Feb 2, 2004  •  Post A Comment

My first impulse when writing a story about Jack Paar is to call up Jack and get his latest funny take on what’s happening in the world. His curiosity was never satisfied, his keen eye never dimmed. But there is no calling Jack now.
Those of us who knew him dreaded the moment we knew would come ever since he suffered a stroke last year, and last week, cruelly, it did. Jack, frustratingly immobilized for months, developed an infection that neither modern medicine nor his embattled immune system could conquer.
He died Tuesday at 85, not a young man yet one still young at heart. What I think I most admired about him, of his many virtues, was his fearlessness. On “The Tonight Show,” which he hosted from 1957 through 1962, and on a weekly series and occasional specials he did in the years that followed, Jack was the picture of courage. He feared no man nor woman-not once-powerful New York columnists like Walter Winchell, nor notorious racketeers like Jimmy Hoffa, nor a drunken guest who might turn surly (as did Mickey Rooney) nor a playful one who might try to rip off his clothes (as did a daffy Debbie Reynolds).
He fought a bull in Spain, and in Amsterdam let himself be submerged in a car used to train rescue workers who fished people out of sunken vehicles. When you combine heroic courage with impeccable honesty, you’ve got a powerful force on your hands, and Jack Paar was that. He was a star, he was a genre, he was both teacher and student, brilliant monologist and flawless straight man-he was all of that and more, and his TV shows were like trips to the greatest amusement park in the world, only with the whole Algonquin Round Table guiding the tour.
He was a hero to me as a kid watching from the Midwest and remained one when, years later, I traveled to suburban Connecticut to spend time with him and his wonderful wife, Miriam, for interview pieces. He was a hero, yes, but the most sentimental hero who ever lived. He’d do battle with gorgons and gangsters on the “Tonight” show, then puddle over with tears when a singer, at his request, did “The Party’s Over” or some other tender show tune. Only brave men have the guts to cry. The great Ben Bradlee never leaves a sad movie with a dry handkerchief, and the great Jack Paar couldn’t hear `”Til There Was You” and not get misty.
No less influential a media scholar than Marshall McLuhan hailed Jack for his incomparable communicative prowess, and yet Jack wasn’t one for espousing theories or strategies. His brilliance seemed instinctual. Merv Griffin once recalled, however, advice Jack gave him when Merv was starting his own talk show: “Always be prepared, but let the show unfold,” Paar told Griffin. “Let it be chaos-planned chaos. You want an electric undercurrent that keeps the audience from knowing what’s going to happen next.”
That was the most seductive element of Jack Paar’s TV shows, that sense of danger and unpredictability, of watching a man on a flying trapeze. No one before or since has equaled it. The closest practitioners now are Conan O’Brien and David Letterman. Jay Leno hasn’t a clue.
TV coverage of Jack’s death has been inadequate. One of those execrable entertainment-news shows called Paar “the man who paved the way for Johnny Carson,” a phrase so deeply steeped in ignorance as to be irredeemable. In five years as “Tonight” host, Paar engineered a larger number of explosive, electrifying and unforgettable moments than most showmen could manage in 10 or 20 seasons.
Paar and Carson. It was possible to love them both, even though their styles were completely dissimilar. The ratings actually went up after Carson took over, but Jack was the one who made “The Tonight Show” not only commercially successful (many affiliates never cleared “Tonight” until Paar lit it up) but the biggest water-cooler show in the history of the medium.
To his credit, Larry King hosted a sweet, affectionate hour of reminiscence about Paar on CNN Thursday night. Among the guests on this special “Larry King Live” were Paar’s daughter Randy, Merv Griffin, Regis Philbin (briefly, by telephone), Bob Newhart and Betty White, a Paar favorite. Dick Cavett talked less about Paar than about himself.
Somebody said they once got a letter from Jack and framed it. One letter? Good grief, I’ve got dozens of them stashed all over the house, most of them beginning, “Dear boy … .” I am going to find them all, every letter and card, read them all again, and laugh hard. And cry harder. Jack was so restlessly talented that he took up painting late in life, and one of the endearing pieces he sent me is a whimsical portrait of a dog who appears to have mischief on his mind-as of course Jack did much of the time. He raised mischief to the level of art. He raised television to the level of genius.
All of us trying to memorialize Jack have only scratched the surface, because there was so much to him. He was ahead of his time in having an “edge,” that’s for sure; he had edge before edge was invented. What he created could also be called reality television, because though he did tell jokes, he was happier with true anecdotes about life’s absurdities and indignities, and with real, spontaneous psychodrama that happened on the air.
On Paar’s final “Tonight” show in 1962, which comic Jack E. Leonard dubbed “the last night of World War III,” famous Paar guests sent in taped farewells, funny or emotional-everyone from Bobby Kennedy to Richard Nixon, from Jack Benny to Billy Graham-and suddenly up popped a member of the show’s crew. Some in the studio audience laughed, thinking it a gag, but it was no gag. The crewmember talked about how Jack frequently came to the aid of staffers in financial distress, making sure they got camera appearances-and thus, union-mandated bonuses-if they were going through hard times.
The man ended his testimonial by thanking Paar on behalf of the crew and saying, “Jack, your heart is bigger than your bag of tricks.” Jack Paar used television to let us see the world as he saw it, as a wonderful and magical place, amusing and amazing. It’s going to be so much less wonderful and magical without him.
He took us to Oz, you might say, and showed us courage, heart and wisdom. Why, why, why did it ever have to end?