28 September: Biting the hand that promoted him

The Jack Paar Show: Hair Tonics, Schools, Mail Delivery (Excerpt; NBC, 1947)

Jack Paar, his own cobra's mongoose once too often . . . (Photo: NBC)

Jack Paar, his own cobra’s mongoose once too often . . . (Photo: NBC)

Few people in network radio have received a bigger break than Jack Paar has this summer. And fewer, still, have ever blown themselves up the way Paar will, just a few months after he graduates from summer replacement to regular-season network radio comer.

Paar is a Jack Benny protege. The two met on Guadalcanal in 1945, when Benny was entertaining forces around the Pacific theater, and Benny took a strong liking to the younger aspirant. Paar would do some gigs on Don McNeil’s The Breakfast Club and other radio shows; between those and his continuing, periodic performances for the USO, he continued impressing Benny as well.

Come the end of the 1946-47 regular season, Paar worked his way into one of radio’s prime plums: hosting Benny’s 1947 summer replacement show. More than that, Benny himself wanted to produce the show. And there was Paar, getting a grand send-off on Benny’s final regular season show in the bargain.

Paar was handed, on a platinum platter, the largest Sunday night audience in radio and the third-largest radio audience of any night. Benny’s 25.8 Hooper rating for 1946-47 bested only by Bob Hope (27.6) and Fibber McGee & Molly (26.4). And, tonight, Paar ‘s wrapping up a summer on which he’s developed a smart comedy show, gleaning some of Benny’s better ways into his own wry style.

The critics have loved Paar’s potential; no less than Time has showered him with high praise. Benny’s even lent Paar’s staff his own regular writers as rotating advisors. And, turning a sweet enough pot even more so, Benny’s sponsor—the American Tobacco Company—wants to pick up Paar for Lucky Strike for the regular 1947-48 season.

Paar’s sitting pretty tonight. American Tobacco will put him on ABC on Wednesday nights after Benny returns. The show’s good notices will continue. And, then, Paar will blow it up in his own face.

The problem: Someone, likely from American Tobacco, suggests Paar develop a weekly, continuing gimmick, a running gag. Running gags are about as old as network radio comedy itself, of course. They’ve certainly served some well (Benny, Fred Allen, Burns & Allen, Fibber McGee & Molly, and others) while being a death knell for others. Paar, however, won’t buy in.

That shouldn’t necessarily be a death knell in its own right. But not long after the pressure to go there begins, Paar will take his objection a little too far. He’ll be quoted as saying something along the line that he’d like to get away from that kind of old-hat chazerei . . . and mentioning his own patron as one of the prime examples (Fred Allen will be another) of what he’s trying to avoid.

Demurring over running gags is one thing. Doing only that, Paar probably wouldn’t put his head into a noose. But hoisting Lucky Strike’s number one broadcasting moneymaker as a prime example of that exhausted device is something else entirely. Especially when that moneymaker happens to have been your number one patron.

Paar may have his irreverence on the air, but not even Henry Morgan—who takes a back seat to nobody for biting the hands that feed him (namely, his sponsors)—has the audacity to bite any hand that mentored or supported him from within those practising his own craft. American Tobacco will react accordingly, dumping Paar, whose final show will air Christmas Eve.

By then, Paar will also be a small contract player at RKO Pictures (while Howard Hughes still runs the show at the once-formidable studio); one of his films there will be Love Nest, playing the boyfriend of Marilyn Monroe’s character. In due course, he’ll have a couple of more cracks at radio.

He’ll host what’s left of The $64 Question (the former Take It or Leave It) for a season, before he quits over a salary dispute. (The sponsor withdraws and NBC demands pay cuts, irking Paar.) And he’ll host a disc jockeying effort for ABC in 1956, about which he’ll crack, “[It's] so modest we did it from the rumpus room of our house in Bronxville.”

The story might end there if Paar doesn’t get a chance to move into television in earnest, in due course forging his legend—for better and worse—when he takes on the struggling Tonight Show (struggling after Steve Allen leaves it for his variety show) and helps to revolutionise television talk. The trouble is that television will prove both Paar’s mettle and, all over again, his knack for being his own worst enemy. Possibly because he struggles to keep his emotions and his sentimentality in check, even at the higher heights of his career, Paar will become both a television talk and comedy legend and a case of things that might have been, all at once.

Foresighted and foolish, often at the same time, Paar will be remembered reasonably well when all is said and done. He may discover and nurture such comic talent as Bob Newhart, the Smothers Brothers, Dick Gregory, and Bill Cosby, but he’ll also be described as the bull in his own china shop. “As a talk show and variety host,” Ron Simon will write for the Museum of Broadcast Communications, “Paar created a complex, unpredictable character whose whims and tantrums created national tremors.”

But for television, Paar might fade away when his career as a promising radio bigtime implodes by his own hand. Radio historian John Dunning will phrase it this way: “[T]he spoiled kid image pursued him.”

Tonight: Paar opens with a few good-natured needles of Benny on the latter’s pending return; a quick review of the news and the “push button age”; a consumer report on hair tonic.

Cast: Trudy Erwin, Elvia Allman. Announcer: Hy Averback. Music: Jerry Fielding Orchestra, Trudy Erwin. Director: Bob Nye. Writers: Larry Marks, Larry Gelbart, Artie Stander, Seaman Jacobs.

Tune In Today, Continued . . .

Adventure

Escape: Wild Oranges (CBS, 1949)—Van Heflin, Betty Lou Gerson, Edmun MacDonald, William Conrad, Wilms Herbert. The Joseph Hergesheimer novella becomes a kind of rush job on radio but not too much less effective: John Woolfolk (Van Heflin) choses life at sea to quash the memory of his wife’s death, until he falls in love on the Georgia coast—with a woman who’s also a love target for a manor’s deranged servant. Writer: John Dunkel.

 

Comedy

Fibber McGee & Molly: The McGees Go to the Movies (Season premiere; NBC, 1943)—Jim & Marian Jordan, Shirley Mitchell, Harlow Wilcox, Arthur Q. Bryan, Bill Thompson, Gale Gordon. Fibber haggles over the theater prices, blows his favourite part of a day at the movies (the newsreel) buying candy, and incites a mob when he’s accused of purse snatching after mistaking a stranger in the dark for Molly. Well, you didn’t expect a simple night at the movies with him, did you? Writer: Don Quinn.

The Pepsodent Show with Bob Hope: From Terminal Island; Guest—Orson Welles (Season premiere; NBC, 1943)—Bob Hope, Jerry Colonna, Barbara Jo Allen, Frances Langford, Wendell Niles. Live from Terminal Island in southern California, it’s a carriage ride, Vera Vague fawning over a new bandleader (Stan Kenton), and Welles the swami predicting Hope’s future. The usual rat-a-tat-tats otherwise. Writers: Possibly Al and Sherwood Schwartz, Norman Panama.

Fibber McGee & Molly: Repairing Venetian Blinds (NBC, 1955)—Jim & Marian Jordan. The Sage of 79 Wistful Vista isn’t that anxious to fix them when they collapse at night, but he’s not exactly deft at fixing them in broad daylight, either. Writer: Phil Leslie.

Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: The Fly-Away School of Aviation Hostesses (You’re getting warmer, 1959)—Bob Elliott, Ray Goulding. Artie Schermerhorn interviews the school’s leader and a student; searching for a Natalie Attired song; the Trophy Train in Yakima, among others. Writers, we have on less than reliable authority: Bob Elliott, Ray Goulding.

 

Crime Drama

Dragnet: The Big Brain (NBC, 1952)—Jack Webb, Ben Alexander. A badly beaten man found in the trunk of his car sends Friday and Smith hunting the robbers who’ve left other victims the same way. Just the usual, ma’am. Writer: Jack Robinson.

Dragnet: The Big Bible (NBC, 1954)—Jack Webb, Ben Alexander. The detectives probe an apparent suicide, a man shooting himself in his estranged wife’s apartment, but they discover the bullet couldn’t have come from his gun. Cleverly wound. Writer: Possibly Jack Robinson.

 

Drama/Dramatic Anthology

Columbia Workshop: Alice in Wonderland (Part One; CBS, 1937)—Unidentified cast. The Lewis Carroll classic receives an oddly playful interpretation, which may prove trying at times but is worth the entire listen when all is said and done. Writer/director: William N. Robson.

Columbia Workshop: The Day Baseball Died (CBS, 1946)—Bill Slater, Santos Ortega, Art Carney. An “appropriate salute to the World Series,” would you consider it all that far fetched that there might be those who think some baseball decisions should be made, God forbid, by a court ruling or, even, a popular vote? Writer: Irwin Seidel.

 

World War II

Special Report: Chamberlain—Just Before Munich Conference (BBC, 1938)—Greeted by a crowd as he departs for the Munich conference, Neville Chamberlain greets a young admirer and expresses his hope that the conference will succeed, using a reference to King Henry IV.

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