Jack Paar

Television host who popularised 'The Tonight Show'
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The Independent Online

Jack Harold Paar, comedian: born Canton, Ohio 1 May 1918: twice married (one daughter); died Greenwich, Connecticut 27 January 2004.

From 1957 to 1962, Jack Paar was the host of America's most talked-about late-night television show, The Tonight Show. As the media critic Ben Gross wrote in his book I Looked and I Listened (1970), "Charming, witty, irascible, controversial and above all unpredictable, Jack Paar made the "desk-and-sofa show" a national institution."

The second son of second- generation German-Americans, Jack Harold Paar developed a serious childhood stammer which isolated him from his schoolmates. At the age of 16, he decided on a career to which few stammerers aspired - radio announcing. His job at a broadcasting station in Jackson, Michigan, required him merely to announce the outlet's call letters every 15 minutes and empty its wastepaper baskets. His speech problem soon vanished and he worked for stations in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York State before being called up for military service during the Second World War.

Assigned to the US Army's Special Services Division, which put on shows for the troops, Paar married shortly before being shipped to the South Pacific. (There had been an earlier teenage marriage and divorce.) Packed on to a troopship with several thousand other men, Paar was at a loss as to how to entertain them. After a month at sea, food ran low and morale even lower.

As they reached the Coral Sea, there was a submarine alert, and the ship's guns pounded away at the suspected area. When the all-clear came, Paar suddenly leapt up and shouted, "Men, I've been asked to make an announcement! There was a sub, but unfortunately we drove it off. I say "unfortunately", because the Japs were trying to bring us food!" The laughter, applause and cheers his quip produced made him realise that tilting against authority was his strong suit.

He continued along these lines when given his own disc jockey show on the Armed Forces radio station at New Caledonia. Like Adrian Cronauer, the real-life forces disc jockey played by Robin Williams in the 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam, Paar became immensely popular with his fellow servicemen. Also rapturously received were the shows he took to various islands in the area. In 1944, a visiting American journalist caught one of these shows and praised the acerbic new GI comedian in an Esquire article. As a result, Paar became news in his homeland, and, by the time he left the service, found himself the subject of intense media interest.

He was signed by RKO as a film actor, and by NBC Radio as Jack Benny's summer replacement. Publicising his new show, he rashly told a Time interviewer, "I'm new and I'm good. And I represent True Radio, as against the radio we've been getting from the vaudeville comics." Despite a top-notch writing team and stalwart supporting players, The Jack Paar Show ended when the summer did. The ex-vaudevillian Benny, who had personally chosen Paar as his replacement, offered no further assistance.

Paar's film career was also less than triumphant: he had fleeting roles in Easy Living (1949), Walk Softly Stranger (1950), Love Nest (1951) and Down Among the Sheltering Palms (1953), but only seemed at ease in Variety Time (1948) and Footlight Varieties (1951), two minor revue-style features in which he acted as a wisecracking master of ceremonies. After his film contract lapsed, he was on the dole when Fred Allen, another radio comedian and vaudeville graduate, referred to him over the air as "the young man who had that meteoric disappearance".

In 1952 Paar departed Hollywood for New York, where he appeared on various short-lived game and talk shows before being invited, in 1957, to take over The Tonight Show. Under its first host, Steve Allen, the programme had featured zany sketches and stunts. Paar preferred talk, and surrounded himself with such lively conversationalists as Oscar Levant, Hermione Gingold, Beatrice Lillie, Robert Morley and Peter Ustinov.

Soon Tonight became what The New York Post called "a national vice", with over six million viewers altering their sleeping habits to watch Paar joke, air his personal grievances, or cry. (He once tearfully walked out in mid-show because the network had censored one of his jokes.) A programme that started with only two sponsors soon had so many that its host referred to it as "one hour and three-quarters of interruptions, with time out to remove the wounded". In a year he had so stamped Tonight with his individuality that its title was changed to The Jack Paar Show.

After five years, Paar wearied of working under pressure until 1am each weekday, and was given a Friday-night series which, apart from going out earlier in the evening, was basically the same as his late-night programme. After another five years, this too proved exhausting for its star, who went into semi- retirement to run his own television station in Portland, Maine.

In his book Three On a Toothbrush (1965), Paar wrote, "If I've made any contribution to TV, I like to think it's been in making conversation respectable again."

Dick Vosburgh