When Talk Show Hosts Worked Without a Net
Wednesday night’s episode of the PBS mini-series “Pioneers of Television,” devoted to the roots of the late-night talk show, has one sequence that could be particularly helpful, or perhaps just frustrating, for current hosts who are without the services of their writing staffs.
After showing clips of some of Steve Allen’s brilliant gags on “Tonight” and its local precursor from the 1950s — the bits that David Letterman copied wholesale in the early days of “Late Night” and that would be perfectly at home on any number of shows today — the documentary informs us, “With just a single-page outline, a piano and a quick-witted personality, Allen and a few friends would create nearly two hours of entertainment every night.”
That’s twice the length of any of today’s late-night shows, done from a one-page outline that presumably wouldn’t break anyone’s strike rules. Andy Williams offers his take on how Allen, who died in 2000, was able to do it: “He didn’t speak much at all during the day.” Words to live by.
The presence of Mr. Williams illustrates one of the virtues of “Pioneers of Television,” which began last week with a look at early sitcoms and continues on the next two Wednesdays with installments on variety and game shows. Nearly all of the talking heads qualify as pioneers themselves, with an age range from 60s to dead: Mary Tyler Moore, Andy Griffith, Art Linkletter, Dick Van Dyke, Pat Harrington, Phyllis Diller, Merv Griffin. On Wednesday night a few younger figures like Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall creep in, but so far we’ve been spared the indignity of hearing Spike Feresten’s opinion of Jack Paar or Charlie Sheen’s thoughts on “The Honeymooners.”
The programs are admirably focused, with a decent amount of information about a few pivotal figures. Wednesday night’s episode covers Allen, Paar and Johnny Carson, the formative hosts of what would become “The Tonight Show,” with only sidelong glances at their rivals and successors; last week looked at five early sitcoms, from “I Love Lucy” to “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” (Fans of “Leave It to Beaver” or “Mr. Ed” were out of luck.)
The downside — and it’s a big one — is the reverence, approaching sanctification, in which the series wraps its subjects. This goes hand in hand with the hushed banality of the narration: “Under Carson, late-night television became a fixture of American life, the hearth we gather around at the end of the day,” and: “It’s a format that remains solid to this day. An art form sculpted by a small group of talented performers in a class by themselves.”
It’s a lot to sit through, but if you’re at all interested in the subject, the clips are sufficient reward: an alarmingly young Carson on “Carson’s Cellar,” a local show in Los Angeles that looks like “Wayne’s World” 40 years before its time, or a scene from “Head of the Family,” Carl Reiner’s pilot for what became “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which starred Mr. Reiner as a not-very-funny Rob Petrie.
One of the funniest is the “Steve Allen Sundae,” with Allen, clad only in shorts and glasses, puffing on a cigar while being slathered with ice cream and yelling, “Wait a minute, these bananas are freezing.” It sure beats spinning your wedding ring on your desk.
PIONEERS OF TELEVISION
On most PBS stations on Wednesday nights at 8 through Jan. 23 (check local listings).
Directed and produced by Steve Boettcher; Mike Trinklein and Jack Jones Jr., writers. Produced by Boettcher/Trinklein Media Inc.