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10/30/2010

Ten years ago: Steve Allen

October 30, 2010 |  6:15 am

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Comedian Steve Allen wrote a lot of books -- more than 50 -- and a lot of songs -- several thousand, including 50 a day for a week once, in a shop window -- but his enduring cultural mark is the late-night TV format he invented as original host of the "Tonight" show.

Allen's stunts on "Tonight" in the mid-'50s -- emotional readings of letters to the editor, diving into Jell-O -- are obvious influences on several of his successors in the genre, maybe the similarly towering David Letterman and Conan O'Brien in particular. But it wasn't just the content he helped pioneer, it was its most permanent packaging. "I want to give you the bad news first, folks," Allen told the "Tonight" show's national audience. "This show is going to go on forever."

Like the man, the show during his tenure combined zany with deadly serious:

With a giddiness that belied his scholarly looking spectacles, Allen plunged his 6-foot, 3-inch frame into a huge bowl of salad for a "Tonight" wrestling match. Another time, he donned a vendor's togs to peddle hot dogs on the street. Occasionally, Allen abandoned the entertainment format to tackle more substantive issues. He devoted one entire show to a news program on organized crime. And to demonstrate the perils of drinking and driving, he downed six double vodkas on air, then let his fumbling drunkenness speak for itself.

Later on, Allen "tooled around Southern California in an aquamarine Rolls-Royce." And he campaigned against violence and vulgarity on TV. Allen wasn't a typical family-values crusader; his politics were liberal, but his sensibility tilted against the low-brow:

. . . He coined a term, "dumbth," to express his view of most Americans as slow-witted, gullible and bumbling. Although he sprinkled his observations with humor, Allen was dead serious about dumbth, alarmed that Americans seemed oblivious to world events, ignorant of history and clueless about geography.

The full obit has more on the son of vaudevillians who became a film actor, grandfather and husband (twice, the second time happily), pitchman, composer, TV dramatist, short-story author and activist. And it recounts Allen's televised staging of Elvis Presley, before Ed Sullivan and alongside an actual hound dog.

--Michael Owen

Photo: Allen in 1959. Credit: Associated Press

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