There were few bigger or better breaks to be had during old-time radio’s peak years than to know that Jack Benny had your back or wanted it in the first place. And there were fewer worse breaks to be had than biting Benny’s hand if it happened to have fed you just about anything.
Jack Paar could have told you. He had Benny to thank for his first real show business break, and how he repaid Benny in due course should have caused him to scrape his ears every time he walked through a doorway.
Benny first met Paar on Guadalcanal at the end of World War II, when Benny and company were enteraining American troops and Paar was making a small name for himself, among his fellow troops, as a comic in uniform. Benny producer Bob Ballin—working for the Ruthruff & Ryan advertising agency, which took on Benny’s popular radio show and handled the American Tobacco Company, signing on to sponsor Benny for Lucky Strike—remembered:
I was also involved with Jack when he came back from a trip overseas and told me he’d met a young GI comic there who he would like to try out as a possible summer replacement for his show. The man’s name was Jack Paar. I made arrangements for Paar to do a tape which was brought to Hollywood for the agency to listen to . . . The next thing I knew, Paar arrived in person to work with Jack’s writers. Never had such an unknown been given the opportunity Benny gave Paar. It was yet another example of Jack’s generosity and concern for helping others.
That was a polite way to phrase it. Giving an opportunity was one thing. Plunging whole-hogger into the giving, which is exactly what Benny did for Paar, was something else again. Paar got his shot at hosting Benny’s 1947 summer replacement . . . and Benny himself didn’t stop at giving Paar a grand send-off on the final Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny of the season, either.
Benny wanted to produce the Paar exercise himself. He even lent his writing staff to Paar’s as rotating advisors. Silver platter? Paar got handed the keys to the kingdom in a platinum sleeve. In one stroke, the 29-year-old comedian went from nowhere special to be handed radio’s largest Sunday night audience and third-largest season-overall audience (Benny’s 1946-47 Hooper rating (25.8) had been beaten only by Bob Hope (27.6) and Fibber McGee & Molly (26.4) in 1946-47) of any night on the season.
Paar got off to a terrific start and didn’t really let up all summer long, either. The critics fell in love with his potential and no less than Time bathed him in high praise. But not all was so warm and fuzzy off the air. Larry Gelbart, much later to co-create and produce the television version of M*A*S*H, would eventually tell The Laugh Crafters author Jordan R. Young that Paar wasn’t exactly dealing with his big break as smoothly as listeners might have thought.
It was a tough spot to be in for a young man. And he didn’t handle it especially well, at least in terms of the writers—Artie Stander, Larry Marks, Sid Dorfman, and I. Three of us wound up quitting The Jack Paar Show several weeks into the season. Larry Marks didn’t quit because he had a personal contract with Jack—or he had a percentage deal with Jack, a percentage of his earnings. Jack, to get someone of Larry’s caliber that early in his career, made that sort of arrangement. So some lawyering had to go on before Larry was able to get off the show, too.
Nonetheless, by the time Paar’s summer run ended, American Tobacco turned a sweet pot into an invaluable one: Benny’s own sponsor wanted to pick up Paar for Lucky Strike for the regular 1947-48 season. The tobacco company put Paar on ABC on Wednesday nights after Benny returned for the regular season. The younger comedian continued getting terrific notices.
And then Paar blew it up in his own face with one ill-phrased remark.
Someone—probably from American Tobacco—suggested Paar develop a weekly running gag. Running gags, of course, were as old as network broadcast comedy itself. They’ve already served numerous comedians well, from Benny’s subterranean vault and cheapskate on-air persona to the Benny-Fred Allen mock feud; from Fibber McGee’s closet to somebody bawlin’ for Beulah on the same show. They’ve also been the death knell for other comedians who didn’t quite get the hang of sustaining them or deploying them judiciously.
In and of themselves running gags shouldn’t have been kisses of death by definition. But Paar wasn’t buying in whether it was an enhancement or a date with the hangman. That refusal shouldn’t have meant disaster for the young comedian. Not long after the pressure to bring in a running gag began, however, Paar took his objection a few miles too far. He was quoted somewhere as saying he was trying to escape that kind of old-hat thing—mentioning his own patron and Fred Allen, among others, as key examples of what he was trying to avoid.
It’s one thing to demur over a running gag. That alone shouldn’t have put Paar’s neck into a noose. But hoisting Lucky Strike’s number one broadcasting moneymaker as a key example of such an exhausted device was something else entirely. Especially when that moneymaker is the man most responsible for your swiftly-enough rising success.
A reputation for irreverence is one thing. So is biting the hand that feeds you. Trying to amputate it with the bite—not even Henry Morgan, taking a back seat to nobody for biting the hands (namely, his sponsors) that fed him, had the audacity to go that far—was its own kind of foolishness, considering to whom the hand belonged. Lucky Strike didn’t hesitate. They dumped Paar post haste; his final ABC show would air Christmas Eve 1947.
Paar clawed his way back the hard way when he shouldn’t have had to do so. He’d be a small contract player at RKO Pictures (while Howard Hughes still ran the show at the once-formidable studio), where his film roles included Marilyn Monroe’s boyfriend in Love Nest. He’d get another crack or three at radio, hosting what was left of The $64 Question (formerly Take It or Leave It) before leaving over a salary dispute; hosting a disc-jockeying exercise for ABC in 1956, prompting his near-famous crack about it being so modest he did it from his rumpus room.
There his story might have ended had he not managed to get a shot at moving into television, somehow getting the struggling Tonight Show after Steve Allen gave it up in favour of his variety show. There, Paar helped revolutionise late-night television and rehabilitated his image.
“Paar turned [The Tonight Show] from a typical variety format to something completely different. With a rare combination of intelligence, irreverence, and intuition, he invented a new genre of programming that would become a mainstay of modern broadcasting,” PBS’s American Masters would remember. He launched careers, talked serious subjects, waded into and out of controversy, and—a broadcasting rarity—often wore his emotions very close to his sleeve.
The problem was, Paar could still be his own worst enemy. When a joke was edited out of a script without his knowledge, he didn’t save his anger for the show staff or the network executives—he delivered it right on the air, in an infamous 1960 incident, declaring he was leaving the show saying, “There must be a better way of making a living than this.”
He returned weeks later—in time the show would be renamed The Jack Paar Show in honour of his popularity—but surrendered permanently in 1962, tired of the nightly burden, exhausted with press sniping, and mostly anxious to spend more time with his family. He did a successful weekly show until 1965, before branching away from the camera to produce documentaries specialising in international curiosities and cultures, giving himself a new outlet to show the quality that brought out the best in his comedy and talk: his relentless curiosity.
When Paar died at 85 in 2004, he was remembered as a discoverer and/or nurturer of such talents as Carol Burnett, Bill Cosby, Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, and the Smothers Brothers . . . and for being the bull in his own china shop.
“As a talk show and variety host,” Ron Simon wrote for the Museum of Broadcast Communications, “Paar created a complex, unpredictable character whose whims and tantrums created national tremors.” Had it not been for television, though, Paar might have faded away after imploding his career as a radio big-timer-to-be.
“The spoiled kid image,” John Dunning would remember in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio, “pursued him.”
TUNE IN TONIGHT:
Before he so foolishly namechecked his patron when declaring he wanted to move beyond old-hat running gags, however, Paar rollicks on down the summer stretch and gets a big mid-August boost when Benny himself turned up for a guest shot.
Paar here gives three amateurs a chance to strut their stuff: a woman claiming to be a singing midget; a French magician who does card tricks with mice; and . . . Benny, as (what else?) a comedian and violin virtuoso (ho ho ho) looking for fresh radio work. Characteristically, Benny doesn’t mind being the fall guy for his protege—doing actual comedy, that is.
Additional cast: Unidentified, but possibly including Elvia Allman. Announcer: Hy Averback. Music: Jerry Fielding, Trudy Irwin. Writers: Larry Marks, Seaman Jacobs.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Suspense: The Diary of Saphronia Winters (Mystery/thriller; CBS, 1944)
The CBS Radio Workshop: Colloquy No. 2—A Dissertation on Love (Dramatic anthology; CBS, 1956)
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: The Crystal Lake Matter, Conclusion (Crime drama; CBS, 1956)
Frontier Gentleman: Wonder Boy (Western; CBS, 1958)
Gunsmoke: The Piano (Western; CBS, 1958)
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: The Traveling Bedlows (Improvisational comedy; it’ll come to you, 1959)