Inventing Late Night: Steve Allen And the Original Tonight Show Hardcover – October 3, 2005
by Ben Alba (Author), Jay Leno (Foreword)
“If you have ever turned on the TV after the 11 o’clock news and laughed, you owe Steve Allen a debt of gratitude.” That’s how Entertainment Weekly described Steve Allen’s enormous contribution to American popular culture in a tribute to the legendary entertainer after his death on October 30, 2000. Steve Allen created the Tonight show — America’s longest running entertainment show and most successful late-night TV show. In so doing he led the way for other American icons: Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, David Letterman, and Jay Leno. The formula we all now take for granted did not exist before Allen: the desk, the opening monologue, breezy chats with celebrities, wacky stunts, comedy sketches, cameras roaming down the hall and outside the theater, off-the-cuff interviews with passers-by, and ad-lib banter with the studio audience. It’s all great fun and it’s all due to the incredibly witty, incurably silly, musically gifted, and ever-likeable Steve Allen.
Based on exclusive interviews, Ben Alba has produced this wonderful history of the first Tonight show, complete with terrific photos from the show and revealing insights from over 30 entertainment legends who knew and worked with Steve Allen — including Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, Don Knotts, Louis Nye, Tom Poston, Bill Dana, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Andy Williams, Tim Conway, the Smothers Brothers, Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, Bill Dana, and Doc Severinsen. In addition, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Bill Maher, Bob Costas, and other TV veterans reflect on Allen’s contributions.
Starting with Allen’s early career in radio, Alba shows how the young radio talent developed many of the elements that would soon light up late-night television. He then highlights Allen’s many innovations that made the Tonight show so appealing and enduring: the single-guest and single theme shows, road shows and live segments from across the country, Broadway shows visiting Tonight, creating a forum for jazz artistry and a groundbreaking showcase for African-American talent, musical tributes, and the use of the studio audience as a comedy goldmine.
Alba has created an invaluable, entertaining, and revealing behind-the-scenes look at the birth of an American television institution and its brilliant inventor, whose influence continues to make America stay awake and laugh —night after night.
From Publishers Weekly
Lest anyone think that late-night TV’s zany characters and stunts began with Johnny, Jay or Dave, this love letter to original Tonight host Steve Allen will set them straight. Alba’s portrait depicts Allen as a ground-breaking force in television whose brief stint (1954-57) on NBC’s late-night show had a lasting influence on late night TV. Allen comes across as both a regular Joe and a multitalented Renaissance man whose knack for ad-libbing with audiences, loosely scripted gags and improvisational piano-playing in the days of live TV were as nimble as his commitment to progressive social causes. (Imagine Leno or Letterman devoting segments to discussions of drug abuse or organized crime.) Although only a few episodes of the Allen-era Tonight have survived, this book commendably captures the show’s flavor in front of the camera and behind the scenes. That’s largely thanks to interviews with Allen prior to his 2000 death and his numerous cohorts and admirers: Tonight producer Bill Harbach; regulars Steve Lawrence and Andy Williams; Don Knotts, Tim Conway and Tom Poston from Allen’s prime-time variety series; and longtime friends Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner. Highlights include a blow-by-blow comparison between some of Allen’s gags and those later adapted by Johnny Carson and others. The book would benefit from better structuring, and more than a few quotes are repetitious, continually praising Allen’s wit and innovation without adding any fresh examples. Like Allen, whose sharp wit and genial demeanor appealed to a wide audience, Alba’s detailed homage should resonate with a wide array of readers. 32 pages of b&w photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Steve Allen–not Johnny Carson, not Jack Paar–was the progenitor of the late-night TV yapfest, and Alba’s tribute to his pioneering includes current midnight-oil-burning rivals Leno and Letterman acknowledging their indebtedness. Less known than his trailblazing is the fact that Allen was instrumental in bringing African American stars to network TV. On the other hand, and seemingly incongruous with championing black entertainers, hisTonight Show writers included Bill Dana, whose Jose Jimenez performing persona was a long-lived example of another kind of racial stereotyping in TV comedy. Also a dedicated jazz fan, Allen introduced a soupcon of hipness to TV, too, that for many was mitigated, however, by such tiresome routines as his dramatic readings of the lyrics of “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and other rock songs. Yet he perceptively interviewed an eclectic roster of guests. A complicated guy. Including the history of the Tonight Show band from Skitch Henderson to Doc Severinsen, this is great stuff for broadcasting and pop-culture collections, though sufficiently conversational and nostalgia-soaked for nonspecialist readers. Mike Tribby
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books (October 3, 2005)
Product Dimensions: 1.4 x 6.4 x 9.1 inches
Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds