His reign as the King of Late Night only lasted five years,  but those were the five years that has fueled the Tonight Show for over six decades. Jack Paar is far different from today’s breed of talk show host. He was literate and funny with the use of wit and charm. He was controversial, emotional and unscripted. The viewers never knew what to expect. He was like a bright comet who burned out quickly.

The Tonight Show starring Jack Paar only lasted from 1957 to 1962. A more even keeled host named Johnny Carson would rule that roost for the next 30 years. But it was Paar who built the foundation.

This story, from William Grimes of The New York Times attempts to explain the phenomenon that was named Jack Paar. I Kid you not.

Remember Jack Paar? Here`s Why You Should

December 20, 1991|By William Grimes, New York Times News Service.

NEW YORK — From 1957 to 1962, Jack Paar ruled late-night television as host of “The Tonight Show.“ Earlier this week, coaxed out of placid retirement in Greenwich, Conn., to give a seminar at the Museum of Television and Radio in mid-Manhattan, he showed why.

It was an evening of television archeology, as Paar showed highlights from his show and reminisced about favorite guests, including Jonathan Winters, the French actress Genevieve, Dody Goodman, Robert F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon; condemned Phil Donahue (“a disgrace“) and his morning-show peers (“sleazy“); praised Johnny Carson (“I should never have given `The Tonight Show` to him; I should have rented it or married him“); and admitted that he no longer stayed up late enough to watch “Tonight.“

What Paar did not do is clear up the central mystery of his career: why he suddenly left his show when it was being watched by 7 million Americans, and was so successful that NBC renamed it “The Jack Paar Show.“

It was the first question thrown out from the audience, and Paar confessed, “I`ve never really had a good answer to that.“ When pressed, he threw up his hands and said, “Well, I guess I did a pretty amazing thing there, but we`ll just have to put up with it.“

Paar actually quit the show twice, the first time in 1960 after NBC edited out a joke that included the term “water closet.“ Paar showed a clip of his famous farewell.

Teary-eyed and angry, he looked into the camera, and said, as a stunned Hugh Downs, his announcer, looked on: “I am leaving `The Tonight Show.` There must be a better way of making a living than this.“ Three weeks later, he was back in front of the cameras. Without missing a beat, he said, “As I was saying before I was interrupted. . . .“

Paar could have resurrected the line on Tuesday. After an initial case of nerves, he slipped easily into the relaxed, slightly feline manner that fascinated viewers from 10:15 to midnight weeknights. His face still has the Pecksniffian glow that makes him seem like an evangelist with a few dark secrets. His hands moved wildly in the Jack Benny manner.

Nothing, it seems, has changed, though Paar now wears glasses. He and his wife of 45 years, Miriam, are still married. He still talks about his daughter, Randy, who is now a lawyer with a 6-year-old son and who sat in the audience.


In introducing highlights from his programs, Paar said: “I hate the word `talk show.` It makes it seem as if all I did was invent a davenport.“ But the unfolding evidence made it clear that good talk was the foundation of Paar`s success, along with an ability to coax, and sometimes coerce, colorful stories out of guests who, in television`s earlier days, did not always seem to know what exactly they were supposed to do. That gift was a key to survival, for the show was produced on the cheap. Paar had three writers, a weekly budget of about $50,000 and a lot of air time to fill.

Long before David Letterman, Paar had an anarchic streak that inspired him to pair guests like Liberace and Cassius Clay, or Jayne Mansfield and Zsa Zsa Gabor, or to shuffle the cue cards in the middle of a Robert Goulet-Judy Garland duet.

Perhaps best of all, he knew when to get out of the way and yield the stage to talents like Jonathan Winters, who, in a memorable clip, minced on the stage with a horned goat hat on his head and a branch in his hand, announcing that he was the spirit of spring.

If Paar seemed to be in his element on late-night television, it was an illusion. With a look of pain, he explained again and again that he felt uncomfortable standing before an audience, and that his fundamental shyness had made his television job a torment of sorts. His opening monologue, which he memorized by writing it over and over in longhand, was a nightly ordeal.

On one occasion, he said, the model Suzy Parker buttonholed him before the show and poured out the story of her recent divorce. When the curtain went up, Paar found he had forgotten his monologue. “I couldn`t think of anything to say,“ he recalled, “so I simply looked at the audience and said, `I`ve been drinking.` “