"It's stunning how Jay Leno outfoxed you again ... Your agent [said], 'There's good news and bad news. You are doing The Tonight Show ... Uh, but remember that discussion we had where you said I'll never have to fuckin' follow Leno again?" - Norm Macdonald appearing on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, February 10, 20091
It's a maxim and a cliché that history repeats itself. Late night talk shows have been the victims of literal temper and metaphorical distemper for sixty years. Before the Conan quagmire, The Jay Leno Show disaster and even before David Letterman put his penis directly into a vagina, there was no shortage of late night tabloid fodder. Nor was there any lack of infuriating TV executive fatuousness.
Bill Carter's Late Shift and its subsequent HBO film now represent what television was in the nineties. The Joan Rivers - Johnny Carson feud played itself out publicly and bitterly in the eighties. Regis Philbin showed fascinating temperament in the sixties when he quit his sidekick stint during an episode of The Joey Bishop Show, explaining that he was appeasing his critics. But the controversy taking center stage this month belongs to the list of late night talk show hosts that have had to battle blundering network executives and their grand schemes. Sadly, this is nothing new.
The Jay Leno Show, both the show itself and the network's decision what to do about it, is just the most recent poster child of late night carnage. Previous late night car wrecks included The Magic Johnson Show, The Pat Sajak Show and The Chevy Chase Show.2 However, the biggest late night talk show calamity in history was one that, after all the gouged out eyeballs were counted, left the most casualties. It was the most expensive late night talk show ever made and certainly the longest. It starred comedy's most polarizing figure and could only sustain itself three months. Time Magazine, one month into the program's run, delivered this review:
ABC has given him two full hours ... the show is loaded with intramural cracks, tedium, desperate looking guests reaching for laughs, mechanical dolls that wave their arms and drop their pants, additional tedium, and the apparent illusion that several million people want to watch 120 minutes of the scriptless life of a semi-educated, egocentric boor.
Ladies and gentlemen, The Jerry Lewis Show.
In the early fifties Martin & Lewis ruled The Colgate Comedy Hour. Jerry would consistently break the fourth wall during vaudevillian sketches, annihilating existing TV conventions. NBC's president, and the man who invented The Tonight Show, Pat Weaver, was ecstatic with the numbers that Martin & Lewis pulled in, comparable in contemporary terms to NBC powerhouses like The Cosby Show and Seinfeld. Adolph Zukor, president of Paramount Pictures, referred to Jerry Lewis as his "golden boy" as the box office returns on Lewis pictures alone saved Paramount from impending financial ruin. When Martin & Lewis broke up in 1956, Jerry Lewis focused primarily on his solo film career. At the same time, subsequent appearances on things like The Ed Sullivan Show proved that Jerry might very well be capable of carrying a show on his own. Might.
By 1956 Steve Allen had made The Tonight Show a successful franchise. Allen's brilliant wit and hip sensibility turned the late night romp of comedy, music and interview into a successful format that became the template for every late night talk show since. Steve Allen was extremely popular at that point and so was The Tonight Show airing, just as it does today, Monday through Friday. But NBC was being brow beaten on Sunday nights by CBS' Ed Sullivan Show. NBC met with Allen in 1956 and convinced him to take on the hosting duties of a new program to compete with Sullivan. After a year it wasn't working. NBC was still losing the ratings game on Sunday nights. The NBC executives met with Steve Allen once again, this time pressuring, some say ordering, him to leave The Tonight Show (much the way NBC executives convinced Jay Leno to leave the very same program) so Allen could focus all his energy on toppling Ed Sullivan. When Leno left The Tonight Show he got The Jay Leno Show. When Allen left The Tonight Show he got The Steve Allen Show. Just like today, the result of that move fifty-three years ago was a ratings disaster for NBC.3
While Steve Allen was floundering on Sunday nights, NBC was busy sabotaging what was left of the format Allen had created on The Tonight Show. Between January and June of 1957, NBC destroyed what was left of a very successful show. They got rid of the comedy and replaced it with news. The name was altered to Tonight! America After Dark. Jack Lescoulie of The Today Show hosted and shortly thereafter was replaced by Al 'Jazzbo' Collins from NBC Radio's Monitor. The makeover fell flat and outraged Steve Allen devotees. The program was so weak that several NBC affiliates simply dropped the show (just as today, a growing chorus of NBC affiliates have been complaining that their local 11pm "news" programs took a huge ratings dive once The Jay Leno Show started). Tonight Show writer Walter Kempley cracked that, "America After Dark was so bad [that] viewers went next door to turn it off." Steve Allen, watching from the sidelines, called it, "one of the most inept programs in television history." After four months (sound kind of familiar?) NBC admitted that they had made a grave error.
July 29, 1957. Former CBS morning host and showbiz journeyman Jack Paar came on board. The executives continued to meddle with the format, turning the program into a game show. Of course this made matters even worse and a decision was eventually made to turn The Tonight Show back to what it was before the NBC brass muffed it. While Paar hosted Tonight, Steve Allen performed what was essentially the same (albeit more scripted) program, but only once a week while losing countless viewers to the unstoppable Ed Sullivan. Allen watched his concepts sabotaged, only to be restored with someone else.
February 11, 1960. Jack Paar left a vacuum when he stunned the nation and made NBC executives soil themselves. Just as Conan O'Brien found himself in a frazzle with NBC's sketchy corporate stooges so too did Paar. Jack Paar recounted what spawned his protest in an interview several years later. "In 1959 or '60 a word like 'water closet'... was censored. And, um, I made an issue over it. It was [in] a tacky story I must admit ... and it was told at midnight. Innocent story.4 And somebody [at NBC] made the mistake of cutting it. And I objected to it and I said [to NBC] the next night ... all I ask is since you have admitted it was a mistake when you cut it, [the NBC executives] had admitted it was a mistake ... then I will prove it, I will go on the next night and play it. And [the NBC executives] said, 'No, no. If you do that, Jack, it will look like you're running the company and it's a corporate decision.' And I said, 'No, my reputation is more important to me than my career. You say it was not obscene? [You will let me] show it or I will walk off. And they thought I was [bluffing]."
The next night NBC's suited echelon was in for a huge surprise. Sitting at his desk with sidekick Hugh Downs to his right, the same position that Conan and Andy Richter sit in today, Paar addressed the viewing audience, speaking about the argument he'd been having the past two days with NBC behind the scenes. The intense dust up had been leaked to the press and was gaining steam. The press intimated that Paar was livid because NBC would not let him tell a "filthy" joke. Pious commentators started pounding their drum without knowing what Paar had said. Paar was smeared in the papers and increasingly at odds with network executives. "I have been wrestling with my conscience all day. I have been attacked, and will be attacked... it's gonna go on forever now. You might as well know. By the Hearst people. The Hearst press. And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy [audience laughter]. Because it starts in the television columns and then it spreads to the Dorothy Kilgallen column and finally on the editorial page. Y'know, what's left for me? Westbrook Pegler or the comics [audience laughter], y'know, no where to go from there! And so this is how it's going to be. I am opposed to purposely plotted risque material. I am more vehemently opposed to yellow journalism. When you take a moral stand in your television column or on your front page and your editorial page and speak how moral you are and how religious your paper is, why then in heaven's name do you have your front page full of the Finch murder trial with red headlines this big, banners on all the trucks where all the kids can see it? And in these articles going into the most, I think, obscene and personal matters that just don't belong on the front page of a reputable newspaper ... Now I have made a decision about what I'm going to do. Only one person knows about this. It's Hugh Downs. My wife doesn't know about it ... I'm leaving The Tonight Show. There must be... a better way," Paar took a deep breath, "of, uhhh..." Paar raised his hand gesturing for his audience to wait a moment as he took a gulp of water from a paper cup, "...of making a living than this." Paar finished up with a comment about how good he had been to NBC and how his show was making more money for the network than any other. "I believe I was let down by this network," said Paar. The camera cut to Hugh Downs with a sad look on his face. Paar finished by saying, "You have been," he folded up his notes and looked directly into the camera and to Downs, "peachy to me as always." He shook Hugh Downs' hand and left the set without another word.5 Only ten minutes into that evening's episode of The Tonight Show Jack Paar had walked off the set, leaving future Letterman director Hal Gurnee stuck in the control room scrambling to save face. Sidekick Hugh Downs sat silently for a brief moment before finishing the episode himself. Jack Paar made no comment for a month. The media gave wall to wall coverage. NBC was in the middle of a public relations disaster - just as they are today.
Hugh Downs recalled that there was a debate with network suits whether to air the episode at all, "It was seriously discussed to run a movie and not to run that tape." Jack Paar wrote in his memoirs about what happened during the month he was off the air. "For days my home was surrounded by press cars, television crews, and police to protect the property ... Bob Hope and Jack Benny called and said it was the damnedest publicity stunt ever in show business. This really hurt, as there was no thought of publicity ... The truth was that I became quite ill. My wife knew we had to get away somehow, but for two days we could not open our front door." Paar had a nervous breakdown. His family had him sedated(!) and sent to a secluded hotel in Palm Beach. Eventually he and his wife took a vacation to Asia.
One month later, his wife fearing for his mental health without a show, Jack Paar returned. He had achieved his initial objective of humiliating NBC, just as he had felt humiliated by their petty objections to petty material. His first two jokes upon return were enormous. Just as David Letterman's post sex "scandal" monologue was one of the most well crafted he'd ever deliver, Paar's monologue was monumental. Thundering applause greeted his walk through The Tonight Show curtains. "As I was saying before I was interrupted [enormous laughter and sustained applause]... I believe my last words were that there must be a better way of making a living than this. Well... uh, I have looked [Paar reverts to sheepish silence and the audience explodes with laughter]." Jack Paar plugged away at The Tonight Show for another two years before claiming exhaustion. The battle with the network certainly contributed to that exhaustion, substantially.
When Paar stepped down in 1962, the search for a new Tonight Show host was not a scramble. Al Bruno, Johnny Carson's agent, had already lobbied NBC when Jack Paar had walked off the set in 1960. Two years later NBC followed up offering game show host Carson the job. At first he declined, uncertain that the public would accept him as a replacement for the popular Paar. NBC hounded and pleaded and Johnny eventually accepted. However, Johnny was contractually obligated to finish his run as host of game show Who Do You Trust, slated for another six months. In the meantime an onslaught of guest hosts manned the helm for a week each. At times it looked like an audition process (very similar to the interim between Craig Kilborn and Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show). Many of the guest hosts revealed years later that they were under the impression that their week long runs were indeed on-air auditions. Johnny Carson wondered about the process himself, skeptical whether NBC would honor their commitment to him.
Jerry Lewis filled in for ten sessions in June 1962. Lewis biographer Shawn Levy explained "The results were spectacular. NBC had hired a prestigious roster of talent to fill in on the show during its six-month revamping, Groucho Marx, Art Linkletter, Donald O'Connor, Joey Bishop, Hugh Downs, and Mort Sahl among them, but Jerry's ratings were absolutely the highest. For two weeks he ruled the airwaves as he had at no time since he and Dean were together. Part of the appeal was that he had no respect for the familiar "Tonight Show" formats, making a shambles of guests, advertisers, the band, and the audience, but it was also that he was in a role he never filled previously: He was ringmaster rather than the main attraction, and his interjections, asides, and idiosyncrasies were the spice of the program and not the meat. For the first time since 'The Colgate Comedy Hour,' the TV audience unequivocally loved him." The press loved him too. No small feat as Lewis' crass and juvenile brand of humor more often than not induced cringes from the erudite. But the newspapers were glowingly abuzz with talk of The Tonight Show with Jerry Lewis.6
Six years after the very public break-up of Martin & Lewis, Jerry rose from the ashes of the phoenix. The three television networks took notice. Lewis was immensely pleased with himself (even more so than usual). His Tonight Show stint proved, he said, "that I can communicate with people and that I can step out of character and not be some kind of wild chihuahua all the time." Now NBC was wondering if they had made a mistake by signing Carson to the program. NBC executives started courting Lewis behind Carson's back. That's right. NBC gave Johnny Carson The Tonight Show - then they wanted to take it away from him. Sound kind of familiar? However, the explosion that could have happened had NBC balked on their Carson deal never had to be addressed. Junior network ABC offered Jerry the better deal. The most expensive deal in television history.
A press conference was held by ABC on November 27, 1962. The Jerry Lewis Show would be two hours long every Saturday night. He signed a contract committing to forty shows a season and would be paid eight million dollars with the option of a five year run with a maximum of forty million dollars being paid out to this nutty professor (This was in 1962 - adjusted for inflation that amount works out to approximately fifty-seven million dollars for forty shows). The budget for the production was two hundred thousand dollars per episode (Around 1.4 million an episode when adjusted for inflation).
One of the reasons Lewis got away from the generally deep pockets of NBC were some outlandish demands. One hundred percent creative control (unheard of in the annals of network television then or now) and a reverting back to the days of live TV. Jerry Lewis gloated after the announcement. "I'll be in complete control ... I'll be doing something I've never done before. It'll be what people want." These words would come back to haunt him. True, it was something he'd never done before, but this was something that should have spawned caution not cockiness. Rather than complete control, it would be completely out of control. It was not what people wanted.
By any measure, two consecutive hours of live television is an awful lot. Imagine The Jay Leno Show without the option of any editing, completely live, with just a fraction of the commercial breaks. What could fill that enormous void and sustain audience interest? This was not a two-hour special, but two hours week after week. When pressed on the issue prior to the premiere, Jerry was disturbingly vague. "I'm going to play it loose. I'll be what I'm with. I suppose I'll have guests. If they're hostile, I'll be hostile. If they're warm, I'll be warm. If they're zany, I'll be zany." It sounded like Costello and Costello. The fly-by-night blueprint should have been a red flag for all involved. Lewis explained to Billboard magazine why he insisted on a two hour show. "Why sixty minutes isn't enough! I do twelve minutes on hisses alone you should pardon the old joke. Besides, for the kind of loot they got to pay me, they'll need four boys to sponsor sixty minutes of that kind of money. And it's my bat and ball and all they can do is play my game or get another field." The explanation left a great deal to be desired. The justification for two hours did not exist. It was less a game of baseball and more a game of ego. ABC President Leonard Goldenson was having doubts. "Lewis was very full of himself ... he wouldn't tell us what the show's format was. He kept giving us double-talk and double-talk and double-talk, insisting he would take the country by storm."
ABC spared no expense on the show. Jerry also invested a mountain of his own cash. Jerry purchased a theater from NBC that his previous network had used for its earliest television extravaganzas. The El Capitan at Hollywood and Vine had housed Martin & Lewis' Colgate Comedy Hour on NBC and Jerry felt at home in the space. In a gesture of incredible humility, he had the El Capitan sign removed and gave the theater a brand new moniker: The Jerry Lewis Theater. Lewis biographer Shawn Levy writes, "It had been completely gutted and rebuilt as a state-of-the-art TV studio. The very wiring and plumbing had been replaced. Eight hundred new gold-upholstered seats were installed. There was a new gold curtain on the stage, new plush red carpeting on the aisles, 350 speakers in the auditorium, and a gigantic closed-circuit monitor suspended above the stage so the audience could see the show exactly as it was broadcast. A walnut-paneled control room had been built, complete with a wireless communications link to the stage and a paging system connecting it to all twenty(!!!) dressing rooms. The desk at which Jerry would sit when talking to guests was equipped with a control panel that allowed him to override the director and control shots while the show was in progress; at a cost of thirty thousand dollars, it was designed to be broken down and taken anywhere in the world on location. The theater was air-conditioned, there was an outdoor rehearsal stage on the second floor, the marquee held three thousand lightbulbs. A logo of Jerry's face was set in the cement sidewalk out front, his initials were set in tile in the floor of his dressing room john, and the star on his dressing room door was a six pointed Mogen David. A box had been built just above the stage from which Jerry's personal guests could watch the show. It was a $1 million reconstruction job and Jerry oversaw every detail down to choosing the material for the ushers' shirts." A press conference was held on September 11, 1963 to address the media's curiosity about the most highly anticipated new program of the season. Jerry was asked by a reporter if he found the grandiose expectations at all harrowing. He answered with his tongue not so firmly in cheek, "You can't fail when you're a tall, good-looking Jewish movie star."
Lewis started raiding other talk shows for staff. A young writer named Dick Cavett was lured away from his job at the now once a week Jack Paar Show. Years later Cavett described his experience with the Lewis venture as "the showbiz equivalent of being on The Hindenburg." Perry Cross had been producing The Tonight Show, staying on for the first nine months with Carson until Jerry Lewis offered him four times as much money. Cross told Carson he wanted to stay on with The Tonight Show and would do so if he got a raise. Carson didn't bother responding to his request. Perry stopped holding his breath and told Johnny he was going to ABC. The Tonight Show tossed what was to be a good-natured going away party for their producer. Laurence Leamer recounts what happened next. "The time came for Johnny, in the noble tradition of corporate going away parties, to bid Perry Cross good-bye ... As Johnny stood in the center of the room, his minions shouted, 'Quiet!' and within seconds the gathering was as quiet as if a red light went on. Johnny and Perry stood together, while the crowd waited in anticipation. 'As you know, we're all here for Perry,' Johnny said, looking at the producer. He spoke with understatement but with undertone of emotion. 'Perry is going with The Jerry Lewis Show ... Perry, I want to say this. Fuck you."
Saturday, September 21, 1963. The Jerry Lewis Show debuted on ABC at 9:30 pm. Playbills were distributed to the crowd before hand ("The Jerry Lewis Show - Starring The Nut Himself") as if it were a Broadway show. On CBS the competition was airing the final thirty minutes of The Defenders and about to lead-in to the hour long Gunsmoke. NBC was airing its Saturday Night at the Movies with a showing of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. Jerry's scheduled guests were comic Mort Sahl, singer Kay Stevens, crooner Jack Jones, Harry James and his Music Makers and the bookish Clifton Fadiman. Larger stars walked on and shared the stage with Lewis for a free wheeling showbiz party that went up, or perhaps down, in flames.
Lewis and his writers conceived a running gag that was an extension of his film persona, a bumbling klutz in every situation. The Jerry Lewis Show came to life with announcer Del Moore booming "Live From Hollywood! The Jerry Lewis Show!" Del Moore intentionally bumbled the announcement of Nytol as sponsor "for natural refreshing sleet, er, hah! sleep!" and intentionally tripped over Jerry Lewis' name in a misfire of a gag that the common viewer could not have been expected to catch, "And now here's the star of our show Jerry Lucas uh, Loomis, uh Lewis." These gags went ahead as planned, falling flat both on television and in the theater itself. Jerry walked out from the curtain beaming, having taken a swig of brandy, his hair slicked back, glistening, doused in what must have been a year's supply of one of his sponsors' product: Brylcreem. As the night went ahead, a plethora of legitimately klutzy mishaps occurred, blurring the line between gag and reality. Jerry Lewis started with a mock berating of his crew as he broke out into a mugging rendition of When You're Smiling. Two and a half minutes into the show Lewis alienated the home audience by making reference to a monitor mishap. "The big screen went out already!?" Lewis then said his first real words, "I'd like to say welcome to all you nice..." before being lambasted with screeching feedback. "I realize two hours is an unusual amount of time but I want to answer the big question ... after all let's face it, movies are a lot longer than two hours, you know. Have you ever heard anyone say 'What can Liz and Dick do for two hours?'" Lewis tapped the boom mike and said, "This is on isn't it, sweetheart?" The mugging, the schmaltzy song, the unbelievable feedback and the 'Is this thing on' murmur made it feel like the world's most overwrought screenplay. But it was the real deal. See for yourself here. Jerry continued with a nervous monologue, "Next week, September the 28th, God willing we're still on, September the 28th, I will operate on my own appendix." Three and a half minutes into the highly anticipated production and Jerry was already predicting his own demise.
Several celebrity walk-ons surprised Lewis. Robert Stack, Jimmy Durante and Steve Allen all played cut-ups. Johnny Carson was piped in on phone from New York and made an esoteric joke about how he would like to have been there in person but Perry Cross ran interference. Meanwhile the control room's radio system failed and none of the camera headsets received any direction from the booth. The red light that activates when a camera is in use, indicating to the performer which camera to look into, stopped working. Performers looked away from the camera that was filming them. The monitor that Lewis mentioned at the start kept a full balcony of people from being able to witness any of the program. Half way through Jerry battled feedback to ask, "Can you people see all right upstairs? Any better? [audience screams 'No and groans] I wish I could help it. I really do. Uh, my neighbor's button isn't working as well as I'd like it to. Uhhh... we... we will try to get as much of the action so that you people up on the top... on the shelf... will see [applause]. That's the beauty of this medium. We're here on the air live." Nothing improved and most of the audience in the balcony left shortly after Jerry's promise. ABC's censor was upset backstage as Mort Sahl had compared Alabama to Nazi Germany during his act. Later in the week ABC sent a memo to Jerry demanding he cut down on the "Jewishness" of the show. Guest Clifton Fadiman, respected writer and critic from The New Yorker, was bumped from the line-up as the show ran out of time. The critic left out in the cold was a fitting irony. The event turned to such disaster that Steve Allen went home and wrote a sketch about the big show where everything possible that could go wrong does go wrong. It was performed on his syndicated Steve Allen Show the following week. Everybody got the joke.
"It's conceivable, now that the premiere nervousness with the attendant bugs and kinks are in the past, the Jerry Lewis Saturday night two-hour marathon on ABC-TV might settle down to some form of respectable entertainment. It better had ... it's truly amazing that so much could have gone awry. What was billed as 'an informal two hours of fun, entertainment, discussion and interviews in a spontaneous atmosphere' came off as disjointed, disorganized, tasteless ... The responsibility was Lewis' to fill the void and lapses ... he just didn't fit the bill." - Daily Variety
"The show runs two mortal hours, and the very idea of five years of them, as presently constituted, is an appalling thought." - TV Guide
ABC canceled the show in mid-November. The contract stipulated a minimum of thirteen shows would be completed. And now the thirteenth would be the last. The show actually lasted one week longer than it would have, as the assassination of President Kennedy had pre-empted one episode."That whole episode of my life seems unreal," recalled Dick Cavett. "I had worked well with [Jerry Lewis] when he took over The Tonight Show for a week. The offer was for three times what I had ever earned before. Suddenly I was ... watching rehearsals of the Lewis show, then watching broadcasts of the Lewis show that looked like rehearsals ... The show was an ill-conceived idea from start to finish ... Perry Cross, the producer had to have his hands tied to his sides to restrain him from removing large clumps of hair from his own head."
Toward the end of its run the show remained weak, but with the extra-added bonus of Jerry's bitterness playing out before the cameras. December 7, 1963, the future Muhammad Ali appeared on the show. Cassius Clay was insistent that singer Sam Cooke also be on the bill but two black mugs on one episode was not what ABC wanted. They were already feeling the heat from racist affiliates in the South over Mort Sahl's comments. Ali's William Morris agent stated plainly that if they wanted Cassius they had to book Sam Cooke. ABC conceded. The episode opened with a shot from the same control room that had been the scene of so much chaos ten weeks earlier. "Live from Hollywood! It's The Jerry Lewis Show! With Jerry's guests Patrice Munsel, Señor Wences, Sam Cooke, The Marquis Chimps, special guest Cassius Clay, Lou Brown and his Orchestra and my name is Del Moore. This portion is brought to you by Brylcreem." Jerry Lewis took to the stage with a medley to start the show. Done singing, he complained to his audience about the interference he felt had caused the failure of The Jerry Lewis Show. "Good evening to The Nuremberg Trial [awkward silence] ... I do wanna assure you, ladies and gentleman, that there has been really no mystery. There is no mystery connected with this show, the cancellation and so on. Uh, this is of course something I think people are entitled to know ... it boils down to a simple disagreement. I wanted the show on they wanted it to go off [audience laughter and applause] ... Our last show ... will be on December the 21st ... and after that if you want to keep watching a network that would fire a father of five three days before Christmas... [audience laughter and applause]." Jerry then walked over to his desk where the sardonic Phil Foster awaited him. They had an amusing off the cuff discussion about the demise of the program.
PHIL FOSTER: You got something with ABC, they got something with you... go to Madison Square Garden, have a fight. What are you involving the rest of us for?
JERRY LEWIS: Well, no, there's no real fight.
PHIL: Oh, yes there is. Both of you hate each other.
JERRY: No, that's not so. I hate them... but I don't know about...
PHIL: No, not really. I spoke with them. They're sorry the whole thing started ...
JERRY: We have to go to a commercial. Phil would you excuse us?
PHIL: I don't know what you're so worried about. Guy holds up a sign that says 'commercial.' What's the difference to you? You got two more weeks to go.
Later in the show Phil Foster interviewed a monkey that was presented as a network man in charge of television ratings. The interview with Cassius Clay was a contentious one. Jerry Lewis stoked the fire with his introduction, "I would like to introduce to you a gentleman I was most anxious to meet ... a young man who has a fantastic capacity for showmanship, moreover, I think he is one of the living examples of how gullible we can be..." The pugnacious Clay started by saying hello to a number of friends and then mentioned how he had just met Sam Cooke's young daughter backstage, "Sam Cooke's daughter, the prettiest young girl in the world." When Ali mentioned Sam Cooke, Jerry mockingly replied, "Who?" Watch the whole episode here.
ABC bought out Jerry's contract and purchased The Jerry Lewis Theater at the same time. The final installment on December 21, 1963 was considered to be as bad as the first. Jerry took to airing some of the dirty laundry that had gone on between him and the network. Shawn Levy: "The finale was as morose and awful as could be imagined. Jerry acted punch-drunk and made lewd gestures through a rendition of 'I'm in the Mood for Love.' Sammy Davis Jr. returned for the purpose of squaring off with his host in a duel of seltzer bottles. Jerry told the audience that ABC and the sponsors had forced him to compromise his vision for the program, that television was still an infantile medium: 'I don't like to do what I'm supposed to do,' he said in a self-revealing monologue. 'There are rules and regulations. Some I did not adhere to, and for this I am sorry ... The important thing is to play the game the ways it's to be played ... There's no debating the power of a TV rating. I wish I knew that in advance.' Toward the end of the show, he produced a smiling hand puppet of himself and sang to it."
Forty-seven years have passed and Lewis has rarely talked about the show. In his most recent book Dean & Me (2006, Broadway) Lewis devoted one sentence to The Jerry Lewis Show. "After a successful stint guest hosting The Tonight Show ... I tried a talk/variety show that didn't quite jell." The book actually devotes more time to a Martin & Lewis anecdote about the time Jerry asked Dean Martin to assist him in picking crab lice from his pubic region (I am not joking). Obviously the disaster is a sore point that Lewis would much rather forget. And as we see another late night disaster play itself out before our very eyes between Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and NBC, it is easy to see why.
1) The Norm Macdonald quote can be seen in full here.
2) Appropriately enough, the first guest on the premiere episode of The Pat Sajak Show was Chevy Chase.
3) A note about Steve Allen being ordered off The Tonight Show. Conflicting accounts appear in various sources. Steve Allen was burnt out from writing and performing five ninety minute shows each weeknight and another hour long show on Sundays. Many sources say that Allen was ordered to give up The Tonight Show (after one year of the simultaneous Steve Allen Show) so that he could focus all his energy on knocking Sullivan from his perch, as the network wanted. However one book states that 'Allen informed NBC that he had to give up Tonight. NBC, however, urged him to reconsider.' For the sake of the article's thesis, I have arbitrarily gone with sources that say he was ordered to give it up by the network. To quote from Gerald Nachman's book: "NBC panicked when [Steve Allen] told them [he] couldn't keep up with both shows ... Pat Weaver later judged it as a huge career mistake for Allen. 'Steve never again reached the level of popularity he had earned on Tonight,' he said, accurately. Allen's son Bill footnotes that NBC persuaded his father by giving him a rare ownership of the Sunday show, but for Allen it was the lure of the center ring: 'On a good night I'd have six million people watching The Tonight Show and on Sunday night I'd have thirty million watching. Also, the money was five times bigger in prime time, which had a lot to do with it." So much like Jay Leno's move from The Tonight Show to The Jay Leno Show, it was a combination of network coercion and talent concession. "Look, it was a compromise," Allen said.
4) The censored joke that Jack Paar recited went thusly: "An English lady is visiting Switzerland. She asks about the location of the WC (water closet). The Swiss, thinking she is referring to the Wayside Chapel, leaves her a note that said in part, 'the WC is situated nine miles from the room that you will occupy... It is capable of holding about 229 people and it is only open on Sunday and Thursday... It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the WC and that it was there that she met her husband... I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you, if you wish, where you will be seen by everyone."
6) Other guest hosts during that period included Bob Cummings, Jimmy Dean, Arlene Francis, Steve Lawrence, Jack E. Leonard, Peter Lind Hayes, Hal March, Jan Murray, Soupy Sales and Woody Woodbury. One source says Merv Griffin did a week. Rudy Vallee also did a spell and had this to say about it in 1972, "I was one of the persons they tried out for the host role before it went to [Carson]. When my turn came up I asked the producers to line-up a satirical, hurtful show, one that would make viewers sit up and ask themselves if they were really seeing this on television. This is the sort of thing that Paar did so successfully, but they wouldn't do it for me. Instead they stuck me with a magician, and the son of a bitch disappeared in a giant metal water tank for ten minutes - ten minutes of network television! Can you believe it? And the comedy sketches were amateurishly awful. I never had a chance."
The title of this article is lifted from Peter C. Newman's book The Distemper of Our Times (1968, McClelland & Stewart).
Although The Tonight Show at varying times had different monikers such as Tonite! or The Jack Paar Show an editorial decision was made to simply refer to it as The Tonight Show throughout.
Personal Favorite Talk Show Moments of Note
Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal quarreled on The Dick Cavett Show
A young John Kerry taking on the jingoistic Vietnam vet John O'Neill.
The highest ratings in late night history occurred in 1969 with Tiny Tim's memorable matrimony on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Johnny's DUI bust in 1982 resulted in a media firestorm and a helluva monologue his next time on air.
King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis by Shawn Levy (1996, St. Martin's Press).
King of the Night by Lawrence Leamer (1989, William Morrow & Co)
Hi-Ho Steverino by Steve Allen (1992, Barricade Books)
Kovacsland by Diana Rico (1990, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)
Dean & Me by Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan (2006, Broadway)
Here's Johnny by Stephen Cox (1992, Harmony Books)
Carson by Paul Corkery (1987, Randt & Company)
Television Talk by Bernard M. Timberg (2002, U of Texas Press)
40 Years at Night by James Van Hise (1992, Pioneer Books)
Inventing Late Night by Ben Alba (2005, Prometheus Books)
Seriously Funny by Gerald Nachman (2003, Pantheon Books)
Time Magazine, October 18th, 1963