'American Masters' Captures the Wit and Style of Jack Paar

Article excerpt

Byline: Ted Cox

Two days after WMAQ-TV Channel 5 replaced Carol Marin with Jerry Springer, WTTW-TV Channel 11 today boots Jack Paar from its prime-time schedule in order to air a rebroadcast of Francis George's installation as Chicago's new archbishop.

For heaven's sake, doesn't anyone in this medium have even a measure of good sense anymore?

All kidding aside, "Jack Paar: As I Was Saying" is the PBS series "American Masters" doing what it does best: finding an under-appreciated, forgotten, but important figure in the American arts and explaining what it was that made him unique.

Its debut is being moved from 9 p.m. today, when it was originally slated to appear, to 3 p.m. Sunday on 'TTW. And it is must-see viewing for anyone, like me, who was too young to see Paar's five-year stint as host of "The Tonight Show" from 1957 (almost exactly 40 years ago) to 1962.

You won't know how influential he was until you see his Letterman-esque comic travels to London and Hawaii, or his Carsonian offhand delivery of a joke.

When it comes to being a talk-show host, it turns out both Johnny Carson and David Letterman - not to mention Jay Leno or Arsenio Hall or Dick Cavett or Joey Bishop - were just trying to match Paar.

Of course, "American Masters" concentrates on the high points of a career that had an ample share of both ups and downs. But those high points - and the glimpses of the lows - make a convincing case that Paar was an American original.

Steve Allen gets short shrift as the original "Tonight Show" host, but the fact remains that Paar stepped in when "Tonight" was all but canceled, and he altered it to the format that remains standard today: a host giving a monologue and then just sitting around talking off the cuff with guests.

And what guests. Jonathan Winters and Charlie Weaver were regulars during the Paar administration. Other visitors included both JFK and RFK (in fact, Bobby Kennedy picked Paar as his first TV interview after his brother's assassination), Tricky Dick himself (playing a Nixon composition on the piano) and stars from Richard Burton and Peter Ustinov to Judy Garland, Liberace and Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay (the last two, believe it or not, performed a Clay poem to classical accompaniment).

In addition, Paar was early in spotting the talents of the Muppets, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby - all of whom receive extended sequences in "As I Was Saying" - as well as Carol Burnett, the Smothers Brothers, Bob Newhart and the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

"American Masters" recognizes that, in analyzing the impact of a talk-show host, the people he or she talks with are a major element.

But there was something captivating about Paar as well.

"He doesn't hide anything," says Hal Gurnee, who worked with Paar before going on to produce Letterman's talk shows. …