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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The ‘I Kid you Not’ Man

By Tom Morrow

Jack Paar, born May 1, 1918, was a man who wore many professional hats. He was an American author, radio and television comedian and talk show host, best known for his stint as host of NBC’s The Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962.

While I’m sure Johnny Carson fans will disagree, those of us old enough to remember Paar and his days on the late-night talk fest will agree he put the show on the television history’s map.jack-paar

Paar had a rough childhood. A native of Canton, Ohio, later moving to Jackson, Mich. As a child he had a stuttering problem which he conquered. He contracted tuberculosis when he was 14, and left school at 16.

In his book P.S. Jack Paar, he recalled doing utility duty at Cleveland’s WGAR in 1938 when Orson Welles broadcast his famous simulated alien invasion, The War of the Worlds over the CBS network. Attempting to calm possible panicked listeners, Paar announced, “The world is not coming to an end. Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?”

Paar was drafted into the military in 1943 during World War II. The Army assigned him to the U.S.O in the South Pacific to entertain the troops. He was a clever, wise-cracking master of ceremonies whose impersonations of officers nearly got him into trouble.

After World War II, Paar got his big break when Jack Benny, who had been impressed by Paar’s U.S.O. performances, suggested he serve as Benny’s 1947 summer radio replacement. Paar was enough of a hit on Benny’s show that the sponsor, American Tobacco Company decided to keep him on the air, moving him to ABC for the fall season.

Paar also signed as a contract player for Howard Hughes’ RKO Pictures in the immediate post-war period, appearing in a few forgettable films. He got his first tastes of television in the early 1950s, appearing as a comic on The Ed Sullivan Show and hosting two game shows, Up To Paar (1952)] and Bank on the Stars (1953).

In 1957, NBC asked Paar to succeed Steve Allen as host of The Tonight Show, which had been renamed and replaced with various failed series in the interim after Allen had left the show for prime time. Paar hosted the program from 1957 to 1962 during the peak of the series’ national attention. At first, the show was called Tonight Starring Jack Paar; after 1959 it was officially known as The Jack Paar Show. He often was unpredictable, emotional, and principled. When network censors cut a joke about a “water closet” (the British term for a toilet), on Feb. 11, 1960, he received national attention by walking off the show, not returning until three weeks later after the network apologized and he was allowed to tell the joke.

Paar’s first words on camera when he returned was, “… as I was saying.” Paar’s motional nature made the everyday routine of putting together a 105-minute program difficult to continue for more than five years. Paar confided in comedian-writer Dick Cavett that leaving the late night show was the greatest mistake of his life.

During the Tonight Show era, Cavett, a writer for Paar, recalled when Jayne Mansfield was scheduled to appear, they worked for two days, but couldn’t come up with an introduction. Finally, Cavett handed Paar a six-word intro: “Ladies and Gentlemen, here they are,” (referring to the ample-chested movie star. Paar had a familiar comment when telling a story, “… I kid you not,” which also was the title for his autobiography.

Like Carson, Paar’s array of guests ranged from entertainers to politicians, but unlike his successor, he hosted a large number of intellectuals who Paar could certainly keep up with. The discussions were done in such a way that Paar interviewed the subject at hand making it very easy for the audience to follow.

Paar continued to appear in occasional specials for the network until 1970. In the 1980s and 1990s, Paar made rare guest appearances on Donahue, The Tonight Show (hosted by Johnny Carson and Jay Leno), and Late Night with David Letterman, as well as Charles Grodin’s CNBC talk show.

Paar was married to his second wife, Miriam Wagner, for nearly 61 years—from 1943 until his death in 2004. His health declined in the late 1990s. He died at his Greenwich, Connecticut home on Jan. 27, 2004. His death at age 85 came just a year before his Tonight Show successor Johnny Carson, who died from emphysema.


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