Poking Through the Past

Paar Pioneered Late-Night TV

By Tom Morrow

Jack Paar didn’t invent the late-night television show, but he fashioned it into the shape that has been imprinted on generations of viewers’ minds during his tenure as host of “The Tonight Show” from 1957 to 1962.

While many Johnny Carson fans might disagree, those of us old enough to remember Paar and his days on the late-night feisty talk fest will argue he put the show on television history’s map after taking over the talk-variety format originated by Steven Allen on NBC three years earlier.

Paar was born May 1, 1918 and wore several professional hats – author, actor, and radio and television comedian – before his leap to prominence aboard the longest-running television series in history.

A native of Canton, Ohio, his family moved throughout the Midwest before landing in Jackson, Mich. As a child he had a stuttering problem, which he conquered by stuffing buttons in his mouth and reading aloud. He contracted tuberculosis when he was 14 and left school at 16 to work as a radio announcer. 

In his book “P.S. Jack Paar”, he recalled doing utility duty at Cleveland’s WGAR in 1938 when Orson Welles broadcast his famous simulated alien invasion, “The War of the Worlds”, over the CBS network. Attempting to calm possible panicked listeners, Paar announced, “The world is not coming to an end. Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?”

He was drafted into the military in 1943 during World War II. The Army assigned him to the U.S.O in the South Pacific to entertain the troops. He was a clever, wise-cracking master of ceremonies whose impersonations of officers kept him close to trouble.

After World War II, Paar got his big break when Jack Benny, who had been impressed by Paar’s U.S.O. performances, suggested he serve as Benny’s 1947 summer radio replacement. Paar was enough of a hit on Benny’s show that the sponsor, American Tobacco Co., decided to keep him on the air, moving him to ABC for the fall season. 

Paar also signed as a contract player for Howard Hughes’ RKO Pictures right after the war and appeared in a few forgettable films. His most notable was probably the “Love Nest”, a comedy that also listed Marilyn Monroe in the cast.

He broke into television in the early 1950s, appearing as a comic on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and hosting two game shows, “Up To Paar” (1952) and “Bank on the Stars” (1953).

In 1957, NBC asked Paar to host “The Tonight Show”, which had been renamed after Steve Allen left the light-night program for prime time. The show was called “Tonight Starring Jack Paar” and became “The Jack Paar Show” in 1959. 

He often was unpredictable, emotional, and principled. He received national attention by walking off the show Feb. 11, 1960, when network censors cut a joke about a “water closet”, the British term for a toilet. He returned three weeks later after the network apologized and he was allowed to tell the joke.

Paar’s first words on camera when he returned was, “… as I was saying.” Paar’s emotional nature made the daily routine of putting together a 105-minute program a difficult chore so the show was handed to Carson.

Paar confided in comedian-writer Dick Cavett that leaving the show was the greatest mistake of his life.

Cavett, a writer for Paar, recalled when buxom actress Jayne Mansfield was scheduled to appear, they worked for two days, but couldn’t come up with an introduction. Finally, Cavett handed Paar a six-word intro: “Ladies and Gentlemen, here they are,” referring to the ample-chested movie star. 

Paar developed his catch phrase, “I kid you not,” which also was the title to his autobiography, to bolster the end of stories he would tell his audience.

Like Carson, Paar’s array of guests ranged from entertainers to politicians, but unlike his successor, he hosted a large number of intellectuals who Paar could keep up with and the on-air discussions were easy for the audience to follow.

He continued to appear in occasional specials for the network until 1970. In the 1980s and 1990s, Paar made rare guest appearances on “Donahue”, “The Tonight Show hosted by Carson” and, later, “Jay Leno”, “Late Night with David Letterman”, and Charles Grodin’s CNBC talk show.

Paar was married to his second wife, Miriam Wagner, for nearly 61 years — from 1943 until his death in 2004. His health declined in the late 1990s and he died Jan. 27, 2004, at age 85 in his Greenwich, Conn., home from complications of a stroke. It was just a year before his  “Tonight Show” successor, Johnny Carson, died from emphysema.

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