One of America’s Most Popular Indoor Pastimes

(L) Jack Paar from his early 1950s television game show Up to Paar. (R) Jack Paar Hugh Downs Jose Melis Jack Paar Tonight Show 1960.
By Caroline Uy

Over time, “The Tonight Show” hosts—Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon—have become household names, their self-titled programs popping up in TV guides and while channel surfing. But the tradition of titling the show after the host began with one man: Jack Paar.

Before Paar, The Tonight Show was simply known as Tonight, but with his runaway popularity, NBC began airing the show as Tonight Starring Jack Paar and even simply as The Jack Paar Show. Paar didn’t walk in with huge celebrity cachet—his previous gigs include working as an announcer and disc jockey for Midwest radio stations, hosting game shows and morning talk shows, and a couple of film credits. He didn’t revolutionize the medium. By his 1957-1962 run, most of the talk show format had been established by his predecessors and contemporaries.

What Paar brought was an uncanny ear for conversation, a balance of intuition and irreverence, and a touch of his own neurotic vulnerability and unpredictability. Paar’s Tonight Show cut down on the skits and games in favor of emphasizing the opening monologue and guest conversations. In addition to Oscar Levant, Paar hosted Cliff Arquette, Betty White, Richard Nixon, Muhammed Ali and Liberace, focusing more on colorful personality and interesting stories than on “stars” with movies to push or any particular career, with actors, comedians, and entertainment tycoons playing right alongside scientists, professors and authors.

His conversations were frank, unscripted and often underprepared, elevating them beyond a generic chat. Paar was also known for his emotional and mercurial nature, unafraid of pushing the envelope or inviting scandal. Among his more controversial episodes include an on-site interview with Fidel Castro and a broadcast from Berlin during the construction of the Berlin Wall. In 1960, after NBC censored one of his jokes the night before, Paar even resigned on-air, walking off the show about four minutes into the broadcast with the remark, “There must be a better way of making a living than this.” He didn’t return until three weeks later, after an apology from the executives. With a penchant for self-revealing stories, witticisms and unpredictable character, Paar kept late-night America tuned in to their TV screens, nervous and excited. In a 2004 tribute to Paar on Larry King Live, comedian Bob Newhart perhaps characterized it best: “You couldn’t afford to miss [The Jack Paar Show], because you never knew what was going to happen.”

Caroline Michele Uy is the Literary/Dramaturgy Apprentice for Goodman Theatre

Left Photo Credit: Jack Paar from his early 1950s television game show Up to Paar. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)
Right Photo Credit: Jack Paar Hugh Downs Jose Melis Jack Paar Tonight Show 1960. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

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