Steve Allen was a musician, a comedian, an author and a philosopher. He wrote dozens of books and thousands of songs. He carried around a tape recorder so that ideas never slipped through the cracks. And all these tidbits were dutifully incorporated into virtually every article ever written about Allen.
So Steve Allen did not sell himself short. On the other hand, he WAS the father of the late-night talk show. And he DID manage to successfully transport the same sophisticated, urbane fun of “Tonight” to a prime-time variety series. “The Steve Allen Show” was never a huge hit – it faced an uphill battle opposite “The Ed Sullivan Show” for most of its run. But Allen’s offbeat humor, a sterling supporting cast and an eclectic list of guest stars made for some bright Sunday nights in the late 1950s. Here’s an episode from June 2, 1957:
By the time he brought “Tonight” to TV in 1953, Allen had already been a disk jockey and had his own radio comedy show. He’d also had a daytime series or two. And what he did on “Tonight” was daring in its simplicity – he came onstage, talked to the audience, ad-libbed funny remarks and played the piano. “Broadway Open House” was technically the first late-night network series, but it was a variety-cum-vaudeville show that was about as subtle as a pile driver. “Tonight” was the first to rise (or fall) solely on the personality of the host.
Allen had an infectious giggle, a keen sense of the absurd and the ability to laugh at himself. He looked like an insurance salesman – horn-rimmed glasses, Brylcreemed hair, conservative suits. He was smart, but not showy. “Tonight” began as a local New York City show, but it was such a success that it soon moved to the full NBC network. Surrounded by a cast of semi-regular vocalists like Eydie Gorme, Pat Kirby, Steve Lawrence and Andy Williams, Allen noodled on the piano and talked about anything that suited his fancy. He’d also go outside the studio for remotes (shades of David Letterman). Sometimes he’d just sit inside, watch people walking by outside and make funny comments about them while playing a tune.
“The Steve Allen Show” came along in the spring of 1956. It was more scripted and structured than “Tonight,” but a relaxed air prevailed. Even more important to the show’s success was the addition of an invaluable cast of male comic actors as regulars – Don Knotts, Louis Nye and Tom Poston.
The three men were shown off in a weekly “Man on the Street” segment. Allen would ask a question and it would be answered by each of the regulars – Nye as Madison Avenue smoothie Gordon Hathaway (“Hi-ho, Steverino”), Poston as a forgetful everyman who couldn’t even recall his own name, and Don Knotts as the highly-strung Mr. Morrison, who responded to every question with a look that suggested a loaded pistol had just been pointed in his face.
Allen also reveled in unusual guest stars, including writer Jack Kerouac and comic Lenny Bruce. He showcased jazz legends like pianist Art Tatum and singer Carmen MacRae. Even “normal” guest stars were prompted to do unusual things – Allen had Elvis Presley dress in a tuxedo, stand on an elegant stage set and sing “Hound Dog” to a real hound dog. (Presley said later he felt humiliated over the bit – this was before he tested the true boundaries of humiliation by appearing in films like “Harum Scarum” and “Tickle Me.”)
Allen’s sense of humor was equal parts cerebral and silly. If Milton Berle did a sketch with a giant toothbrush, all the jokes would have been about the toothbrush. Allen would have done toothbrush jokes as well, but he also would have commented about the absurdity of a giant toothbrush to begin with. He also loved to lampoon the media. He would read the lyrics to “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp-a-Bomp-a-Bomp)” as poetry. Or he would pick up a newspaper and read real letters to the editor with mock indignation. Or he’d send up sportscasters. (“Here’s the score of the game between Harvard and William and Mary: Harvard 14, William 12, Mary 6.”)
And Allen’s ad-libbing skills were formidable.
When a psychologist interviewed on an Allen show talked about man’s two greatest fears being of loud noises and falling, Allen replied, “I have a great fear of making a loud noise while falling.”
Once on the “Tonight” show Allen was doing a live commercial for Plexiglas, and had to demonstrate its resistance to shattering by hitting the sheet with a hammer. The sheet shattered. Without missing a beat, Allen said, “That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, this hammer is made of Plexiglas.”
Another time on “The Steve Allen Show,” John Cameron Swayze was doing a live commercial for Timex watches. As part of the “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” campaign, a wristwatch was strapped onto what looked like a small washing machine. After being vibrated, sloshed and spun, the watch actually stopped. Swayze tried to cover: “Next week,” he said, “the test will work.” To which Allen replied, “What makes you think they’re going to be with us next week?”
In its first season, “The Steve Allen Show” gave Ed Sullivan a run for the money, so much so that in the summer of 1957, after Allen “stole” guest stars like Pat Boone away from Sullivan, he was attacked in Sullivan’s column. The resulting publicity helped Allen more than Sullivan, but in the long run Sullivan’s reliance on big-name guests and special events helped him outpace Allen. After his NBC series ended its run in 1960, Allen fronted a short-lived variety show aired on ABC. Then he went back into the talk show business, hosting a nationally syndicated series. In the 1970s, his grasp of history and philosophy was showcased on the PBS series “Meeting of Minds.” Then he became a talk-show guest with Carson, Leno and Letterman. In the last years of his life, Allen crusaded against what he saw as excessive vulgarity in the popular media. He died in 2000.