Like a lot of others, I’m looking forward to CNN’s new six-part documentary series “The Story of Late Night,” a look at the history of late night television talk shows.
The first episode at 8 Sunday night will likely focus on Steve Allen, the co-creator and first host of NBC’s “Tonight Show.” It was network television’s first late-night talk show.
Steve Allen’s version of “The Tonight Show” ran only for a couple of years beginning in 1954, but it would continue to this day with future hosts Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon, uninterrupted for coming up on 70 years! Allen later produced several different reincarnations of his original talk show, one of which kept me up late on many a school night in the 1960s.
I talked with Steve Allen for a television news story as he sat at the piano on the stage of Chester Fritz Auditorium in advance of a performance there in 1982.
At one point I said something incredibly stupid, like, “You are the father of the television talk show …” Before I could get myself out of it, he said, “Yes, and if I ever find out who the mother is there’s going to be one hell of a scandal around here!”
Well-worn jokes aside, he downplayed his contribution to the late-night television talk show genre. At least he did that day to me. He claimed it didn’t take much talent or imagination to “set up a couple of chairs” and start talking with people on television.
There was much more to it than that, of course. In addition to talk and music, Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” was known was for its hidden camera and “man on the street” interviews. Even more so for his “wacky” stunts. Tuning in on any particular night, it wouldn’t be unusual to see him being gingerly dipped into a vat of oatmeal or, on another occasion, cottage cheese. A generation later, David Letterman would create similar Steve Allen-like stunts on his NBC and CBS talk shows. One of the most famous of which was having himself suited up in an outfit covered with Alka-Seltzer tablets and dipped into a pool of water.
His loopy television comedy was only the tip of Steve Allen’s talent iceberg. He was also an accomplished pianist, a prolific songwriter, author and actor. He championed jazz music on television and was an early supporter of such diverse entertainers as Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee and Frank Zappa.
When we talked, Allen said he was more proud of a lesser-known, scripted PBS series he created called “Meeting of Minds” beginning in the late 1970s. In it, actors, including his wife, Jane Meadows, played famous historic figures like Marie Antoinette, Karl Marx, Socrates, Charles Darwin, even Atilla the Hun. Written in a talk show format, the “characters” argued over issues like racism, women’s rights and religious tolerance. It won any number of awards including several Emmys and a Peabody Award.
It was “Meeting of Minds” Steve Allen wanted to be remembered for. Still, most of us can’t help but think of him as the father of the television talk show. No joke.