[NOTE: This one's a very long entry -- let the page "build" to see the many video embeds from YouTube.]
The day after last Xmas — December 26, 2021 — marked the centennial of the birth of Steve Allen, one of my all-time favorites. A comedian with a ready wit, who bent language brilliantly as he talked. A TV pioneer, who pretty much invented the late night talk show. A seasoned performer, who wrote in many formats — from sketch comedy to monologues, from short stories and poems to novels, from plays to musicals, and many, many songs.
There is no official DVD box set of Allen’s TV work, which is a sad state of affairs for fans of classic TV comedy. Thankfully, some fans have posted shards of Steve’s incredible TV work online so he can still be remembered for the wonderfully smart and exquisitely silly man that he was.
I saluted the august occasion of Steve’s centennial by airing four episodes about Steve on the weekly Funhouse TV show — three of the episodes were new (dealing with his b&w TV work in the Fifties) and one was a vintage Funhouse episode about his TV work in the Sixties and Seventies, spruced up for digitization, from the initial run of five episodes I did when Allen died in 2000. Assembling these shows sent me back to the tapes I have of his Fifties prime-time show that aired on the then-new Comedy Central in the 1990s (sadly recorded on 6-hour speed on inferior tapes) and other material of his I have on VHS from years past.Allen was a master at what could easily be called “smart comedy.” When I was a kid, my father recommended him to me and I discovered his world of humor at the same time I was becoming a Marx Brothers cultist. (The discovery of the key modern smart-comedy act, Monty Python, was still a few years off.)
Throughout the years I’ve revisited Steve’s available work, and his finest stuff does measure up to the best work of the people he himself classified as the best television comedians — from monologists like Hope and Berle (neither of whom I’m a big fan of, but Hope’s early movie work was great) to sketch masters like Gleason and the mighty Sid Caesar.
The most valuable thing Steve did throughout his career was to immediately book on his various shows comedians, musicians, and even authors whose work he loved. Thus, his audience was not only treated to the great ensemble of character comedians that surrounded Steve on a weekly basis, but they also encountered in prime time – or on syndicated talk shows that Steve did throughout the years — a raft of the second half of the Twentieth Century’s most important entertainers and artists, including (deep breath) Billie Holiday, Carl Sandburg, Lenny, Elvis, Miles, Jonathan Winters, Lionel Hampton, Shelley Berman, Jacques Tati, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jack Kerouac, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, Frank Zappa, Woody Allen, Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Albert Brooks, and many, many others.
The clips that exist of these landmark guest appearances are in some cases readily available on YouTube (and are clips you should indeed check out); others are either tucked away (a very small bit of the Tati appearance is in the Criterion box of Tati’s films in one of the supplemental documentaries) or are sadly lost forever. The last-mentioned is the case with the Sandburg and the Billie Holiday appearances (although audio exists of two “Tonight” appearances by Lady Day) and a full-length interview Allen did with Henry Miller, which he lamented never aired at all and pretty much instantly “disappeared” after he was told he couldn’t air it — despite the fact that Miller said nothing “questionable” in the discussion.
Lacking any home-video/DVD/Blu-ray release of ANY of his television work, what we have to go on are, again, the shards and full shows posted by fans and collectors. I present a survey of these below, but did want to first acknowledge Allen’s work as an author. My recent video binge of his work that is online and that I had on tape was augmented by a mini-binge of reading/re-reading a select amount of his books. (14 thus far, with at least 3-4 to go.)
Steve wrote a number of books from the time of his hosting “Tonight” until his death in 2000. They are of varying interest to different readers, as he wrote about a number of subjects and published fiction, non-fiction, and even poetry in his busiest years. The collections of his comic writing and sketches (four highly recommended books, starting with Bigger Than a Breadbox), his five humorous novelty books, and the three books he wrote about comedians are the most useful to students of comedy and are still very enjoyable to read.
Of particular interest is The Funny Men, which Steve wrote in 1956, evaluating the TV comedy stars of that day (and including some gents whose shows had gone off the air but deserved better in his view, including Wally Cox and Red Buttons). The book is a fascinating read now, because it was the first time a successful performer wrote up those who influenced him (some of whom were his competitors) and honestly tried to discuss what their appeal was.
The result is a book that is only funny when he quotes from routines (he does include all of Cox’s brilliant “Dufo (What a Crazy Guy)”) but will fascinate fans/cultists/researchers of Fifties TV comedians, as Steve praises the comedians in question but also notes their best and sometimes feeblest aspects. For instance, he speaks of Benny and Gleason as two of the greatest “comic actors,” while praising Groucho and Fred Allen for their natural wit and discussing the likability of performers like George Gobel and Arthur Godfrey (whose much-discussed underside is addressed by Steve).
The follow-up books to Funny Men were Funny People and More Funny People, both published in the early Eighties. By this point Steve was deeply disturbed by cursing and “obscenity” in standup comedy and on TV. Thus, he wrote about one-of-a-kind standups like Pryor and Carlin, and while he did acknowledge their comic genius and their seemingly effortless brilliance onstage, he still had to condemn their language — although he did mention their both being clearly connected to Lenny Bruce, whose work he defended at all stages of his career. Both of the Funny People books are certainly worth reading — especially when he is writing about his own experiences encountering the younger comics, like Andy Kaufman — but it is dispiriting to see Steve calling for outright censorship of “filthy” comics.
|Not a serious |
Most interesting among his nonfiction is his autobiography, Mark It and Strike It (1960) and his book of reminiscences about his work on radio and TV, Hi-Ho, Steverino! (1992) (which someone has posted a PDF of here). The latter covers all of the TV work discussed below but gives short shrift to his 1968-72 talk show, in favor of several pages about a later prime-time one-shot special he worked called “Comedy Zone” that unraveled as it was being produced.
The biggest surprise about Allen as a writer was the ease with which he wrote fiction. The later nine mystery novels released under his name were ghostwritten (one of the bigger disappointments for a fan like myself who wanted to believe that Steve wrote all of his own work, whether or not it was compelling to read — and those mysteries were not at all compelling). But he published two novels in his lifetime and two early books of short stories (which were re-packaged with newer stories in 1990 and 1995).
As of this writing, I have read one of the two novels (Not All of Your Laughter, Not All of Your Tears, The Wake — which is perhaps a better memoir than his autobiography and contains a strikingly symbolic dream sequence) and have recently reread the two early collections of short stories (Fourteen for Tonight, The Girls on the 10th Floor). In reading these stories, one can sense that he wanted to break free of his “straight arrow” image, and so he wrote prose that frequently covered the darker sides of life. Sometimes the stories have O. Henry-esque “twist” endings, while others are simple vignettes that begin and end in medias res.
Allen always held himself back from using explicit language, but then again he could include “adult” elements, as he was seemingly writing to sell the stories to markets that existed in the Fifties — the mainstream magazines that primarily published fiction, men’s magazines (even some softcore pubs like Cavalier), and family-oriented publications that would throw in a short story or poem if written by a celebrity.
The most interesting thing about reading the short stories in the original 1950s collections is, most certainly, seeing which stories Steve chose not to reprint in his two later collections. Some of these are not very good (for instance, “Dialogue,” a piece where “He” and “She” have an afternoon at a no-tell motel and the man offers a disquisition on the Seven Deadly Sins) or they’re pretty far out for Steve and are actually very effective because he was “jumping off the cliff” (as in the creepy “Hello Again, Darling,” in which we read two letters from a fan who believes he’s having intimate communications with a TV star and keeps making sideways jokes about how much “fun” they’ll have when they meet — in this case, Allen’s avoidance of graphic language makes the letter-writer’s “jokes” even creepier).
His most-anthologized short story is called “The Public Hating,” which is a piece of dystopic sci-fi that was published first in Bluebook magazine in Jan. 1955. Some critics have likened it to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” in that both are disturbing tales of ritualized mass violence. Jackson’s tale is indeed a milestone in American short fiction, but “The Public Hating” (which grew out of Steve’s opposition to capital punishment) quickly and subtly creates an environment of menace by describing what seems like two men going to a sports stadium to attend a commonly held event, which quickly turns out not to be a game but is instead a ritual in which the public torments (and, it is implied, kills) a criminal through the force of their mass hatred of him. You can read the story here.
This short story does reflect the dimensions of Allen’s talent and his desire to express his ideas in many different ways, moving beyond a funny sketch with kooky characters or a pop tune with a catchy melody. Although Mort Sahl was the first “egghead” comedian in nightclubs, Steve was the first eggheaded figure in TV comedy — a very smart and quick-witted gent whose interests went all over the map, but who could be incredibly silly when called upon to simply amuse a TV audience.
Allen rarely returned to fiction after the 1972 novel The Wake. He published a dozen new stories in later collections that repackaged the Fifties stories (“The Public Hating: a Collection of Short Stories” in 1990 and “The Man Who Turned Back the Clock and Other Stories” in 1995; one can’t be sure when he wrote the dozen new inclusions in these books).
It seems more than coincidental that he dropped fiction from his output when he began to dictate his books (into his ever-present tape recorders, which he used steadily for the last few decades of his life to assemble his books) rather than sitting and writing or typing out the work. (The urgency with which he wrote when typing out a piece is conveyed in the nonfiction obituary/essay “Joe Shulman Is Dead,” which he included in with his stories up through the Nineties collections.) At the time he began to verbally compose his books into a tape recorder, the “professorial” mode of his writing commenced — there was still emotion behind what he was writing, but the verbal experimentation and unusual tones he used in his short fiction was very much gone and an uncommonly precise (and grammatical) tone took over.
This discussion about his writing underscores Allen’s singular position in TV history — an intellectual guy who also happened to be a very gifted comedian as well. He had no problem at all in performing slapstick but was on firmest ground comedically with deft word play. He also was the first late-night comedian to recommend to his audience various new books (both fiction and non-fiction) to read.
The sillier stunts he took on during his Westinghouse years can be linked to the games played currently by Fallon, Corden, Kimmel, and company, but his recommendations of books and inclusion of literary figures on both “Tonight” and his prime-time Sunday night variety series makes him the progenitor of Dick Cavett and the very few other “smart hosts” that American television has had in its nearly 75 years in existence.
If someone wants to know who Steve Allen was, the best intro is probably the “Biography” episode about him, which can be found here. An invaluable trove of Allen’s TV shows is in the collection of the Paley Center, which can be visited in NYC and L.A. The database for the Center can be searched online but, as with Vegas, what is viewed is the Center stays in the Center, and so if you don’t live in NYC or L.A., all one can say is Steve’s oft-spoken benediction, “Lotsa luck!”
|Steve and the first crop of|
"Men on the Street."
By the time he reached TV he had worked for several years on different radio shows. On radio shows with studio audiences he did work at a faster pace, perhaps because radio demanded more attention from the listener. Only a handful of his radio shows seem to have floated out into public domain. This particular one with guest Al Jolson features Steve at his inventive best, leaning on the wordplay but also trying to constantly engage the studio audience and keep the program moving along.
The earliest example on YouTube of Steve “getting used” to TV is his guest appearance on “The Faye Emerson Show” in May of 1951 (when he is a mere 29 years old). He comes on to take part in a jokey discussion of “men’s fashion.” Emerson was the first woman to host a talk show on American TV; she was doing “girl talk” before Virginia Graham arrived on the scene to coin that phrase.
The earliest Steve show that is currently on YT is a 1952 example of his CBS morning show. He is extremely low-key here, except when he acts out an Abbott and Costello-style comedy team bit with another actor. The guest star on this show is Miss Peggy Lee.
The next item is one of those revelations: a late-night show from Dec. 30, 1953, at which point Allen was doing locally in the NYC area the show that Pat Weaver eventually put on the network (and added numerous “special events” on satellite to) as "Tonight."
Again, the pacing is much slower than modern viewers are used to, but that only serves to make the proceedings more amiable and charming. Steve and Eydie perform (by this point they were a team on-air and off) and the “Droodles” creator Roger Price shows off his creations and discusses his philosophy of “avoidism.”
The sponsor of Steve’s 45-minute nighttime NYC show (running from 11:15 p.m. to midnight), the Knickerbocker beer company, continued to be his sponsor as he started off “Tonight.” They in fact sponsored a mini-show (running 15 minutes) that was slated to run before “Tonight” — thus, those in NYC got a full hour and 45 minutes of Steve in the early days of this national experiment. Here, Steve notes the switchover, sings with Steve and Eydie, and welcomes Ink Spots singer Bill Kenny.
While Steve was truly “hot” in the biz, he used one of his two nights off to appear on What’s My Line?, establishing an interesting lineage in the “second male” spot — from Steve Allen to Fred Allen to Woody Allen. Yes, Steve and Fred were regulars and Woody was only on the panel a few times, but the “brilliant humorists named Allen” bit holds; that second male slot bounced back and forth among comedians (Buddy Hackett, Groucho), debonair movie stars (James Mason), Renaissance figures (Peter Ustinov), and up-and-comers (Peter Cook, Dick Cavett).
And then came the big night. September 27, 1954 to exact — the first night of “Tonight,” the double-the-length, bigger-budgeted network version of Steve’s NYC-area late-night show. Nearly every episode of “Tonight” (preserved on kinescope) was destroyed by an NBC worker who “needed more shelf space” in a network facility. Thankfully, a few shows escaped this fiery end, including the debut episode.
Oddly, Weaver and his creative minds decided that Gene Rayburn should do a mini-newscast (including national weather) at midnight, thereby interrupting the flow of the show with dire news stories. (You’ll see here that on the first night the stories included one about Senator Joseph McCarthy and another about a man who killed his children — “now, back to Steve!”) Rayburn had come fresh off of working at WNEW-AM with Dee Finch — his slot was filled by Funhouse favorite Gene Klavan. And Steve himself went back to radio for a wonderful period in the late 1980s — on WNEW. (Which I wrote about at length in this blog entry.)
The midnight news break was dropped a few months in.
Allen noted on several occasions that Paar’s “Tonight” was more like the current version of late-night TV, with a panel for the duration. The 1980s and early ’90s iteration of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” was actually the progenitor of the current mode: opening monologue, silly sketch, perhaps a kooky animal bit (later to be goofy game or taped piece), and then a succession of guests who come on to plug something. One musical number per show, placed wherever is best for plugs and/or commercial breaks.
In Hi-Ho Steverino! [pp 132-141], Allen noted that his “Tonight” included various types of specialty programming that were not done by his successors. He cites the examples of a pre-“Tonight” theme show he hosted on organized crime that aired on WNBT (the original WNBC) in the timeslot of his Knickerbocker NYC late-night show. Then he goes on to offer discuss the interesting topics covered on “Tonight.” Included is a show he did on the “Red Scare” in which Faye Emerson and TV critic John Crosby debated the head of AWARE (a “Commie”-hunting organization of the time) and the man who assembled Red Channels, the book that was used as a directory for TV producers of whom to hire and not hire.
|From the NYC-aired late-night|
"Steve Allen Show" on WNBT.
This prime-time special version of “Tonight” from Nov. 9, 1954, has a novelty pairing of a song and a related sketch, a comedy bit by Kaye Ballard, and Steve doing his “Letters to the Editor” bit (where he emphasized the “outrage” that drove the newspaper letters column — that same emotion drives a whole lot of TV and Net-programming today). And Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney!
This clip is undated, but clearly seems to come from either the NYC Knickerbocker show or the first months of “Tonight.” Steve is in his vest-wearing mellow mode and his guest in this instance is the film archivist Paul Killiam, doing a deadpan standup act, in which he delivered a “lecture” of some kind or other that was illustrated by one of the many silents he collected. His jokes are fairly decent, but it’s the “mixed media” nature of his act that is the most interesting aspect.
This “Tonight” show does seem similar to today’s Fallon incarnation of the show, as the whole affair becomes a big table-tennis competition with guests Zsa Zsa Gabor and Jose Ferrer. Where this differs from the current “Tonight” is that Steve was hosting in a very laid back, late-night mood (whereas Fallon seems caffeine-(or something-else-)charged every single night).
Amazing segment from another “Tonight” episode, this time from 1955. Martin and Lewis were sick of each other by this point but could still play nice for the cameras. Here they are interviewed via satellite by Steve. It’s a great slice of show-business history, especially if you keep in mind that Steve argues in The Funny Men (in 1956) that M&L couldn’t split up because, in essence, viewers needed Dean’s laid-back charm to counter Jerry’s high-energy comedy. (Little did Steve know how things were boiling over at that point….)
The last hiding-in-plain sight Allen “Tonight” show is a January 1956 episode shot when the “Tonight” company was in Miami. It’s still laid back, with Steve having to cover for various segments not working or not being ready. A comedian buried by the sands of time gets an ample amount of screen time and, yes, some goofy games are played. (Steve often lamented that the “Tonight” episodes were destroyed, because he clearly wanted viewers to see the variety of things the show covered — instead here we have bicycle races over a pool.)
One of the nicer, mellower bits from “Tonight” that somehow was preserved is this clip of Steve playing with a new walking, talking doll for little girls, and singing the song “Love Thy Neighbor” with Skitch Henderson on piano.
I had asked the poster of this way back on MySpace (yes, antediluvian times) where he had found this clip and he noted that he was posting things for Bill Morrison, the delightful “Balloonman” who had been on Steve’s 1968-’72 syndicated show a few times. Morrison’s act consisted of making very complicated structures with balloons and being incredibly deadpan. I’ll link to one of the later clips below, but here is Steve on “Tonight” — in a clip that Allen himself gifted to Morrison for use on his public access show. (Their interview is also up on YT.)
The second episode of Steve’s prime-time Sunday night variety show (which ran from ’56-’60, before it bounced to other nights on another network) was truly historic, as it featured Elvis in his third appearance on TV. (Steve booked him after he had done Jimmy Dorsey and Berle’s shows, but before Ed Sullivan did.)
The show offers an excellent example of “cluttered” variety. Steve was opposite Sullivan, so it was clearly mandated that he host this show at a much quicker pace, with multiple acts being thrown at the viewer in rapid succession. As of this show he became a solid sketch comedian, working with a great ensemble of second bananas (nearly all of whom seemed to reach sitcom nirvana in their later careers) and a bigger group of comedy writers. (He had exactly two, Stan Burns and Herb Sargent, for “Tonight.”)
There is a lot of music and comedy here, but it’s all a preamble to Elvis. Steve and his producers softened the already-established Presley image by having him appear in a tuxedo and sing to a hound dog, then appear in a “country” sketch that wouldn’t have been out of place 15 years later on “Hee-Haw.” It’s certainly TV history, but it’s not great Elvis and it’s not really good Allen.
By the summer of ’56 Steve was much more comfortable as a prime-time comedian/host, as is evident in this live “remote” bit from his July 22nd show. He was very intent on throwing the things that made “Tonight” so beloved by its viewers at his prime-time audience (within sponsor/network parameters), and so an eight-minute segment from Birdland with Count Basie and his band was not out of the question.
From the same show, Steve again in Times Square, this time to introduce the Four Lads doing “Standin’ on the Corner” while standing on (well, what else) a corner. A delightfully corny, un-p.c. song acted out in a neat little slice of NYC silliness.
Some last-minute items turned up as I was finishing this piece. One of them was this full episode from March 7, 1957, of the Sunday night prime-time show, a program that answers the musical question, “Was Floyd the Barber ever a “Man on the Street’?” Yes, he was, as this episode was shot in L.A. and apparently Don Knotts and Tom Poston stayed in NYC. Thus, we have three people in a “Man” bit — Louis Nye, Belle Montrose (Steve’s mom, a veteran of vaudeville), and Howard McNear, later to play Floyd on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
There are three musical acts on this show: Peggy Lee, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and rockabilly faves the Collins Kids. There are two comedy segments, but it’s more of a musical show — in addition to the musical guests performing, Steve does a live remote from the top of the Capitol Records building, where he plays piano and monkeys around with an actress who was cast as “Jane” in that year’s latest version of “Tarzan.”
A unique segment occurs in the middle of the show: Dinah Shore (whose show followed Steve’s on Sunday nights) receives an award for “Mother of the Year” from “the Westwood chapter of the City of Hope.” This is most interesting in light of a short story Allen wrote called “The Award,” where he lays out the flimsiness of most awards given to big celebrities as being publicity events for the organizations who have created the awards.
He discusses this directly in an interview he did on Mike Wallace’s show, where Wallace mentions the short story and asks Steve to talk about whether or not he thinks awards are “meaningless gimmicks thought up by promotion men.” That discussion can be found here.
Steve was not a fan of rock music. But in the Fifties on his prime-time show and in the late Sixties on his syndicated talk show, he did have rock acts booked. And despite his antipathy for the genre, rock ’n’ roll fit perfectly with the more anarchic side of his humor.
Here, among other elements, we have the great Louis Nye, already taglined into fame with his “Hi-Ho, Steverino!” Mad Man character Gordon Hathaway, being spoofed by Jerry Lewis. But the best time-capsule element for a show airing on June 2, ’57 had to be the Diamonds doing their big hit “Little Darlin’” The song was a spoof itself (of doo-wop and rock ’n’roll stagework), so it fits in beautifully with the comedy on the show.
By this point Steve had left “Tonight” for good, concentrating his attention on the Sunday night prime-time show.
Another frantically paced show, this time with a staple of Steve’s prime-time show that was not frantically paced (and would never have been tolerated after the mid-Sixties), a “gone wrong” sketch, in which we see an entire scene played correctly, with no laughs at all, and then we see it again with all kinds of foul-ups, creating laughs. (Here it’s a musical number sung by Martha Raye.)
Allen had people on his shows that other mainstream programs avoided like the plague. One of those guests was the groundbreaker, the one and only Lenny Bruce. Steve had him on his show three times. (The third can only be seen at the Paley Center — because it never aired. But it is not as radically weird or off-putting as Steve describes it in his Funny People chapter on Lenny.)
Lenny was able to stay (somewhat) family-friendly in the two appearances he made on the Sunday night prime-time show but snuck in some weird content (in this case his famous “sniffing airplane glue to get high” bit). He also does a serious bit (which was rather poorly imitated on the “Mrs Maisel” show). It’s a landmark piece of TV, because it was Steve bringing on a performer who was literally rewriting the definition of standup comedy as he performed.
Probably the best example of the Allen prime-time show’s mix of elements, this episode from Nov. 15, ’59, was the one where Steve introduced Jack Kerouac to a family TV audience.
The show is seen here in vibrant (and sometimes garish) color, containing a really entertaining mix of elements: two Frankie Laine songs bookending the program; “Crazy Shots” (a collection of quick surreal joke-shots, a la Kovacs); a sketch involving Steve’s ensemble of great comic actors as scientists; Steve promotes two recently released books – the paperback version of Exodus and Gentlemen, Scholars and Scoundrels, a collection of pieces from Harper’s magazine; a “girl singer” (of which there seem to have been an endless parade on Steve’s show – and many other Fifties hosts); a sketch mocking family sitcoms, starring William Bendix; “The Question Man” (the “questions supplied for answers” bit that Carson stole for Carnac); and Kerouac reading his work while Steve accompanied him on piano (really pretty radical for Fifties TV — right up there with the two Lenny Bruce appearances).
Perhaps the best complete Allen show one can find (currently) on YouTube.
A wonderful musical spoof of Frankenstein films from that same Plymouth-sponsored last season on NBC (from the Jan. 11, 1960, episode). “Sweet Mystery of Life” is used 14 years before Young Frankenstein! Mannequins used in scenes of violence! (So ridiculous I always find it funny.) Jayne Meadows makes an excellent “Wife” of the monster! The always-great Louis Nye makes a great singing monster! (And the burgomaster is Gabe Dell, not Pat Harrington Jr, as is indicated on the posting.)
The very last thing I found while assembling this piece was the full episode from which the above was taken. It’s from the Plymouth season and the show features an interesting array of items, with the Frankenstein skit standing as the only piece of scripted comedy.
Tony Bennett performs at the opening and close of the episode, doing a great medley at the end. A comedian named Caroline Richter performs a character piece (of a woman who is talking to her husband after he’s shot her at a nightclub — definitely an odd premise). After a song from singer Monica Zetterlund, the Frankenstein bit appears. Then Steve does 15 minutes of shtick with the studio audience (dispensing very large salamis — seemingly over 3 feet long — to the “good sports” who talk to him). The show closes out with Tony, a mere stripling of 33 at the time. The full show can be seen here.
An interesting tidbit from that same season — Allen’s last on NBC for the prime-time series — is on the archive.org site. Steve says he wanted to know what his viewers were talking about, and so we hear a couple’s reaction to the opening of his show on the soundtrack. Another instance in which Steve joined Ernie Kovacs in that amazing space where TV comedy decided to mess with the medium itself. From May 16, 1960 — click here.
|The network speaks. An interview about the |
"New" Steve Allen Show in 1961:
"... I don't propose to do any Meeting of Minds
or recommend any more books."
We arrive finally at the syndicated show that took Steve away from sketch comedy and back to hosting a talk show with all kinds of odd comedy interludes. On his Westinghouse show (which lasted from 1962 to 1964) he performed a series of wild, daredevil stunts that are at odds with the rest of his comedy, but which appealed to young viewers like Andy Kaufman, Steve Martin, and David Letterman (who later acknowledged his debt to Steve and the Westinghouse show).
He also began doing a series of prank phone calls with celebrity guests (which were later released on two LPs) and refined an older bit he had done on “Tonight,” where he would have a camera pointed out on the street and made comments about passersby.
This particular episode opens with a stunt — which goes perfectly, but does indeed a weirdly life-threatening aspect to it. Steve engages in some flagpole sitting for a time (during which he makes a prank phone call — but is figured out to be Steve Allen) and then does a regular show in the studio. I’m assuming he shot the studio stuff before the flagpole stunt, as he makes only one mention of the flagpole business in passing — you’d think he would’ve reflected back on what it was like to be stuck up there when safely back in the studio.
The show gives two very solid musical moments, supplied by Slim Gaillard and Barbara McNair, and two oddball segments that belonged specifically to the Westinghouse period. The first finds Steve checking out the contents of Mexican jumping beans on-air, and the second involves a babe in a teddy who is serving as “Miss Measure Your Mattress Month.” The bit seems to be aimed to get the sexy young lady to interact with Steve on a bed, but instead becomes gleefully childlike as the Allen camera and sound crew end up leaving their posts and jumping onto the beds. It’s a very different kind of Steve Allen show compared to the calm early Fifties series, “Tonight,” and the super-slick Sunday night prime-time variety show.
The Westinghouse shows reportedly all exist and are in the archive of a university — which one I couldn’t determine from online searches, but Steve did mention this in one interview. One wishes, of course, that the public had ready access to them.
On Aug 13, 1963, Steve was host to Kyu Sakamoto, the Japanese pop star who had a No. 1 hit in America with “Sukiyaki.” A snippet of his performance of the song, and Steve speaking to him afterward (with English subs!) are seen here. Kyu’s translator was his mother. (He was a kid of 21 when he had a massive international hit song.)
Here Steve speaks to Peter Sellers about Dr. Strangelove, focusing in on the way Sellers created the voice for the title character.
The Westinghouse show was known for its oddball humor segments, but Allen did still conduct interviews and have guests answer questions from the audience. Here, the Greatest came on to do his shtick and put down Sonny Liston. (Given that he keeps announcing the fight will happen soon, one assumes this is before the first bout, which took place in February of 1964.)
Another rarity — the Rivingtons on the Westinghouse show in Feb of ’64.
And the Rivingtons do their anthemic song (ripped off by “Surin’ Bird”) for Steve.
Just a few of the stunts Allen did on the Westinghouse show.
Steve discontinued the Westinghouse show for a network gig, hosting “I’ve Got a Secret.” He returned to doing his own style of comedy for a summer series in 1967. Here Steve, Jayne, Louis Nye, Dayton Allen (doing his terrific Groucho), and Paul Lynde do a spoof of “The Taming of the Shrew,” in response to the Taylor and Burton film released in ’67.
One of Allen’s best-remembered sketches, and one that qualifies as the first satire of TV telethons, is “The Prickly Heat Telethon.” The sketch appeared on his summer ’67 show and it can’t be a simple coincidence that it aired in the year after Jerry Lewis’ Telethon for MDA made its national bow. (Jerry had done TV events for MDA in the Fifties and did local TV telethons in the early Sixties, seen only in California.)
The sketch finds comedian “Steve Maudlin” (a decade before “SCTV”’s brilliant “Sammy Maudlin Show” talk show take-downs!) playing friendly at the outset but getting nastier and nastier as the hours wear on and there are no big donations. Jayne plays an airheaded singer, John Byner does a terrific turn as a classic hack comedian (“Lenny Jackie”), and Allen regulars Louis Nye and Dayton Allen show up as a deli owner who is catering the show and a doctor who treats patients with prickly heat.
The sketch is a long one, running over 20 minutes, and was one Steve was quite proud of, as he went on to include it in not one but two of his humor collections (Schmock-Schmock! and Make ’Em Laugh). It is terrific, it does prefigure a bunch of things “SCTV” later did (they definitely learned from the best), and it adds a note that no other humorist came up with — the fact that the host and guests on this telethon will be appearing on other telethons in the months to follow!
Steve’s next, and sadly last, regular talk show was a syndicated one that aired from 1968 to ’72. This was my first exposure to Steve as a very young kid, and the show seemed magically weird and wonderfully silly. As I look at bits from it now, it seems hampered by a *very* low budget, but it did introduce me to the Allen world of comedy, so I’m grateful for that.
The series seems to have been “wiped” for the most part. This is very strange, since Fifties shows were gotten rid of regularly, but during the Sixties and afterwards, items with major stars were kept around — if not by the networks or sponsors, then by the performers themselves.
|Lost to history? Louise Lasser, Woody Allen,|
and Steve on the syndicated. show in 1971.
Thus, every bit we have of the ’68-’72 show is a little bit of history. Here we see the opening of this low-budget effort, with guest Jack Carter and Steve displaying one of his strongest suits: doing shtick with the studio audience.
A wonderfully historic little bit of footage, this clip shows Mel Brooks promoting his first film, The Producers, on the Allen show. Steve was instrumental in getting Brooks and Reiner to record the “2000 Year Old Man” LPs and was a booster of Mel’s work from the beginning (as Steve never stopped raving about the work done by Sid Caesar’s writers).
Allen did have rock acts on this last syndicated talk show series. In fact, he had the band labelled “the loudest band in the world” (per the Guinness Book of World Records), Blue Cheer, on in 1968. They performed two songs (“Out of Focus” and their amazingly raucous cover of “Summertime Blues”) and Steve interviewed them. This appearance has mostly circulated via cassettes of the audio recorded off the TV set (I got one of these from Funhouse viewer and bassist supreme Jeff Magnum, of the Dead Boys); now clearer versions of the two songs exist and have been put out on a collection of live tracks from the band. Those tracks are “locked up” on YouTube and can only be accessed if you subscribe to something called Music Choice.
Since I have no intention of giving YT money that won’t go to the artists directly, I will instead offer the old-school taped-off-TV version of the interview segment where Steve asks the band about their overpowering sound.
Now, it’s time for “Balloonman”! Bill Morrison (link above of him interviewing Steve on public access) is seen here doing his mega-deadpan balloon-animal act on the late Sixties syndicated show. Morrison’s deadpan patter is enhanced here by great (trippy) names for his balloon feats; the best one is “Broken Dream Release.” (Steve’s outfit is nearly as trippy as that trick name.)
And now for a slightly more famous deadpan comedian. Bob Einstein comes on the syndicated Allen show in character to discuss his career as a football player who encounters incredible violence on the field. Not only was this not seen in the recent HBO doc on Einstein (which felt there was a dire need to explain deadpan humor to those who didn’t understand how it works), but it was not even mentioned that Einstein made regular appearances on Steve’s show in character. (And then later showed up on Allen’s late Eighties radio show, on which Einstein got many a “bell” for doing questionable jokes — which left Steve in stitches.)
Bob’s brother Albert Brooks also guested on the ’68-’72 Allen show as a mime who can’t stop talking, but you’ll have to see that episode at the Paley Center.
In the late Seventies came the most unusual and gratifying moment for Allen — the airing of “Meeting of Minds” for four seasons of six shows each. The show was an idea he had that he wanted to do for the first time on his Sunday night prime-time variety show (another example of his broadly eclectic definition of “variety”). The sponsors did not want him to do it, presumably for reasons of pacing but also because, as he notes in Hi-Ho Steverino, he had Nat Hentoff assemble the thoughts of different philosophers about capital punishment. Since Allen himself noted publicly his disapproval of the execution of Caryl Chessman, the sponsor felt that “Meeting” would be anti-capital punishment propaganda.
Allen waited a few years and finally got to do “Meeting of Minds” on his Westinghouse show in 1964. He notes in Steverino that the episode aired without a hitch — he thought — until he discovered that the only mail he was getting about it was from viewers in California. He then learned that the show aired on none of the other syndication stations, as the distributor pulled it from the line-up.He did “Meeting” again on his ’68-’72 syndicated show in 1971, and that episode (which aired throughout the country) did so well, winning three Emmys, that he financed a full six-episode season himself in the mid-Seventies that led to PBS paying for the second through fourth seasons of the show. (The show aired on PBS from 1977 to ’81.)
The show might seem a bit unusual in this day and age, when one can readily refer to works by historic figures on the Internet in a few seconds. But “Meeting” was indeed both educational and entertaining, as Allen liked to pit figures with different opinions from different eras and different countries against each other in conversation and debate.
This viewer found the show riveting as a teen and wound up reading works about and by some of the guests. Hey, Steve’s fantasy guest roster included everyone from Plato and Socrates to Bertrand Russell and the Marquis de Sade!
The scripts for the show were released in book and audiotape form; only four of the 24 shows were made available in a home-video format (VHS), but now, thanks to another intrepid YT poster, we can finally see a round eight of the shows instantly. I would advise not watching the two about Shakespeare’s characters first — those episodes were an experiment that I don’t believe worked.
Here is the first episode of the series:
Now we reach the final chapter in Allen’s TV career. Thanks to a YouTube poster named “TGmovier,” who is either related to the great vibes player Terry Gibbs (still with us at 97!) or is his biggest fan, we have the three final series that Steve hosted. The first one was his last variety show, “The Steve Allen Comedy Hour” from 1980, which aired as a set of six “specials.”
The nicest discovery here is that Steve hadn’t lost any of his energy and comic invention. The show found him returning to some of his strong suits, such as providing comic commentary on people in the streets outside the theater and writing comic songs (for a piece he did in various formats over the years, his parody of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well... called Seymour Glick Is Alive But Sick).
|An Allen Xmas card.|
Allen also showcased new talent in this show, including the comic actress Doris Hess, and two performers who became better known for their work as writers on sitcoms, Nancy Steen and Tom Leopold. And since Steve never forgot the people of his own generation who were comic pros, Jackie Mason, Bob and Ray, Kaye Ballard, and the wonderful one-man army that was Jonathan Winters also got choice bits in these six shows. Here is the second episode of the series, featuring Mull’s musical number, a crazy news segment, Steve “narrating” life on the street, and a Seymour Glick... medley.
Two series that aired on the Disney Channel for very limited runs are also on the TGmovier YT account. The first is “Steve Allen’s Music Room” from 1983, a series in which Steve talked to singers and musicians and then just let them do their thing. Guests included Steve and Eydie, Paul Williams, Joe Williams, Rosemary Clooney, Lou Rawls, Melba Moore, Henry Mancini, Dizzy Gillespie, Patti Page, and Doc Severinsen. A young standup named Bill Maher was Steve’s cohost for this six-episode series.
Thankfully, there was a comic equivalent of the preceding called, naturally, enough “Steve Allen’s Comedy Room.” This six-episode series (also tucked away on the Disney Channel) aired in 1984 and featured a solid line-up of older comedians, and comic actors.
The guests included Sid Caesar, Shecky Green, Mort Sahl, Jack Carter, Dick Shawn, Louis Nye, George Gobel, Shelley Berman, Red Buttons, Danny Thomas, Jan Murray, Bob Newhart, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Pat Harrington, Milton Berle, and Carl Reiner. Billy Crystal was thrown in with the older panel guests, while a younger standup comedian performed each week; that group included Bill Maher and Franklyn Ajaye. (Who by this time had been working for about a decade.)
This is the first episode of the series, featuring Shecky Greene, Mort Sahl, and the mighty Sid Caesar. And yes, this was sadly the last time that Steve hosted a comedy series on TV.
If you’ve gotten this far in this piece, I will close out with two clips that show the two sides of Steve Allen. The first is a true rarity that I’d never heard of before its posting on YouTube. It’s a 1961 documentary made for Chicago TV that shows Steve going “Home Again,” investigating various places he remembered in Chicago from his childhood and adolescence.
The program is low-key, with soft music and shots of Steve in different urban locations. He opens the show with a seven-minute monologue about his childhood — his family history, him growing up in poverty, being transplanted from one place to the next, and return trips to Chicago as an adult that left him “depressed.” It is this side of Steve — the contemplative, low-key gentleman — that connects us both to the mellow host of the early Fifties series and the short stories where he took on different “voices.”
It’s somewhat like a therapy session, this visit, and at the end he delivers another monologue about how he came to finally embrace his hometown, noticing people’s Chicago accents when he was in another city, and dealing with his own past. He starts the show saying that one can’t go home again, but closes it out by saying “You can visit but you can’t stay.” For those who are interested in Steve Allen the man, I’d have to say this is the best representation of his quiet side, the “eggheaded,” overgrown young man who developed into a famous TV comedian but clearly worked for many years to pave over having grown up poor and transient.
And because the preceding was solemn and quietly emotional and eloquent, I have to follow it with this, the most-excerpted clip in Steve Allen’s career, the time he broke up seeing himself on the monitor as he played sportscaster “Big Bill Allen.” It’s entirely possible to remember Allen both as the serious soul who appears in “Home Again” and this guy, shrieking with laughter, making us all laugh in the process.
And since this entry is bursting at the seams with clips, why not (sayeth Steve sidekick Dayton Allen) end with this clip (which unfortunately looks murky as hell), showing Steve and his guests for one Sunday night prime-time show singing on the move from the Allen set (this when the show was “on the road” in L.A.) to Dinah Shore’s set, located what seems like several city blocks away. This was the transition from the end of Steve's show to the opener of Dinah's on the night of Feb. 9, 1958.
The Sinatra on display is an impersonator, if you couldn’t tell, but the other guests are Ann Sothern, Steve and Eydie, and Dinah herself. The song? Why, Steve’s best-known tune, his signature piece, and the only pop song you’ll ever hear (prove me wrong!) that mentions buying a fig….
Thanks to Anthony DiFlorio, “CoughHiccup,” and “TGmovier” for their YT posts. Also, Jerry Moore at Mind Snack Books who has an excellent page on Steve’s books here (URL), and author Will Friedwald, who celebrated Steve’s centennial in one of his weekly “Clip Joint” video presentations back in early 2021. (Get the weekly Clip Joint email here.)