inventing late night

The Book of the Week is “inventing late night (sic), Steve Allen and the original tonight show (sic)” by ben alba, published in 2005.  This slightly sloppily edited book tells how Steve Allen created the format for late night talk shows on American television, starting in the early 1950’s.

When television was in its infancy, Allen’s original ad-libbing and off-the-wall physical comedy made audiences laugh through the 1950’s.  However, since history is written by the most prolific propagandists, and Allen was modest and less than aggressive at self-promotion, other entertainment-industry moguls such as Johnny Carson and his ilk, bragged that they were the ones amusing Americans in an unprecedented way on their late-night talk shows. David Letterman was one of the few who attributed his show’s stunts to Allen’s ideas.

In autumn 1954, Pat Weaver, president of NBC, gave Allen free rein to do whatever he wanted on his new, unrehearsed, live (!) program, “Tonight!” What resulted was an unscripted variety show featuring insane stunts, a band, singers, celebrity guests, news and theater reviews. In planning each weeknight’s episode, Allen would loosely specify the number of minutes of each segment– but continue with a segment if it got a great audience response, and cut the next act on the spot. If the show was a bit slow, he would go into the audience to converse with them.  Every minute of airtime was unpredictable. The only segment that was usually predictable, was the music.

Unfortunately, episodes of the taped, live shows were later incinerated due to lack of storage space at the network. Shortly after the airing of the show, the only way for the general public and cast and crew to get a recording was to buy one– a kinescope for $160. The singers made about $300 a week.

Eydie Gorme had this to say: “All of us working singers would go the Brill Building [in Manhattan] and get all the new sheet music, which they gave you free in those days.” Other celebrities who appeared on the show and were interviewed for this book, lamented that of late, performers of recent decades have resorted to obscenity and vulgarity to elicit cheap laughs from the audience, because they lack talent and creativity. Sadly, most audience members are unaware that their intelligence is being insulted. Even so, the younger ones are unaware of how high Steve Allen set the bar for quality entertainment.

Even more impressive– Allen’s show had TWO writers and twenty band members, while nowadays, late-night shows have TWENTY writers and five or six band members.

Read the book to learn the specifics of Allen’s stunts, antics, routines and style, and what changed when he started a second talk show simultaneously with what became “The Tonight Show.”

David Spade is Almost Interesting

The Book of the Week is “David Spade is Almost Interesting, the Memoir” by David Spade, published in 2015. This ebook is about the life of the actor and stand-up comedian.

Born in the mid-1960’s, Spade is the youngest of three brothers. His father abandoned the family when he was little.

The comedian wrote about how he started his career in stand-up comedy, and achieved sufficient success to become a writer on the TV show “Saturday Night Live” for a few seasons in the early 1990’s. The show’s content-generators and performers were fiercely competitive because extra money and a big ego boost went to the writers who got a sketch on the air, or did more acting than others. When Spade’s sketches were rejected, his fellow cast members were “… quietly doing mental cartwheels because of the schadenfreude festival around the seventeenth floor [of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan].” He summed up his situation thusly: “I had such a massive chip on my shoulder about being an underdog from Arizona with no show business connections.”

According to Spade, the movie and television studios encourage actors to use social media to interact with their fans. He revealed that the studios might cast an actor for a certain role based on the number of followers he has on Twitter or Instagram.

In addition to describing the making of movies with fellow comedian Chris Farley, the author also included a chapter on his love life. He apparently believes all the male and female stereotypes and that is perhaps why is still a bachelor, as of this writing.

Read the book to learn of Spade’s antics and traumas.

What’s So Funny

The Book of the Week is “What’s So Funny?” by Tim Conway with Jane Scovell, published in 2013. This is the comedian’s autobiography. An only child born in December 1933 to an Irish father and Romanian mother, he grew up in a suburb of Cleveland. The former groomed horses and the latter made slipcovers for sofas at a time they were becoming popular in American living rooms. Conway is best known for acting on the Carol Burnett Show.

Conway started gaining experience in an entertainment career in his mid-20’s, at a Cleveland radio station. When he had “made it” on TV, he performed material he had written himself. In the early 1960’s, Steve Allen, the late-night talk-show host, told Conway to change his first name from Tom to Tim, because there was another performer named Tom Conway, so he did.

Read the book to learn of the antics Conway used to break into show business in his generation, and of the characters who populated his life.

Dean & Me

The Book of the Week is “Dean & Me” by Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan, published in 2005. This is a career memoir of one half of the super-successful comedy team, “Martin and Lewis.”

Starting in the mid-1940’s, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis did live shows of banter, singing and slapstick, and performed in movies, on recordings and on TV and radio. They hobnobbed with “The Rat Pack”– other night-club and casino comedians and singers who included Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis, Jr., in the late 1950’s.

Read the book to learn about Lewis’ complex, love-hate relationship with Martin, Lewis’ later solo career, and the nature of American comedic entertainment in the mid-twentieth century.

Rickles’ Book

The Book of the Week is “Rickles’ Book” by Don Rickles with David Ritz, published in 2007. Rickles was a stand-up comedian and movie actor. He developed a reputation for insult comedy, or “roasting.” This is a book of anecdotes of his experiences in show business.

Rickles once replaced Lenny Bruce at a night club in Los Angeles because the owners considered Bruce too offensive. Rickles’ manager “…came out of that era when a man’s word was his bond and loyalty was everything… like any savvy promoter who came up in the thirties and forties, Joe had connections outside formal show business. That was the way of the world. Without those connections, you never left the dock, with them, you sailed.”

Read the book to learn of Rickles’ adventures with various celebrities.

Bonus Post

This blogger read “So, Anyway…” by John Cleese. The author initially thought he was going to be an attorney, actually acquiring a legal education. But he changed his mind and became a comedy writer.

Cleese is a rare bird, in that he possesses capacity for analytical thinking and comedic absurdity in equal measure– the former has kept him sane, and the latter has made him funny.

The author had the luck of entering the field of British television comedy around 1960 when it was in its infancy. He worked with David Frost– a TV executive who undeservedly grabbed writing credits by listing his name first in large letters on his own show, while there were tens of other writers, contributors of original material, whose names appeared in small type thereafter. Cleese comments that people harbored little or no jealousy over this because Frost had a hands-off management style, never said a mean word about anyone, ignored his immature critics, and sincerely believed people were cheering for him rather than trying to cut him down.

The author, a major contributor to the BBC TV show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and some funny movies, also writes, “I regarded swearing as a form of cheating, a lazy way of getting a laugh out of material that wasn’t intrinsically funny enough.”

Read the book to see Cleese’s other words of wisdom on comedy writing, and how he has been able to continuously contribute creative content to various shows through the decades– a major feat for someone with a career such as his.

Bonus Post

This blogger read Howie Mandel’s autobiography, “Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me” published in 2009.

Mandel has been a TV and movie actor, game show host and stand-up comedian. In this ebook, he reveals all of his psychological issues– ADHD, OCD, desperate need for attention, etc; “I was constantly consumed with my own pranks. I had no sense of boundaries.” Although his creative antics are amusing, he has poor impulse control. This has led to damaged relationships.

Read the book to learn how he became famous, despite, or arguably, due to his various mental and physical problems– he has used entertaining others as a coping mechanism to forget about the negative aspects of his identity.

Dirty Daddy

The Book of the Week is “Dirty Daddy” by Bob Saget. This is a tell-all autobiography. Some people are shocked to learn of Saget’s stand-up comedy persona–all toilet and sex jokes– because they knew him only as the goody-goody father of three young daughters on the 1980’s American sitcom “Full House.”

Saget writes that the development of his dirty image was influenced by his father, a butcher, who had a lively, shameless sense of humor. He rambles on a little too long about relationships– his own, and in general. Nevertheless, one should read this book to learn about the people and experiences that shaped his life through his gratuitous name-dropping and lighthearted anecdotes, if one can stomach occasionally repulsive scenes.

I Stooged to Conquer

The Book of the Week is “I Stooged to Conquer” by Moe Howard, published in 2013. This is the autobiography of the longest-time member of the comedy-movie troupe “The Three Stooges.”

“When I was a teenager, everyone interested in fairs, circuses, Broadway theater, vaudeville, and the stock companies read Billboard magazine.” In March 1914, the fourteen-year old Moe (full name Moses), living in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn with his family, answered a help-wanted ad for a movie actor in Jackson, Mississippi. He got the job through deception and fast-talking.

With persistence and talent for comedy, Moe broke into vaudeville. He assembled a blackface act with his brother Shemp and others through the years. On one occasion, as a prank, he grew a bushy beard on the right side of his face while shaving the other, and his brother, the left.  They horrified strangers on the street and embarrassed their mother.

In 1917, Moe and Shemp were able to work on vaudeville for both RKO and Loew’s simultaneously by appearing in blackface for the former, and whiteface for the latter. The very first version of the Three Stooges was called “Ted Healy and His Three Southern Gentlemen” and included Moe, Shemp and Larry– unrelated to the Howard brothers. They picked up Curly– another Howard brother– to replace Shemp, when they started making movies in 1930. Healy, the leader, swindled the group for years, receiving more than ten times the salary he paid the group.

Read the book to learn how Moe and his comedy partners also got swindled by Columbia Pictures; of their adventures in movies that continued into the early 1950’s; the sudden deaths of three of them; and what their pay had risen to by the late 1950’s.

Married to Laughter

The Book of the Week is “Married to Laughter” by Jerry Stiller, published in 2000. This is Stiller’s autobiography.

Born in 1927, the author grew up in Brooklyn’s East New York and Williamsburg neighborhoods in New York City. “During the Depression, many husbands left their homes and moved into the bathhouses, establishments normally occupied by alcoholics and womanizers drying out after a night in the bars.” Stiller’s father went to stay at a bathhouse when his parents weren’t getting along. For a while, his father was an unemployed cab driver who had to feed a wife and three kids. During a physical fight over money, the author’s mother told the author to call the police. “Jews did not call the police– Jews fighting among themselves. The police would only watch and laugh. Encourage us to kill ourselves.”

 As a youngster, Stiller wrote to the radio station to get his family free tickets to witness the recording of Eddie Cantor’s radio show at Rockefeller Center in New York City. The author was then inspired to become a comedian.

“Off-Broadway theater was a new concept in 1947. It wasn’t Broadway. But it was theater.” After his discharge from the army, Stiller tried to become a stage actor. He ended up attending college on the GI Bill, the original reason he’d joined the army.

Stiller had this to say about the TV show “Seinfeld” on which he played George Costanza’s father: “The show was successful because it never apologized for the behavior of its characters. Nor do most people in real life apologize when they step over the line. The show mirrored not just Jewish behavior, but everyone’s.”

Read the book to learn about Stiller’s adventures in the army, how he developed his craft with a professor’s help, and about his life with Anne Meara– his partner in comedy and in life.