Steve Allen

Vintage 1957 – A Comedy Revolution


In the 1950s, stand-up comedy went through something of a revolution. In broad outline, comedy of the 1930s most often took the form of physical slapstick in the movies – think the Marx Brothers, Abbot & Costello, etc. In the 1940s, the rising popularity of radio broadcasts ushered in less physical and more verbal comedy. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns & Gracie Allen, and Henny Youngman all perfected the art of one-liners, story gags, and “groaners” (“I just flew in from St. Louis . . . and boy are my arms tired!” or “Take my wife . . . please!”).

Comedy in the 1950s turned topical. Journalist and author Gerald Nachman, who covered entertainment news for the New York Post, the Oakland Tribune, the New York Daily News, and the San Francisco Chronicle, shines a light on the shift in his 2009 book, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. Nachman provides detailed biographies of 26 comedians, including Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, and Steve Allen. Politics, sex, race relations, drugs, self-angst, pop media and celebrity, all were suddenly fair game for public airing, often in satirical or cynical ways.

How does comedy work? What makes us laugh?

Laughter can be cathartic. It can lighten our spirits in difficult times. The Great Depression and World War II of the 1930s and 1940s were dark times. People looked to comedy for relief from anxiety and despair.

But laughter also serves as a leveler. It can burst bubbles and open eyes, providing a wake-up call for others or for ourselves. It can be a subtle instrument or sharp weapon against complacency, pretension, self-absorption, mindless conformity, and attitudes of superiority and arrogance. It can slip in “under the radar” to powerfully say, “Take a look at yourself and your culture.”

The comedians of the 1950s – subtle or blunt – had new, sometimes uncomfortable things to say. And they were heard.

Image Credits: ABC Films; NBC Television; New York World-Telegram & Sun; Towpilot; Rollins & Joffe; Allan Warren; AP; Concord Jazz

July 29, 1957 – Jack Paar’s First Night on The Tonight Show

Jack Paar

Jack Paar

On July 29, 1957, Jack Paar took over the hosts’ chair on the set of The Tonight Show.  Steve Allen, the show’s first host from September 1954 to January 1957, had been instrumental in establishing the format of NBC’s successful late evening talk show: an opening monologue, celebrity interviews, audience participation, comedy bits in which cameras were taken outside the studio, and music with guest performers and a studio band.  Paar added his own touches to the show, including his signature quip “I kid you not” and surrounding himself with a group of regulars and semi-regulars (including Zsa Zsa Gabor).  Paar also started the tradition of having guest hosts, one of whom would go on to become the show’s longest-running host – for over thirty years – Johnny Carson.

Paar’s career had started in radio as an announcer and humorous disc jockey.  He was on the air on WGAR-Cleveland the night Orson Welles broadcast his famous War of the Worlds over the CBS network (WGAR was an affiliate).  Jack tried to calm panicked listeners by announcing, “The world is not coming to an end.  Trust me.  When have I ever lied to you?”  Paar was part of a special services company in the South Pacific entertaining troops during World War II.  He met Jack Benny in Guadalcanal in 1945, and Benny was so impressed he took the young comedian under his wing and sponsored Paar’s career at NBC on several occasions.

Paar was unpredictable and emotional.  His pointed jibes at commanding officers in the Pacific repeatedly got him in trouble.  He feuded publicly with Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell.  He asked Mickey Rooney to leave the show one evening when Rooney arrived in an inebriated state.  After a questionable joke he made regarding a “W. C.” was cut by censors, Paar walked off The Tonight Show set in mid-show.  He returned three weeks later, explaining, “Leaving the show was a childish and perhaps emotional thing.  I have been guilty of such action in the past and will perhaps be again.  I’m totally unable to hide what I feel.  It is not an asset in the show business, but I shall do the best I can to amuse and entertain you and let other people speak freely, as I have in the past.”

During Paar’s tenure, NBC’s policy was to videotape The Tonight Show and tape new broadcasts over old ones.  Only a few minutes of tape now exist of The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar.

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