Jack Paar was the real founding father of “The Tonight Show” as we know it-a program dominated by funny talk with a little music thrown in-but he wouldn’t have embraced the title. He hated being considered a historical figure, and in fact, until his last conscious months of life, he remained fascinated with the present, with what was happening in the world, with the agonizing banalities and the occasional ecstatic discoveries in the news.
What I most admired about Jack before I got to know him was simply his brilliance as an entertainer, a one-man extravaganza who really didn’t need guest stars or funny animals or any kind of extraneous friffle to keep an audience engaged, delighted, sometimes transfixed. What I most admired about Jack after I got to know him-in addition to his personal qualities of compassion and absolute honesty-was that he loved the world as much as I hate it.
He’s the only big star I ever got to know really well, well enough to be invited to his home many times, but I was too shy to accept more than a few of those invitations-and usually a long interview piece came out of them. But it was such a kick to be in the presence of a man whose mind never rested, who was always either up on the latest whatever or dying to know more about it.
Jack Paar died earlier this year after a long series of ailments-so long that he turned it into a joke and loved telling self-deprecating stories about his various calamities. Like the time his beatific wife Miriam-whom I nicknamed “The Saint” for the years she spent putting up with his manic shenanigans-thought she saw a snake in the garage. Oh God, there was nothing she loathed more.
Bravely, Jack loaded up an old blunderbuss of a gun he kept in the house for scaring deer away; he’d fire it into the air of his back yard and they’d scatter, abandoning his garden and grass. But Jack didn’t realize that shooting off that loud a gun in the enclosed area of the garage (not that he had any chance of hitting the snake, which never appeared anyway) could do serious damage to his hearing. But it did.
He told me about it in a note that was funny and not a bit self-pitying. He also wrote me about the time he had to be airlifted by helicopter from a kids’ baseball field (the game was briefly halted) to get to a New York hospital and treatment for his ailing heart. It is hard to think of Jack’s heart as ailing. On his last “Tonight” show, a member of the crew was among those appearing on tape to say goodbye and to thank Jack for giving others in the crew camera appearances-and thus added income-when they were hard up, and in a quivering voice he said, “Jack, your heart is bigger than your bag of tricks.”
Jack Benny, a hero to Paar as well as to Johnny Carson, was also on tape. He said to Paar, “Everything I know about Russia and sex I learned from you”-a joke, but one that suggests the show’s breadth under Paar’s reign. It was like “Omnibus” with laughs.
Those notes he sent me, which, sadly, grew fewer as his illnesses inhibited him, always began “Dear boy” and almost always closed “Thine, Jack.” The stories were fascinating and funny and so was his typing. He used a typewriter with a very large font-designed for the writing of speeches that could thus be more easily read aloud-and frequently apologized for his spelling, as if that mattered. As ever, he had opinions about everything.
There was much about the “progress” of television that discouraged him, of course. When David Letterman moved from late-night to the 11:35 p.m. spot on CBS, Jack wrote, “He’s going to have to do more than throw blue cards through a window.” He was aghast that studio audiences had been conditioned to applaud jokes when the jokes weren’t worth laughter. He thought this was dishonest and sad, the same opinion he expressed when he discovered that technicians were recording the honest laughs he earned on the “Tonight” show for use later as canned laughter on sitcoms.
Jack and Letterman were neighbors for a while when both lived in New Canaan, one of those plush and verdant Connecticut suburbs; Jack and Miriam later moved to Greenwich, Conn. The most memorable dinner of my life was one I got to spend with Herblock, the immortal political cartoonist, and Chuck Jones, the equally immortal cartoon director. And the most unforgettable lunch: with Jack and Letterman at the 21 Club, Jack’s favorite New York restaurant, in the mid-’80s, when Letterman was a disarming and ingenuous sensation. (On some nights, he still is.)
It was certainly the only social encounter I ever had with the notoriously reclusive Letterman, but he was there really to see Jack and be entertained by him. I hardly had to say “boo” in such company as this. In a silly Esquire piece about comedy, I’d written that Dave was an amateur at ad-libbing compared with Jack. This was simply not true. It was stupid because Dave has probably the fastest brain of anybody ever to hold that kind of job. But their two styles were completely different, anyway. What Jack had was a wealth of stories and an ability to see the humor, ironic or otherwise, in almost any situation.
(I was never really able to contact Letterman in any personal way after that happy occasion and once asked Chris Elliott, then a Letterman regular, why he was so standoffish, and he told me, “Dave is afraid you want to be his friend.” Oh, I see.)
Letterman had arrived first and taken a table in the basement, for lack of a better term, of the multistoried restaurant. Jack was disappointed; he wanted to be in the main dining room, to see and be seen, because even though he retired unforgivably early in life, he yearned to be remembered and recognized-except by little old ladies. They made him feel so yesterday.
An accomplished drinker and connoisseur of wine, Jack became extremely festive and thus all the more chattery as the meal reached its conclusion and Miriam came by to pick him up. Letterman had thoughtfully hired a limousine to bring them into and out of New York. Although I’d taken a fair share of friendly digs from Jack during the lunch, at the end he said simply, “I love you, Tom.” Even if he was a trifle loaded, it was a sweet moment that embarrassed everybody at the table. But it made me misty-eyed in the way Jack was notorious for being on the air.
There were a few other lunches over the years, one at each of his houses, and all that wonderful correspondence that I must now collect and put in one place and reread to keep Jack alive in my muddled head. But there are other ways of doing that, and hardly available just to me, like the multidisc tribute to Jack produced by David Leaf and Eric Kulberg and available on Shout DVDs.
For all his put-downs of contemporary TV, the most eclectic host that the “Tonight” show ever had declined to denounce the medium itself: “I cannot be unkind to a business that has been so good to me,” he said. I found that incredibly gracious and mannerly.
And though he may have found many so-called “stars” of the present to be shams and frauds, he was no fuddy-duddy. The man who walked off the “Tonight” show because network censors removed a joke he told that used the term “water closet” (a euphemism for toilet) was not offended by even the raunchiest humor if it was truly funny. He raved to me about a comic named Eddie Izzard after seeing Izzard’s HBO special, and Izzard did his act in flaming drag, seasoning it with irreverent obscenities. Jack thought he was brilliant.
Jack widened the scope of the “Tonight” show and set in place the format that is still largely intact. He proved that people talking and being themselves could be enthralling entertainment even in a visual medium, though it was never just radio, because he showed us sights from around the world. He was one of the first active citizens of the global village, the proverbial comet blazing across the sky and too soon disappearing, and the wittiest American raconteur ever to host a television program. And my friend.
I love you, Jack.