His Crazy Way With an Ad-Lib

Sep 27, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Steve Allen, the first host (1954-57) of what was then titled “Tonight” died in 2000 at the age of 78. Reprinted with permission from Mr. Allen’s memoir “Hi-Ho, Steverino!” published in 1992 by Barricade Books, Fort Lee, N.J.

What is the magic factor that separates successful hosts from the rest of their entertainment colleagues? First, it apparently has nothing to do with talent. Talent, as the word has traditionally been understood in the arts, refers to the ability to perform a creative task with excellence. … This is not to say that talk-show hosts have no talent. Some do; most do not. …

But if it’s not talent, as that term is generally perceived, that accounts for success in the talk show field, what is it? Well, until recently anyway, it seems to involve having an easy-to-take personality, being generally soft-spoken rather than pushy, not noticeably eccentric and not so socially dominating that one will overshadow one’s guests. …

What crazy nights there were on the old `Tonight’ show, what crazy ad-lib routines. …[One] of my favorites was to open the back door [of the New York studio], walk quickly into the night dressed in some particular costume and engage strangers in extemporaneous conversation.

The wildest thing that ever happened on the show, I suppose, occurred the night I donned a realistic New York policeman’s uniform, charged into the street and began stopping automobiles. I had no idea what I was going to say to the drivers but figured that just the sheer, insane idea of stopping actual cars on live TV and saying anything would be unusual enough. …

“Border patrol,” I shouted to the driver of the third car as he skidded to a stop. “Are you smuggling anything?”

“No, sir,” the occupant, a middle-aged black man, said.

“Well then,” I said, signaling to an associate who brought me a huge, 3-foot Hebrew National salami, “take this to the river.”

“To the what?” he said, accepting the salami.

“Never mind. Just get going. And don’t stop till you hear from me!” He sped off as instructed.

The next car was a taxi. I grabbed another salami and flagged the driver down. “Where to, chief?” he asked amiably.

“Just take this to Grand Central-and hurry!” I said, opening his back door and flinging the giant salami in. He roared off at once into the night while the audience laughed so loudly it sounded like a crowd at a football game. I have often wondered why he sped away down the street following such an insane order. …

While I am frequently introduced on TV as “the Father of the talk show’ or “as a talk show host, the granddaddy of them all,” and so on, it was actually Jack Paar who set such programs more narrowly in their present mold.

[The `Tonight’ show I did] was something much more creative-an experimental TV laboratory. One night we’d book, say, the Count Basie band and [have it] do 25 minutes of music. … On other occasions we might present a full-fledged 30-minute drama… or do a remote telecast from Hollywood, Miami, Chicago or Niagara Falls.