Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, Feb. 15, 1960
February 15, 2010 | 2:00 pm
Jack Paar Did Right for Wrong Reason
Never one to make snap judgments, I have permitted myself an entire weekend in which to mull over the strange case of Jack Paar.
When, right in between a couple of commercials, he walked off the Tonight show, with tears of self-pity welling up in his eyes, I was deeply affected.
Previously, I had never cared for the lad. He always struck me as sort of a bloodless Oscar Levant.
But his gesture of hysterical defiance finally gave us something in common. You see, I, too, once walked off the Tonight show. Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't exactly walk off. Somebody pushed me.
You may not remember (and I hope you don't) but in the pre-Paar years I was one of a half dozen dedicated, if ineffectual, newspaper columnists who starred on Tonight.
Along with such men of letters as Bob Considine, Vernon Scott, Chicago's Irv Kupcinet, New York's Earl Wilson and Hy Gardner, I was hired to be part of a brave new experiment in network television.
The plan was to present on Tonight a cross-country variety and journalism show where we could cover all the big stories.
It looked great on paper. But on a 20-inch screen it looked dismal.
Any idea that promised to show a touch of imagination was immediately rejected by the Ivy League martinets in the RCA building as too controversial, too expensive or too dirty.
The result was a coast-to-coast embarrassment in which, nightly, each columnist, in turn, would interview a bongo player. Providing, of course, we could find one who had no opinions, would work for scale and wasn't risque.
Finally, the inevitable phone call came from New York to tell me we were being canceled. I remember my emotions well. My eyes filled with tears of self-pity and I cried: "They can't cancel us. I've already spent next month's salary."
But they did. And, without even allowing a decent interval for mourning, they brought in Jack Paar to replace us.
The effect was immediate. All of a sudden, the Tonight show took hold. People began looking in again. And sponsors began buying.
It would be ungracious and inaccurate to say that Paar himself wasn't responsible. But the fact that he was is also quite interesting.
Jack Paar had bounced around the fringes of show business for years without ever catching on. Suddenly the Tonight show brought him before millions of Americans and he was a success.
But success had a bad way with him. Out of morbid curiosity I've looked in on him many times. What I saw was that he had turned the Tonight show into a proving ground for his conceits and a battleground for the bitterness he apparently feels toward an industry that waited so long to recognize him.
Maybe it's clinically interesting to watch a man bare his neuroses in front of a TV camera. But it ain't show business. Or, at least, it shouldn't be.
Paar has established on many nights that he is a troubled soul. But when he finally cracked, it was for a pretty ridiculous reason.
Hazard Pay Quite Good
Based on my own experience with network television, I'm sympathetic to any performer who cries out in frustration against the many little men with little minds who infest the vicinity of Madison Ave. But I'm also aware that they're an occupational hazard. And -- since the pay is quite good -- a hazard worth facing.
Paar couldn't face it. His ego bruises too easily. So, over the earth-shaking issue of a crude bathroom joke, he threw a petulant fit worthy of a pre-school age child.
As I say, I took the week end to mull it all over, and I've come to the conclusion that what Jack Paar needs is not to be cradled protectively in his wife's arms for the benefit of the photogs -- what he really needs is a swift kick in a region we don't discuss on television.