There was a lot of talk about Johnny Carson yesterday, of course. I don't think I can add much to it, certainly not as well as Lileks or Teachout did. But in all of this, I don't think it diminishes any of Johnny's achievements to say that I actually preferred Jack Paar to Johnny.
I was too young to remember Paar; only 2 or so when he left the Tonight Show. I'd heard of him, as any TV buff would, but I didn't really know anything about him until I saw this documentary about him on PBS a few years ago. And once I saw that, I was hooked.
There was something about Jack Paar, something quite different from Carson. A TV Guide from the era described it as "fascinating megalomania," and I think that's probably accurate. But there was something else, too, and I don't know if you can entirely chalk it up to the times.
The times were different, of course. Back then kids didn't stay up all hours. The Tonight Show truly was an adult television show, and there seemed something almost forbidden on those Friday nights when you might be allowed to stay up a little later, at least to see the start of the show. It was comedy for big kids.
The show was different too, back when Paar did it. For one thing it was an hour and 45 minutes long; hard to believe nowadays. For another thing it was live, at least when Paar started. It was urbane, sophisticated. Paar used to tell his guests to talk in a softer voice, befitting the hour of night and keeping in mind a lot of people watched the show in bed.
Paar introduced groundbreaking comics, same as Johnny, but there was more. Watch some of the old shows, on the show I mentioned above or on this one, and see the varied guests - everyone from Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy to Barry Goldwater and Robert Kennedy, to a slightly tipsy Judy Garland dissing Marlene Dietrich, to Jonathan Winters cracking up the joint, to some of Paar's fascinating home movies.
It's true that watching some of Carson's early clips shows you a very similar type of show. Listen to the arrangement of the theme song in those early years and you'll hear something slower, jazzier, more sophisticated. Something very late night. So maybe it really was the times after all. If Paar were around today maybe he'd have an audience of whooping adolescents, adults who act more like participants at a campus chugging contest, cackling at the basest sex jokes and applauding comedians who aren't really funny but who express the correct political attitude, while he was interviewing the latest vapid starlet who can barely tell you how many states there are. Maybe Paar would be like that, but I doubt it. He had too much class, to much ego, to stoop that low. He was witty rather than funny (although he could be silly as well), and maybe that had something to do with it, too.
I don't mean to denigrate Carson by saying this. Watching some of the clips on TV Sunday reminded me of just how quick, how sharp, he could be. I just saw a terrific joke he told about an old high school girlfriend who was called Miss Lincoln because every boy took a shot at her in the balcony. But Lileks, I think, had it right that he was safe. Not as safe as Leno, who seems afraid to offend anyone (except for conservatives), but safe nonetheless. Paar was a lot of things, but he wasn't safe. Remember how he walked off the show - right on the air! - because of a dispute over a joke he'd told that NBC censored? Carson had disputes with NBC as well, but none of them were quite that dramatic. Maybe that's what made Paar cutting edge for the late 50s and 60s.
So all hail King Johnny, but in doing so don't forget that without Jack, there might not have been Johnny.