'Great Carnac') have been liberally appropriated by Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, David Letterman and others:

"[The unknown Steve] Allen come to sudden prominence in 1951 as a replacement for Arthur Godfrey on his Talent Scouts show by making a shambles of the sedate little show--steeping his Lipton tea bag in a cup of soup, pouring the soup into Godfrey's ukulele, and intentionally mixing up the names of the contest winners. ...

"[On The Tonight Show, a] turning point for Allen came the night that Doris Day failed to show up for an interview and Allen was left to his own comic devices with twenty-five minutes of airtime on his hands, which he filled by interviewing people in the studio audience, lugging an old stand-up mike up and down the aisles. 'The physical thing of carrying this big mike around the room helped to get laughs. I just horsed around, like with my pals. That opened up a lot of possibilities.' He later wrote: 'I don't recollect what was said during the next twenty-five minutes, but I do know that I had never gotten such laughs before.' ... Allen had discovered his natural ability to play it as it lays, to talk without a prepared script or format. 'For two years I had been slaving away at the typewriter ... with only moderate success. Now I had learned that audiences would laugh much more readily at an ad-libbed quip, even though it might not be the pound-for-pound equivalent of a prepared joke.' ...

"It was ... his ear for language, an ability to pick up on mangled syntax or an unlikely phrasing that triggered his funny retorts (woman in the balcony to Allen: 'May I have your autograph?' Allen 'Only if you have a very long pencil'). ... Allen, ever the scholar, once remarked: 'English is an easy language with which to turn normal conversation into nonsense, because it is so full of idiomatic expressions which automatically turn into jokes when subjected to straight-faced analysis. To me, the English language is one big straight-line.' ... When a lady in the audience asked him, 'Do they get your program in Philadelphia?' he said, 'They see it but they don't get it.' ... He was sometimes accused of setting up innocent people, yet quite the reverse was true, he insisted. 'When I say to a guest, 'What is your name?' and he answers with calm reassurance, "Boston, Massachusetts,' he is the funny one and I his willing straight man. Were I to talk for a million years I could never say anything funnier than 'Boston, Massachusetts' in that situation. ...

"What Allen found in these roving interviews was a way to unlock TV's structured format by using its formal facade as a bottomless source for his whimsical turn of mind. ... Allen was the ideal bedtime host. Indeed, one night he played the piano in his pajamas, explaining that when the show was over he wanted to go straight to bed"

Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny, Back Stage Books, Copyright 2004 by Gerald Nachman, pp. 160- 165.


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