Originally posted in 2012.
Today is the birthday of Steve Allen (1921-2000). Steve-a-rino is one of my heroes, and I’ve written about him before (I penned a lengthy appreciation for The Comic Bible when he passed away in 2000). Allen was a show biz Renaissance man, and a mass of contradictions, enough of them to keep an interested investigator busy for YEARS, really.
He was one of television’s great innovators, inventing the late night talk show format, first in a local NYC show, then as the original host of the Tonight show, 1954-1957. Thereafter he remained one of television’s great anarchistic crazy-comedy inventors (second only to Ernie Kovacs) in a series of several different prime time and late night shows (usually called some variation on “the Steve Allen Show”) from 1956 through the early 70s. Then from 1977 to 1981 he invented yet another format by creating, producing and hosting The Meeting of Minds for PBS (a show in which celebrities impersonated great historical figures and sat down to dinner together engaging in heady conversations).
These are all considerable accomplishments, enough to make someone (you might think) feel okay about themselves. Yet Allen always seemed to wear a bit of a chip on his shoulder, to constantly be trumpeting his own accomplishments from a place of insecurity. You might think that was because he’d been eclipsed in later decades by younger people whom he’d influenced (David Letterman is the chief example). But, no, if you read his 1960 autobiography Mark It and Strike It, it still has that tone. Allen was trying to prove something to somebody. His mom, the vaudeville performer Belle Montrose? Maybe.
His pathetic arrogance (the only word for it) made for one of his contradictions. One of the most unapologetically articulate and intelligent people in show business, he delighted in racking up great numbers of self-penned compositions as if (which he surely didn’t believe) quantity were as important as quality in the production of art objects. He claimed to have written 14,000 songs, for example. Most of us would rather settle (I should think) for having written 100 songs as good as Cole Porter’s. Can you name any of Allen’s songs? (Yes, show biz buffs can name ONE. “This Could Be The Start of Something”. Any others?) Ditto the dozens and dozens of books he churned out (by dictation), which were mostly either non-fiction or mystery novels (“starring” himself and his wife Jayne Meadows). I’ve read a few of his “serious” books; to be charitable, they aren’t reflecting any glory on the libraries that stock them. They consist mostly of self-important pontifications and rambling digressions. In short, they are not as smart as he was. Numbers of books only count when you’re George Bernard Shaw. Otherwise Mickey Spillane would be Shakespeare.
Yet, when he was putting together tv shows, that brain of his was a glorious thing. He was a champion of real serious (be bop) jazz, of the Beats (he famously played along with Jack Kerouac reciting On the Road in 1959), of cutting edge comedians like Lenny Bruce and Nichols and May. Then (another contradiction), in his last years, he turned against freedom of speech, advocating censorship, or self-censorship of people like Howard Stern and several rap groups. His love of wild and crazy music stopped at jazz. He could never reconcile himself to rock and roll and what came after.
That love of jazz is part of another contradiction, a cultural one. Allen was steeped in the music of African America — he played jazz piano and clarinet, played jazz records as a d.j. when he was starting out, played with black musicians and booked them for his show constantly. And yet, he was OH so very white. Confidentially (he said in public) it’s one of the reasons I’ve always adored him and made him a role model. He was a champion of civil rights and black culture (and even an exponent of it) yet he was still, unavoidably, himself. Was there ever anyone whiter? Well, there are some — but Allen’s saving grace is that he is very funny. Funny in a nerd way, but undeniably funny and loveable. You almost want to protect him. (It’s a quality he shared with Tony Randall and Shelly Long). This is what keeps him from being unbearably, cringe-inducingly caucasian like Gary Owens, Robert Preston, Bob Eubanks, or almost any game show host for that matter.
But of course, you must realize that buried beneath that persona, in the true vaudeville tradition, was a good deal of “color”. Belle Montrose’s real last name was Donohue. When Allen’s father Billy, also a vaudeville performer died, Steve was raised by his single mom and her Irish Catholic family (including a drunken uncle), dirt poor, on the South Side of Chicago. Oh, I can forgive any amount of arrogance in light of that.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including tv variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc