Thursday, September 12, 2002
Steve Allen died on October 30, 2000 at the age of 78. On assignment for the Smithsonian Magazine, I spent a week in his company in southern California in 1994, which included the 40th anniversary show of The Tonight Show, the program he started. The article that I wrote—and rewrote, producing several versions—was never published, despite the fact that Steve Allen called it "the best article ever written about me."
The writing experience was so frustrating that I never wrote for Smithsonian again, and in fact haven't written a magazine feature on assignment since then. I also didn't hear from my editor again, and she promptly gave my next assignment to another writer. An irony of that situation (if one were needed) was that while the assignment she gave to someone else was my idea, the idea to do an article on Steve Allen had been hers.
What follows is a very extended version of that article, cobbled together from various versions. My editor was never able to say why she didn't like it, or what I should change. She kept asking for "more" though of what I never knew. So in frustration I added much more in the last version I sent, including nearly all the backstage dialogue at the Tonight Show. That turns out now to be something of an historical record, especially the conversation between Steve Allen and comedian Phil Hartman. The two hadn't met before, and apparently became friends as a result of this visit. First known for his work on "Saturday Night Live," Hartman began his hit television show "NewsRadio" in 1995, and was killed by his wife in 1998. In their backstage exchange, they talk about comedy and Hartman asks for Allen's advice on series ideas then being developed. I was the only witness to this conversation.
Steve Allen was a generative and mythical figure. Allen originated almost everything good that today's talk shows do, including many of the most popular "bits" done regularly by Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Jay Leno. His conflicts with the Mafia and the threats on his life in the 1950s are folded into the plot of the feature, "My Favorite Year" (though that film is primarily based on the Sid Caesar shows of the same period) and the character played by Alan Alda in Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" not only has Steve Allen's habit of dictating ideas into an omnipresent little tape recorder, he also gives a definition of comedy that Steve Allen devised: "Comedy is tragedy plus time." The Alda character is pretty unsympathetic, which may or may not be why, when I mentioned the movie to Steve Allen, he professed not to have seen it.
From my childhood I remember my parents talking with relatives about this new program that was on late at night in the mid 1950s, in the hushed and mysterious tones that alert children to something important they apparently aren't supposed to hear. In this case, I gather that among these working people, the idea of staying up past 11 to watch television was itself considered sinful.
I do remember Allen's Sunday night show, which I watched with my family. But mainly I was one of those early Boomers who was drawn into the Allen universe with his early 1960s talk show syndicated by Westinghouse. I wasn't the only one. Our class parody play in high school was the Steve Allen show. I watched every night I could during the school year, but I was especially religious about it in the summer. I even had a ritual. I would fry a slice or two of Canadian bacon and toast an English muffin, grab an orange juice (Allen drank great quantities of orange juice from a coffee cup during his shows) and then I'd watch the show. I usually watched alone in an otherwise dark and quiet house, so I was totally in the Allen universe. I learned so much from him, as I hope is reflected in at least the last paragraph or two of this piece.
It was at this time that I got one of his books from the paperback racks at the cigar store (there were no bookstores in my town.) It was called "Mark It and Strike It," a television term for marking where the scenery is positioned and then taking it down until the next show. It was autobiographical, but also very philosophical. I remember my uncle seeing me carrying it, and registering his disapproval. He thought it was a trashy show biz book, and that I should be reading something more important. But though Allen's early life was much harder than mine, he also came from a Catholic working class background, and I was very interested in his observations about the larger world I aspired to enter.
That he had intellectual interests and was rationally passionate about social justice—and was still screamingly funny—was a revelation. Steve Allen made intellectual curiosity—not to mention people who wore glasses—at least potentially cool.
Steve Allen was also a major factor in my following an interest in music, especially the piano. I had taken music lessons a couple of times without much result. I never did learn to sight read. But I liked to improvise on what little I picked up, as I still do. I could also invent melodies and I had some little social success imitating Allen's gimmick of having people call out 3 numbers which he translated to notes and wrote songs around. I modified it to build a song around three letters (A to G)—this worked especially well with letters from a girl's name.
I had forgotten I made this modification when I said something to Steve Allen about this process of making songs from letters. It puzzled him because he only did it with numbers. Then backstage at the Tonight Show someone—I think Phil Hartman—also remembered that he did it with letters. Or was it numbers? he asked. At this point, Allen was totally confused. "Numbers," he said, "and sometimes letters," he added uncertainly.
But it wasn't his memory at fault, I realized later: it was mine. I was attributing to him the change I'd made in something I'd stolen from him.
Steve Allen was a tall man, and the week I spent in his company I was impressed by his aura of physical strength and endurance. But he was 73, and there were several times during the week he seemed very tired. He'd already had a heart attack a few years earlier, and another condition sometimes resulted in a slight limp. That condition was acting up the night he spoke to a full house in a ballroom on the Queen Mary, but typically he dealt with it with a joke. "You may have noticed my limp," he told the audience. "It's an old football injury." He paused, just long enough for the titter of disbelief to start. "I tripped on an old football."
His continuous round of activity did express the range of his talents and what he produced, but he was also still working for a living.
He had a large office with a number of employees, but unlike the "Steve Allen" in his mystery novels, he had no limo and driver, and often no entourage. After his evening speech on the Queen Mary, I walked him to his modest car. We talked about the long list of books he was working on. I said something about the book about talk shows, but he was not really interested in that one anymore—the one thing he wanted to write about the most, he said, was race relations. He was alone and seemed exhausted, and he was concerned about finding a gas station. I was a little worried about him, but he waved me off, and there was something about all that strength coiled in his long frame that said he would be all right.
Steve Allen was something of an anomaly. His humor consisted of whacky word play, wild and imaginative concepts and daring physical comedy. His music, and particularly his jazz piano playing, could also be kinetic and emotional. But he prided himself in being precise and rational, and was more logical than Mr. Spock. Raised Catholic and a deeply moral man who thought a lot about morality, he was a Humanist with a capital H. He was largely self-educated and many of his books dealt with ideas, but as he confessed in one of his books, he pined for the company of actual intellectuals.
He spoke only about how happy and fulfilled he was—how everything he did was fun—but I felt some sort of melancholy in him. Perhaps a loneliness—I think he really did feel that people whose minds he respected didn't take him seriously, that they were out of reach. He certainly had an exaggerated respect for the Smithsonian Magazine. Like others, he attached to it the aura of the Smithsonian Institution, although it is—or was—a separate fiefdom, with its own peculiar bureaucracy. It also wasn't a very good magazine, and was in the process of further dumbing itself down. On hearing I wrote for it, someone I met apologized for the observation but said that she felt that every article in the magazine sounded the same. It was true—it was edited that way, to conform to the same dull voice. It paid well, but it's no coincidence that real writers of importance ignored it.
As for Steve Allen, I hesitate to make deeper observations based on such a limited time in limited circumstances, and I certainly wouldn't do so in an article. The article I wrote was a celebration of a long and productive life that deserved to be celebrated, and I included what I felt was appropriate for that kind of an article, especially in the kind of magazine where it was supposed to appear. But I did feel he'd taken his intellectual rationalism about as far as he could, and there was still something missing. I also felt there were definite blind spots in his self-awareness. But of course that doesn't make him very different from the rest of us.
He was sincere, eager to share his inner life with a generosity that was also a need. He felt a real responsibility to contribute to making a better world. I hope his books promoting education and self-education find other young people who are in limited circumstances with apparently limited options, as I was.
He remained for me an admirable man, and in the end I was eager to be done with my role as interviewer and profiler. I don't know that a friendship would have been possible—with all the roles and agendas in these situations, one never knows—but I would have welcomed it. But the piece wasn't published and my career took a very different turn—and went nowhere near southern California. We exchanged a final letter or two, but years passed and then he was gone.
He left behind a pretty good library of tapes from his old shows—though some were destroyed and otherwise lost—and there are a few compilations for sale from his web site at www.steveallen.com. Some of his Tonight shows were rerun on the Comedy Channel, and there's been talk from time to time about rerunning his Westinghouse series. It certainly would be more worthwhile—and a lot funnier—than a great deal of what passes for comedy on television today. I hope it happens.
STEVE ALLEN: TV'S RENAISSANCE MAN
"Literally everything I do is, to use that dirty word, fun…"
copyright 1994, 2002 by William S. Kowinski
To celebrate its 40th year on NBC television and inaugurate its new studio, The Tonight Show planned a special anniversary program that featured the man cited by the Guinness Book of World Records for writing more songs than anyone alive---he would compose his 5,000th song on the show; an author of memoirs, social and philosophical commentary, serious fiction and popular mysteries who would plug his forty-third book; the creator of an award-winning PBS series; an actor and television performer whose antics included jumping into a tub of hot water clad in tea bags; and the man who hosted the very first Tonight Show, creating over the next few decades virtually everything later late night talks show hosts would do.
And that was just the first guest.
Steve Allen, the Renaissance Man of the television age who has done all of this and more, walked into the new Tonight Show studio at the NBC complex in Burbank, California, wearing a dark blue suit and red tie with a matching pocket handkerchief. It was a late September afternoon, about an hour before the taping of that night's show was to begin.
He was greeted with the ceremony and respect due him. Current Tonight Show host Jay Leno, still in jeans and a denim shirt, leaned down from the apron of the stage to shake his hand. "Great to see you, boss," he said. A
veteran stagehand came out to greet him. The Branford Marsalis band invited him to jam briefly as they set up. The producer and floor director came out to welcome him and talk about his segment on the show. Finally, Allen was escorted backstage to his dressing room.
Left nearly alone for a moment, he took off his suit jacket and opened the closet door. "Forty years," he said, "and still no hangers."
Forty years before this night, in 1954, Steve Allen was introducing something national television had never seen before. In the age of the early-to -bed Organization Man, he was beginning a show at about the time of night America was accustomed to hearing the national anthem and then the sound of static, accompanied by the bright nothing called snow. In an era of 30 minute and even 15 minute programs, he was introducing a 90 minute live show from New York City.
The show's length was what the then 32 year old Steve Allen meant when he opened the show by warning, "This show is going to go on forever." But it turned out to be prophesy. It hasn't been off the air since. Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno followed, and nearly every talk show copied what Steve Allen invented. No one, however, could do all that he did: he did funny monologues, and took on the Mafia by talking about organized crime. He did serious interviews like Dick Cavett, sketch comedy like Johnny Carson, wild stunts, man on the street interviews and hidden camera commentary like early Letterman. Only it was all of them who were "like" one aspect of Steve Allen.
He became the host of a famous Sunday night comedy and variety show, and started yet another successful late night talk show. He wrote short stories, novels and critically acclaimed plays. He wrote songs and instrumental music, and acted on stage and on film. No less an eminence than Noel Coward called him "the most talented man in America."
From his legendary west coast radio shows in the 1940s through his acclaimed Meeting of the Minds series on PBS in the 1970s, his network television comedy specials in the 1980s and his later cable and syndicated shows and appearances, Steve Allen has been a creative force and inspiring presence in American media for nearly a half century.
At age 73, he is not finished doing any of it. Besides television and radio interviews, Steve Allen performs in some 15 to 20 comedy concerts a year around the country, including a "Tonight Show" style stage show featuring two of his former regulars, comedians Bill Dana and Louis Nye. He plays piano at jazz clubs a half dozen times a year, among other musical activities. He often serves as a speaker or master of ceremonies for various events, he makes three or four benefit appearances each month for the many causes he supports, and there are the book signings for his constant stream of writings.
At home in Los Angeles he is just as busy. During the week of this Tonight Show he hosted a concert at a new Beverly Hills nightclub which consisted entirely of his songs. "It's a star-studded audience," he observed from the stage. "I see three stars, and fifteen studs." In fact, the audience at the El Ray Theater included novelist Sidney Sheldon, classic comedian Red Buttons and some of Allen's television gang, Pat Harrington, Jr. and the aforementioned Bill Dana and Louis Nye. They heard the 16 piece orchestra play Allen's lush big band compositions like "Red Silk" and "The Bluest Blues" as well as novelty numbers entitled "Rap Scallion" and "Samba de Else."
The next night he entertained a convention audience aboard the Queen Mary, now a hotel anchored in Long Beach. In the huge Queen's Salon, amidst columns of rich wood, tall fluted amber lamps, and huge gold reliefs on the walls at either end, Allen started by silencing the loud welcoming applause. "It's not because I'm being modest," he said. "It's just that I don't plan to be that great."
Nevertheless he provoked both loud laughter and thoughtful murmurs as he answered audience questions on subjects ranging from television and comedy to democracy, history, the philosophy of Hegel, the example of Parson Weems, inventor of the false tale of George Washington and the cherry tree ("he thought he could discourage American children from lying by lying to them") and his own daily regimen: "I get up at the crack of dawn, stuff up the crack and go back to sleep."
He bookended the week with two bookstores signings, the first at a former movie palace converted into a large Art Deco-decorated store in the Studio City section of Los Angeles. Comfortable in a blue sports jacket, beige slacks and a pale violet shirt with no tie, his tall frame was folded amiably behind a long table, as he chatted with a line of people snaking to the back of the store. He was calm and still when not responding to someone's question or comment, appearing more shy than self-conscious, and more self-absorbed than self-centered.
At the other end of the table sat Jayne Meadows, actress, businesswoman and Allen's partner in one of Hollywood's longest-running marriages. In vivid contrast, resplendent in turquoise jewelry a deeper shade of the color of her blouse, she chatted cheerfully and elegantly with old friends and new-found ones, while passing copies of Allen's then-latest book, Reflections, from the stack next to her for Steve to sign when he became involved in a conversation.
"It doesn't vary much," Steve Allen said later of these occasions. "There are always two guys who are named Steve Allen Jones and Steve Allen Watson, and they tell me the same story that their mother used to watch the show every night and they were born, so that's how that happened. And there are always three or four people who--seriously--tell very touching stories about 'the last four years of my father's life he was real unhappy, the one thing that made him laugh was your show.' They recall their first impressions, which depend on their age--if they're along in years they often mention the What's My Line? show, on which I was a panelist for some time. If they're a little younger than that they remember chiefly the Tonight show, or the Sunday night show. If they're in their mid-40s they tend to remember the show that David Letterman used to watch every night--the real wild talk show that was on in the early 60s."
People did tend to talk about their memories with him. One man who
says he was a child when he first met Allen, leaves him a Reese's peanut butter cup as a remembrance. Some slipped him show business cards and audition tapes, including a young man whose card proclaimed him as a dancing trombonist. Allen treats them all with unfailing courtesy. "That must be very difficult," he said to the dancing trombonist.
This being Los Angeles, some of those in line had encountered Steve and Jayne professionally: an actor/director thanked them for attending his showcase the year before, a dancer recalling tap lessons she had taken with Jayne--who still attends that class. Except for them and perhaps the unique L.A. wardrobes (the woman in the Wizard of Oz t-shirt, the man in the leather jacket with the image of the RCA logo dog holding a minicam) this scene could be set anywhere in the United States where Allen travels to entertain, speak or sign books.
"Oh I miss your show so much!" one woman wailed. "When will I be able to see you on television again?" This also apparently is an often repeated refrain. This time it is Jayne who responds. "Just tune in every night to David Letterman," she said, "and you'll see Steve's show." Both Allens laughed.
Today Steve Allen attributes his broadcasting career to the accident of timing, of being in the right place at the right time with the right skills, first when radio was expanding, and then when television was just beginning. But it is equally true that his creative inventions were the result of his instinctive responses to accidents and opportunities, many of them when something went wrong.
After doing comedy on a local Phoenix radio station and then a nationally broadcast program called "Smile Time," Allen was in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, quietly transforming a job playing records on a CBS radio station into his first late night comedy show. A studio audience for such a radio program was unheard of, but listeners began writing in for tickets to see the show live, so Allen simply invited them to show up. Ten or twelve people in a small studio became a hundred, then three hundred in a larger studio, and finally a thousand.
Though his delivery was casual, Allen was still writing all his comedy material in advance. Then due to a mix-up, singer Doris Day failed to arrive for a scheduled interview one night. With 25 minutes to fill and no material, Allen picked up the bulky studio microphone and went out to chat with the audience. The laughter received by these impromptu interchanges inspired more forays into the audience, and more ad-libbing. The resulting laughter made it a mainstay of his career.
Another night's disaster inspired his best known innovation—the man-on-the-street interview, for real.
"I was doing a live coast-to-coast radio show on CBS in 1949," he recalled, backstage at the Tonight Show. "I think I'd just introduced a singer and there was this really loud clatter coming from outside--the audience clearly heard it, and I said 'I'm sure you can hear this at home.' If it had been on tape we would have stopped but we were live on 200 stations. So I asked the ushers to open a back door, and there was an elderly man running a cement mixer. So I took a hand mike and went out to talk to him--the audience was already laughing. I finally got him to shut it off. I explained we were doing a radio show and asked him to stop. He refused. He was supposed to finish this work by a certain time and that was that. So I talked to him about it for ten minutes or so and the audience was screaming--I think it was so funny partly because he didn't seem to understand he was on the air, I was just holding some strange device in front of him to annoy him. Anyway I realized it was the funniest ten minutes of the day or the week or the month for that matter, so after that I looked for any opportunity--sometimes we would set up a situation but we always did it without any jokes prepared."
It was the start of the Steve Allen style. And with his show's growing numbers of devoted listeners, including Hollywood stars and children secretly listening with their radios under the covers, it was also the start of the Steve Allen phenomenon.
In 1950, CBS sent him to New York to try the new medium of network television. Allen adapted his radio blend of comedy, music and talk on a daytime show, while exploring visual possibilities. One of his later trademarks was to send the camera outside and comment on what he saw. Here he created a continuing character by focusing on a fly he noticed buzzing around on his desk. "Folks, we're very honored today to have that world-famed show business personality, Floyd the Fly, with us," Allen said, as the camera came in close. "Floyd has just landed on a saucer near a Danish here in our CBS theater and now he's bowing to the audience and waving his arms in that famous hands-locked gesture so familiar to boxing fans."
In what must still rank as one of television's most inspired sequences of spontaneous craziness, Allen suddenly sought to enliven a lethargic audience by leading them around the theater and into the street in a game of follow-the-leader. But when he led the now-laughing crowd back to the studio, he ran in first and bolted the door behind him. He returned to the stage and for the remaining ten minutes of the show engaged some stagehands in a quiet game of cards, with the background sound of the audience members outside banging on the doors.
But the daytime show didn't make a big enough impact for the network to continue it, and Allen's television career seemed in doubt. Until he took advantage of another accident.
In 1952 the most popular television show by far was Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. Once when Godfrey was snowbound and couldn't get to New York, a panicked producer asked Allen to fill in. Though he wasn't familiar with the show and how it operated, Allen agreed. The result was a disaster--but a very funny one. Instead of smoothly doing the live commercials for Lipton's soup and tea as Godfrey did, Allen poured hot water into soup and tea together, and transferred the result into the hole in Godfrey's trademark ukulele, which he then tried to play.
Newspaper critics lauded his performance, and Steve Allen got noticed. He substituted several more times for a delighted Godfrey, and beginning his association with the panel show, "I've Got A Secret" (where in innocently inquiring about the size of a product, he asked a question that remains famous: "Is it bigger than a breadbox?") Then Steve Allen got his first late night television show--a local New York program that was soon picked up by the NBC network as a companion to its successful "Today" show, which they called "Tonight."
Still, he was an unknown performer with a quiet manner who was given the formidable task of pioneering late night television. When Steve Allen was first seen leaning on his piano in glorious black and white, the mid-1950s viewers who tuned in during those unfamiliar and vaguely dangerous hours of night had no idea what to expect. Beginning in 1954, America started experiencing his torrent of inventions--The Question Man, Late Show Pitchman, Big Bill Allen on sports, the mock-angry readings of incensed Letters to the Editor (with the audience shouting "Yeah! Yeah!") and the formal readings of rock lyrics at a solemn poetry podium.
He staged outrageous events: when the show traveled to Miami shortly after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, Allen organized a mock invasion of the beach, complete with landing craft, flares and rifle fire, convincing some residents that a real invasion was underway. He was also more quietly creative: doing an entire show live from the New York Herald Tribune building, for example, but combining the usual entertainment with scenes of the real next morning's newspaper being put together. Like Ernie Kovacs, another early experimenter, he explored the technical possibilities of television while inviting audiences to laugh with its limitations.
Allen forged a winsome band of regulars and put together unlikely combinations of guests (one show ended with Allen singing "Home on the Range" in three part harmony with actor Charles Coburn and poet Carl Sandburg.) He involved celebrities in his comic madness--once he killed two clichés with one sketch by conducting a standard interview with actress Dorothy Lamour while participating in a parody of her most famous roles as the island girl in a sarong: they casually chatted about show-business trivia while strapping themselves to trees in a studio-simulated hurricane.
He spotted new talent: starting with the Tonight Show and continuing over the years on his other shows he introduced or gave early exposure to Elvis Presley, Jonathan Winters, The Smothers Brothers, Lenny Bruce, Lily Tomlin, Miriam Makeba, Bob Dylan, the Supremes, Frank Zappa and the Muppets.
He made stars of regulars in the audience, and turned a camera on the street to let his imagination create comedy out of commenting on mundane reality. The late hour seemed itself to inspire a contagious craziness that also infected the audience. One night he disappeared into a studio audience comprised entirely of men who resembled Steve Allen, and on another the whole audience hurled cream pies at the performers and each other.
His Tonight show became so popular that NBC gave Allen a prime time variety hour designed to cut into Ed Sullivan's formidable Sunday night audience on CBS. This equally innovative series (re-run most recently the Comedy Central cable network from 1990 to 1993) is fondly remembered for Allen's troupe of comedy players which included Bill Dana, Pat Harrington, Dayton Allen and the trio most famous for the "Man on the Street" routines: Don Knotts ("Are you nervous?" "Noop!"), Tom Poston ( when asked his name, the fading smile and dazed quizzical look), and Louis Nye ("I'm Gordon Hathaway, I'm from Manhattan and I'm too much. Hi, ho, Steverino!")
It was on this show that Elvis Presley made his second (and pre-Ed Sullivan) network appearance, performing "Hound Dog" the day after he had recorded it--- dressed in a tuxedo and singing to a basset hound.
Network executives were delighted with his comedy and the music that became another Allen trademark--whether trading songs at the piano with Jimmy Durante, jamming with Lionel Hampton and his band, or improvising songs based on notes picked out by people from the audience.
But they were not always so taken with his occasional insistence on seriousness, and pressured him to stop talking about books on his prime time hour. He got into another kind of trouble when he devoted a Tonight show to a dramatized examination of organized crime. It resulted in immediate threats, got him banned from working certain nightclubs and even years later resulted in the forequarter of a horse appearing on his front porch, "Godfather" style. Guessing the identity of the culprit, Allen had the carcass returned.
This serious streak also resulted in the award-winning PBS series, "Meeting of the Minds," in which Allen hosted discourses among actors speaking the words of such guests as Martin Luther, Plato and Florence Nightingale. Preserved in book, video and audio form, and used in classrooms today, this series first seen in the 1970s is Allen's choice as his most lasting legacy.
The absence of hangers in the closet was not the only problem before the 40th anniversary in Burbank, as the Tonight Show staff and crew frantically prepared for their first taping with a new set in a new studio. Allen requested coffee and some food, the normal amenities for a performer, but at first the only result is a series of visits and phone calls by various apologetic staff people. When someone arrives with only a cup of coffee, Allen thanks him but adds, "If you personally have any influence on the matter, we're still looking for some fruit, vegetables and dip, cheese--whatever is usually served."
"They're bringing that up at four," the server said.
"Well, it's ten after four," Allen quickly points out. "So if I could have it ten minutes ago, so much the better."
This somewhat acerbic kind of comeback, an Allen characteristic, derives (he says) from the "sarcastic way my family used to talk." Yet he seldom strikes people as sarcastic in a mean-spirited way. Allen's reasonable tone and demeanor (as opposed, say, to Groucho Marx's growl) and his characteristic chuckles seem to communicate that he is merely saying funny things as they occur to him with an ever-present delight in the twists and turns of language. ("When I ad-lib, I laugh," he said on another occasion. "I laugh for the same reasons the audience does: I've never heard the joke before, and I'm just as surprised as they are.") It doesn't even offend an interviewer who, while trying to formulate a complicated question says, "I don't know exactly how to ask this..." Allen's brief introspective chuckle is followed by his quiet suggestion, "You could ask it sitting down."
This rapid wit and improvised rapport with individuals he interviewed in the audience or outside the studio set him apart from other television performers. But he is aware of its dangers. "It's easy to slide over that line where you're laughing at somebody's expense," he observes. " You have to be mindful of the problem and try not to go over that line."
The promised plate of food then arrives, followed closely by comedian Phil Hartman, formerly of Saturday Night Live and another of tonight's Tonight Show guest. He introduces himself—Allen says that he knows his work. Hartman says that he's just read one of Allen's books on comedy, though he's unsure of the title.
"It was a retrospective of comedians," Hartman says, referring to one or another edition of Allen's The Funny Men or More Funny People. "It acknowledged the Jewish contribution to show business, especially comics and comedy writers, how our whole sensibility, our sense of timing--so much comes out of that."
"It's a fascinating subject," Allen says. "I never tire of writing about it--not comedy ideas but analytical ideas about comedy, partly because performers like you keep coming along and doing it in a fresh way."
"Well, you certainly had some fresh takes," Hartman says. "One of the things I used to love was when the audience would call out numbers and you would use them to write a song."
"I'm going to do that with Jay on the show today," Allen says. "I've been thinking lately about writing about the new kind of comedy you do--you and Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. You're all quite different but you have in common the ability to do what used to be called impressions but of a new kind--not the Rich Little or Frank Gorshin kind: you guys get right into the soul of the person."
"I really try to create the illusion that I am the person," Hartman acknowledges.
"When comics of my generation and older guys pretended to be somebody, it was still just Milton Berle or Bob Hope horsing around pretending, but it's very different with you--you really seem like Sinatra or whoever you're doing."
"I really love immersing myself in someone," Hartman says. "It's part of the thrill for me-- to make Phil disappear. And when I come out of it it's like waking up from a trance."
They look up at the television monitor mounted high on a wall that is previewing clips and pre-taped bits prepared for this show. At that moment the opening of the first Tonight show plays, with the black-and-white Steve Allen of 40 years before.
Hartman asks him where that show was filmed. "The Hudson Theater in New York, I think," Allen responds. "We did most of them there, but not all."
"Then when you were over at Vine Street [in Los Angeles], what show was that?" Hartman asks.
"That was the syndicated show we did--"
"That's the one I remember!" Hartman exclaims. "I was in high school then. Oh, man. You were the wild man! You were crazy!"
After three increasingly successful years, Allen had left Tonight to devote his energies to the Sunday night show and then several other successful prime time hours. But it was his return to late night with a show syndicated by the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company in 1962 that has become legendary with baby boomers and the comedians of that generation, inspiring not only Phil Hartman but Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Dennis Miller and that Indiana teenager who saw nearly every show: David Letterman.
Many remember Allen's show-opening stunts--dressed as a mummy he ran down the street with his wrapping on fire. He gyrated on the wing of a World War I biplane in flight. He squeezed into a wooden box that was blown up with dynamite. He jumped into a tub of Jell-o. And wearing only a swimsuit, he was dolloped with ice cream, syrups and fruit to become a human banana split.
The wildness extended to some of his guests such as the hyperactive health-food advocate, Gypsy Boots (who sometimes made his entrance swinging on a vine), and to Allen's own frenzied ad libs and wordplay--including his sudden high-pitched shouts of "Schmock! Schmock!" What did it mean? It was just a word that sounded funny to him, like "fern," "fink," "creel" and the others he randomly repeated with an irrepressible joy.
Such spontaneous wordplay became an Allen trademark. On one Westinghouse show with guest Peter Sellers at his side, he was attempting to phone Scotland Yard (yes, he started the funny phone call tradition, too.) The overseas operator asked if she could monitor the call for technical reasons. "It can be monitored and Merrimacked for all I care," Allen answered.
In the comedy shows on television and radio, as well as specials and guest appearances throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Allen spoofed commercials, current events and the conventions of his own medium. He was the first to satirize charity telethons, and scooped Broadway with the comic premise that the musical theater would run out of subjects and turn to such unlikely stories as "The Bride of Frankenstein." The resulting sketch (featuring Jayne Meadows as the musical Bride) preceded "Sweeney Todd" and "Phantom of the Opera" by decades--and was much funnier.
The backstage banter before the Tonight Show anniversary has become a little more focused, as Hartman says he is developing a series of his own and would like Allen's advice. Allen says he'll be happy to meet with him anytime. As clips of Allen's Sunday night show spin silently on the monitor, Hartman asks him if he thinks variety shows will ever come back in prime time. Allen thinks they may, but not on a network.
Hartman asks how Allen found some of his comedy cohorts, Allen begins to tell him but his response is interrupted by a booming voice from the hall.
"Are these show business tales I hear?" Jay Leno intones as he raps on the door and strides into the room.
"How he discovered Louis Nye and Bill Dana," Hartman says.
"We're interviewing each other," Allen says.
But Leno's attention is on a bit for the show about to begin taping. "Well, the guest chair's a little rickety," he warns Steve. "Who wants to be the one to put the match book under the leg? I'll say the chair's a little rickety, you can take out a match book and say 'here's how we did it in my day,' I think that'll get a big applause."
"I had rickets as a kid, so--" Steve responds.
"There you go," Leno says. He pops back out into the hallway. "Anybody got a book of matches?" After a futile search, someone offers a lighter. Everyone in the dressing room laughs.
Finally a matchbook appears, which Jay hands to Steve.
"That'll be funnier than having some guy come out and fix it," he says," because everything's a little rickety."
"I'm sure you've already discovered that when things go wrong," Steve says, "it's better."
Oh yeah," Jay agrees, but dubiously. "And today it couldn't get any better."
A half hour later it's getting close to show time, and the dressing room and nearby hallway are filled with people, most connected with the show in one way or another. One producer is telling Allen about how he did the opening monologue in Jay Leno's at an earlier dry-run in the new studio: a joke he'd told successfully many times in other circumstances completely bombed with the audience--only the band laughed, and they were laughing at him. "So I have new respect for our performers," he concludes.
"I learned very early coming out of radio where nothing was moving but your mouth that television is like a basketball game going on around you," Allen observes. "I discovered that a great joke might get no response and very often the reason was that some stage hand had just moved something or the audience saw another performer getting ready for an entrance. All it takes is one second of distraction..."
Jay Leno, now in his sleek on-air suit, pops back in. "It's going to be great," he says to Allen. "Thanks for being part of this."
Suddenly the halls are empty and everything is quiet. Allen finishes a final conversation with this comment:" Oddly enough, even though it's all comedy, if you have a thousand comedians you have a thousand different people. Some of them are easily put into categories--there are extraverts who are never off, much more extraverted than others socially. Some of us--and I put myself in this category--aren't so loud in a social context but become different on stage in front of an audience. That has basically to some extent been for a long time the case for talk show hosts. John Carson is very shy socially. Jack Paar is the same. Myself. David Letterman is a mix, but basically a pretty solitary creature. A few years ago when I was inducted into the Comedy Hall of Fame, the producers arranged to fly David out from New York to talk about me and hand me the statue. And so Jayne and I sent word through his office that when he gets here we'd be honored to take him to dinner, that evening or before the show if he has no plans. The answer came back, thanks a lot but he gets so nervous when he performs that he can't even see people let alone have dinner."
A few minutes later the show begins. On the dressing room monitor Allen watches Jay Leno's monologue and the ceremonies inaugurating the new studio: Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Oral Hershieser throws out "the first ball" from the stands, and comedian Rip Torn bursts from a packing case to shower those in the first few rows of the audience (including Jayne Meadows) with confetti.
Allen puts on his suit coat and takes a last glance at the mirror, as the monitor again showed his black-and-white image of 40 years before laconically introducing the very first Tonight Show, but now millions of home viewers are also seeing it. Then he is led through the maze of bare plywood forming the back of the set to await his introduction. When he makes his entrance as the first guest, he is greeted by Jay Leno kneeling at his feet. Allen responds with a papal-like hand on his head.
On the air, Allen chats about his Tonight show years--and fixes the rickety chair leg. He gets laughs, as do the clips from his long career.
After a commercial break he sits at the piano and in a variation of a bit he'd done many times, asks Leno to choose four numbers between one and eight (the number of notes in a scale). " 2, 7, 6, 3," Leno says. Allen plays them first in E flat, "but suddenly it occurred to me that if I switched the key, those notes and the relation to each other would be prettier," he said later. He produces a sweet melody in B flat that he plays with a soft Latin beat: he had just written his five thousandth song.
After first feigning resistance Allen calmly sits in another chair which the final guest (John Evans, billed as having "the strongest neck in the world") balances on his head. True to his earlier observation about distractions, Allen couldn't get the audience to quiet down in time for his quip and it was lost.
After the show he is greeted backstage by his wife Jayne Meadows and their son, Bill Allen, currently the president of MTM studios. (Steve Allen has three sons by his first marriage: Steve, Jr., a physician who lectures on the health benefits of laughter; Brian, a real estate executive; and David, a songwriter.)
"Fabulous show!" Jayne Meadows declares. "Jay is so warm!"
"She was absolutely panic-stricken when you went up in that chair," Bill Allen tells his father. "She's in the audience--'this is a very bad idea, what is he doing? He's not 27 years old anymore--get him off of that chair!'"
This anniversary is also Jayne's birthday, so during a commercial break the Tonight Show band had played "Happy Birthday" and she was presented with roses. She remembers all the trepidation of that first network night.
"Louie Nye said to me, the country is never going to understand our freewheeling comedia dell arte approach, it'll not last. I said, Louie, it's the only show of it's kind, I have ESP, today is my birthday which is an omen--this show is going to last for years and years and years. And I had absolutely no idea what I was prophesying-- it's the longest-running and biggest money-maker of any show in the history of television, and he created the whole thing!"
But Steve Allen seems less interested in reaping praise for his historic appearance than in talking to his wife and son. While the room crowds with well-wishers, he intently picks out pieces of confetti from Jayne's hair as they discuss their next destination. So what spectacular Hollywood party would Steve and Jayne be attending to celebrate? Though the Tonight Show is still seen late at night, it is now taped in the afternoon. So after accepting more congratulations on his triumphant return to the show he started two generations ago, Steve Allen leaves with his wife and son for open house at the school of one of his grandchildren.
The next day Allen is back at his Meadowlane Productions offices, a ten minute drive from his hillside home in Royal Oaks, where he and Jayne have lived for more than 30 years. The lobby stairs are lined with magazine covers featuring Steve, usually with Jayne (Look, Newsweek, Parade, California Chiropractic Association Journal, Valley People, Downbeat, TV Guide), album covers ("More Funny Fone Calls," "How to Think," "Bebob's Fables," "Allen Plays Allen") and movie posters ( He starred in "The Benny Goodman Story," and co-starred with Jayne Meadows in "College Confidential"). Inside, past the huge desks of the spacious outer offices housing his staff of six, there is a long, narrow storage room. Below the usual shelves of office supplies are stacks of Allen-authored books; the opposite wall is filled with black-bound volumes of transcripts and clippings, alphabetized by subject. There is an equal number of these files at Allen's home.
This degree of organization is in marked contrast to the chaos of Steve Allen's early life. His parents were traveling performers. Comedian Milton Berle said his mother was the funniest woman in Vaudeville. But his father died when he was little more than a year old, and his mother had to go back on the road, leaving Steve with her various Irish relatives that Allen described as "highly unstable, highly irrational people." Drinking, arguing violently and being very funny were equal staples of the many households in working class neighborhoods of several cities where he grew up. When he was later asked, "What sign were you born under?," Allen's quip--"Furnished Rooms for Rent"--was not far from the truth. Steve responded by becoming a rationalist ( even as a child relatives called him "the Philadelphia lawyer"), averse to alcohol--and also very funny.
His only sanctuaries were Catholic schools (he attended 18 schools in all), the movies (he learned to be a gentleman, he says, by watching William Powell) and the streets he roamed with his best friend and now celebrated actor, Richard Kiley.
These circumstances, along with an adolescent thirst for adventure, led him to an impulsive escape and the experience of hitchhiking across half of America, alone and often hungry. In describing it on this afternoon in his office, he comments on his own logical narrative with dry humor and punctuates it with chuckles, especially when referring to painful episodes. This habit of mind suggests one of his formulas for comedy (echoed in one of Woody Allen's movies) that tragedy can become comedy with the passage of time.
"When I was sixteen years old I ran away from home in Chicago," he says. "It wasn't much of a home to run away from. It was me and my mother in one room. I was not very content with my situation so I did the classic dumb teenager thing, I ran away and bummed around the country for a few weeks, and learned a lot about life and human nature and hunger and poverty and all kinds of things of that sort."
"When I left Chicago I arbitrarily headed east for no better reason than the Indiana border was--and is to this day-- quite close to the South Side. Before I officially ran away I'd had the rather exhilarating experience of getting on my bike and just riding and thinking,' wow, I'm in Indiana, I'm in another state'--when you're fifteen that seems like a big deal. I had done that three or four times and come back four hours later, so when I finally thought the hell with this, I'm getting out of this, I just automatically went in that direction."
But it was autumn and the midwestern weather was turning cold. "So since I wanted to be warm I did the sensible thing-- I headed south, figuring if I did that long enough it would get warm, and that part of it turned out to be true...I gave up the bike very quickly--that's no way to travel giant distances--it's great for 12 blocks but after that it's a drag. After that it was hitchhiking."
Allen made it to Texas, tired and hungry--very hungry. "I hadn't eaten in two or three days and that really changes your outlook on life. You suddenly become like a heat seeking missile--you become a food-seeking mechanism. So I went into this restaurant in Del Rio and ordered roast beef and mashed potatoes and gravy and apple pie, and that was such a wonderful experience I ordered the same thing again. Then I told the guy I had no money--I offered to work, of course. But I ended up in jail for three days."
"I'd been having a really rough time hitchhiking, it's a very bad way to get around. What's worse is having to walk everywhere ... So I was in Sanderson, Texas, after I got out of jail in Del Rio-- on this particular day I found myself near a rail yard, and I got to talking to these two guys there. They said forget hitchhiking, it's dangerous and so on, you should ride the trains. How do you do that? Hang around and do what we do, there should be a train through here in about an hour. So after that I traveled largely by train."
It was then that Allen finally found a destination. "I remembered that at about the age of five I had a nice time living at 1803 Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles at the home of a family called the Foxes--Nora Fox was my mothers sister.
I sort of automatically drifted out there, and spent that year living with the Foxes and going to high school here, and that got me through my sophomore year. Then I went back to Chicago."
By the time he attended a year of college on scholarship at Arizona State Teacher's College in Tempe, Allen had gone to no fewer than 18 schools. When he managed a one-year scholarship to Drake University to study journalism, his sense of humor began to take the creative lead. Assigned to write a straight news report of a football game for the campus newspaper, he instead wrote it in mock-heroic verse. The game was played in torrential rain so Allen wrote: "A center plunge--a fumble--a pile-up--and a shout!/ Six men fell in a puddle, but only five came out./ Oh, they're looking still for Harvey, they're looking still for Jim,/ For it seems the lads went in the game and never learned to swim."
(Allen later turned a similar assignment into another comic opportunity during his job in television--as a wrestling commentator. "Leone gives Smith a full nelson now," Allen intoned, "slipping it up from either a half nelson or an Ozzie Nelson... He has him pinned. Now they're rolling over. It's sort of a rolling pin."]
Thinking he would be drafted during World War II, Allen married his college sweetheart. But the Army rejected him and he broke into radio, first as an announcer in Phoenix, but very quickly added comedy and music to his on-air repertoire.
After local success and even more acclaim in Los Angeles radio, Allen headed for New York and television. But his marriage had ended in divorce. About the time he started the Tonight show (which actually began as a local New York program called The Steve Allen Show before it was picked up by the NBC network) he met a successful young actress named Jayne Meadows.
Allen is often asked about the longevity of his marriage to Jayne Meadows. "I give Jayne 80% of the credit," he says. "She's beautiful, highly intelligent, very organized, very talented, she's always entertaining--you can never be bored in her company." They met at a dinner party. "I've heard her say it many times--in her case it was love at first sight, not because of any virtue in me, but because I looked like her father and had sort of his general quality. After a few weeks of enjoying her company I came around to being attracted to her, too, but we were both in a shaky state from the collapse of our earlier relationships so we weren't looking for a marriage partner--just a way to avoid loneliness on some evenings." Nevertheless, within a year they were married.
But he resists any implication that he and Jayne are to be especially admired because they've been married so long. "We're willing to discuss the fact that we've been married for 40 yrs, but were both uncomfortable with being praised for it, because that carries the implication that we are morally superior people, that our very nobility is the reason. That's not how we perceive it and I think we are accurate," he says. "First of all, we have both failed at marriage. She was married before and I was married before... I think it's probably because we failed in the first instance when we tried marriage, we are highly unlikely to ever get divorced despite the problems that from time to time present themselves."
The failure of Allen's first marriage--at just about the time he was experiencing his first television success with the Tonight show--was a painful experience he recounted in his first novel, Not All of Your Laughter, Not All of Your Tears. " I wrote the book as many writers do out of personal tragedy, suffering, and somehow writing is a way to deal with it," he says now. His divorce precipitated a moral crisis, which he recounted during this afternoon in his office.
"I can remember two instances, one trivial and one major, where I discovered that I was a sinful person-- that I was capable of sin... One occurred when I was about seven years old. There used to be a substance called tin foil--now it's called aluminum foil. You would find it on Hershey bars and on packages of cigarettes and other things. Almost all the people I knew that were poor--we most certainly were--would try to make a buck here and a buck there as the old saying goes. So we discovered that the old men who used to drive their junk carts down the alleys of Chicago would give you a few cents for a ball of this tin foil. You would actually walk around for weeks and weeks and if you saw some in an alleyway you'd pick it up, put in your pocket and eventually you'd roll it up all in one ball. And if somebody had a candy bar you'd say, hey before you throw that away can I have it?"
"So you had this sort of baseball-size ball, I don't remember what we were paid for it, four cents let's say, and I can still remember the first day the possibility of committing an evil act occurred to me-- and I committed the act. I suddenly realized you could start with a stone--already you're starting out with something the size of a golf ball, and wrap the foil around that. At the end of the process yours looked as honest as another's kids--maybe they had stones in theirs, too, I don't know. But I actually did that--I only did it once. I don't remember whether I felt guilty when I got my four pennies a few weeks later but I did start with a stone instead of 100% tin foil."
"My next moral shock about myself came when I found out that I was capable of wrecking a marriage relationship so that a divorce occurred. That came as several kinds of shock. First of all it always very painful when anything fails, but because I had thought in kind of an innocent dumb way that I was one of the good guys, suddenly I found myself in the bad guy category. I guess today people say,' well okay, I screwed up, now let's go have a bite of lunch,' but I just couldn't handle it that way. It just knocked me for a loop."
But out of this crisis came personal change, and a source for one of his personal passions that has become yet another of his careers: education.
"It was at that point, oddly enough, that my education began," he continued. "I never really learned much before that, I'd gone to school and gotten good marks with no trouble, but it all came easily to me, and I don't think much of it soaked in deep--certain elements of Catholic teaching did obviously, but other than that, not much. But at 30 I began to read, to try to understand--everything: the physical universe, the whole field of philosophy, psychology, psychiatry--I read everything I could find...It was a good thing that happened out of a bad situation. It changed me quite importantly. I began to see myself as someone wrestling with questions that were painfully ancient, in some cases still not adequately resolved to the satisfaction of the world jury."
The young man who devoured Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, Gibbons' The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, books by Will Durant and Thomas Paine, issues of the National Review and The Worker, eventually became the producer of the PBS television series, Meeting of Minds, which replicated on stage the kind of dialogue that might have gone on in Steve Allen's head: Martin Luther contending with Voltaire, Plato and Florence Nightingale, or Adam Smith debating money and morality with Mahatma Gandhi and American birth-control advocate, Margaret Sanger.
The format was unprecedented: actors engaged in lively dialogues using the ideas--and much of the time, the actual words--of important historical figures, most of whom could never have met in their lifetimes. Allen tried for 18 years to get the series on television, and even though he won awards and acclaim for 4 seasons, no corporation would underwrite the series and it went off the air.
Today Allen said he had nothing to add to his statements about Meeting of the Minds in the introductions to the published scripts (by Prometheus Books, as are many of his books). In one such introduction he speculated that the series didn't get financial support because "those who make such decisions on behalf of assorted foundations and large business firms were never entirely comfortable with a program in which all ideas were subjected to sometimes breathtaking scrutiny and criticism." The 24 shows that were produced are available on video and audio tape, and are still used in schools throughout the country. Allen believes this series is his most lasting achievement.
"Education is of great importance to me," he says on this afternoon. "I'm appalled at what passes for reasoning, for thinking." But in addition to reforms of educational institutions, he recommends the path he took, of self-education. In his recent book, "Dumbth"--And 81 Ways to Make America Smarter, many of those ways don't require formal schooling : #23, "Familiarize yourself with at least the basic elements of logical reasoning," #10 "Beware of arguments by slogans or epigrams," #68, "Understand the difference between fact and opinion," #4 "Beware of falling in love with your first answer,"#43 "Take advantage of your local library," #48 "First learn--and then remind yourself every day--that simply because you read something in a book, magazine or newspaper, it does not automatically follow that it is true," #51, "If your car has a cassette-tape player, start using your auto as a private university on wheels," #53 "When possible, spend time with people brighter than yourself" (Here he confesses, as he does in his Reflections that one of his great regrets is not spending more time with intellectuals) #70 "Enjoy the classics," and especially Rule #34--"Decide to continue your education until death."
Then there is # 37: "Watch less commercial television." Though he recommends watching the best of the talk shows and public television, he suggests that the profit motive is responsible for the deterioration of commercial television and its failure to fulfill its potential for education.
The decay of television he writes about in Dumbth and elsewhere are, in his view, part of more pervasive problems. "It's money that counts in our society," he says on this Los Angeles afternoon. "As long as the economic factors dominate as they clearly do, you'll have great moral and ethical problems, and a great weakness in addressing them and confronting them. In Catholic doctrine there is something called the 'near occasion of sin.' For a drunkard the near occasion of sin is a bar, because that's where he is most tempted to commit his particular sin...It occurs to me that entire free enterprise system is for all of us an occasion of sin because not only is it very easy to commit moral offenses but it's very profitable to do so. Cheating--putting water in the milk or whatever you can do to put out a product that costs 3 cents less than your competitors."
Though at 73 years old he thinks about aging ("Age does not come in strictly measured increments/it comes in waves./ Some Thursdays we are younger than on Monday of that week..." begins an Allen poem) he is generally enthusiastic about his life now.
"I'm a much better piano player now that I was ten years ago," he believes. "I write books much better now than I did, say, 25 years ago. There's been a little bit of improvement in the quality of the writing, but there's been a remarkable acceleration in the pace it's created. It surprises even me." He keeps a list of ongoing writing projects, which on this particular afternoon included some 30 books in various stages, not counting a forthcoming collection of song lyrics, a children's book and a collection of letters. "My most time-consuming activity is writing letters," he says. "Whenever I am concerned about something I have to act on it. I have to write a book, make a speech, send a check, write a letter, something. Especially if it concerns injustice or dishonesty--it drives me nuts. It drives me crazy when I hear about unfairness and suffering."
One book he was just finishing is Murder on the Atlantic, the latest in his series of mystery novels. "The publisher [Zebra Books] came up with the idea of doing conventional Agatha Christie plots, but with me and Jayne appearing like Nick and Nora of the Thin Man movies," he says. "They all have show business settings, and one of the things I do to give the books an illusion of reality is I use the names of actual people for characters. I'll just drop my social friends in for a page and a half, for example if there's a party scene. One of my good friends is Larry Gelbart, a humorist and playwright, who wrote M*A*S*H on television--a very witty man, one of the funniest I know. When I wrote to him to tell him I'd put him into Murder in Vegas, his answer was, 'Pat and I are so pleased to hear of this because it will go a long way to our having been cut out of War and Peace.'"
His tightly logical non-fiction texts don't usually begin with such a high degree of organization. "Oddly enough when I write the original manuscript it's usually a series of digressions and it's not even obvious what I'm digressing from," he says, after our conversation has digressed hopelessly. "I've always written in that chaotic fashion...Fortunately or unfortunately my brain at any one time is full of ideas, and by using the device of capturing them on tape, I can later do a lot of sandpapering and blending."
Allen's acquaintances are well acquainted with his omnipresent mini-tape recorders, which he keeps in every conceivable place at home and carries with him at all times, so he can whisper into it when a thought occurs to him, no matter what else he is doing. Cassettes are collected and his staff transcribes them. He hit upon this method of writing when an idea for a novel sprang, almost fully formed, as he was falling asleep one night some years ago. "But I couldn't get back to sleep, the idea began to develop itself, and none of it was volitional--in fact it was like I was watching print come up on a screen, I was actually seeing print. A fascinating explosion of creativity."
"So I said all right, I'll go upstairs to my typewriter, type four or five pages, get it out of my system and get back to sleep. But somehow my right hand picked up tape recorder. It was all very clear in my mind, I was ready to go, so without ever thinking about it I sat down and began to dictate, and after an hour or so I realized I'd better take that cassette out and put in another ....I was still there at 2:30 the following afternoon. I was there for twelve hours straight--I went down to go to the bathroom, get some orange juice, ate breakfast at one point--but after twelve hours of dictation I had a stack of seven or eight cassettes, there was never a pause, just coming out at an incredible pace.."
"Finally I was totally exhausted, and I got back to sleep. Now I had the concern that it had come so fast but it might be wrong or weak or bad writing, so I couldn't wait to see the transcribed pages--we do it here on pink paper to separate it from all the white paper that goes through. And it turned out to be something like 84 pages, and I was thrilled when I read it because it was no better than what I wrote at the typewriter but I was willing to settle for that because it was no worse."
Ironically, though he has added to it since then, Allen has yet to finish this novel, a thriller entitled I Kill, Therefore I Am.
Perhaps his greatest pleasure remains song-writing. "I'm a second-rate piano player," Allen insists, "but I'm a damn good composer. That's my primary gift." By the age of 8 he had discovered his ability to make up melodies. "When I feel I might be about to create a song--it's very hard to explain it, I don't think anyone can--but I do get such a feeling--and I hurry to the piano and as each melody wells up from my subconscious to my consciousness, I turn on the tape machine and play the song. It generally takes less than a minute to do the creation. That's pretty much how long it takes to play a 32 bar song if you only play one chorus."
His best-known songs include "Gravy Waltz," "Impossible," the theme from "Picnic," and his own theme song, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" which came to him, literally, in a dream. His compositions have been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Tommy Tune, and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, among others. He has written music for Broadway shows, Hollywood movies and television shows, and the official theme song of the National Football League Hall of Fame. But he claims not to be motivated by the business of music: of the 15 to 20 songs he writes each month, few are ever recorded or even heard by anyone else.
"The initial impulse is mysterious and internal, and you just write that song," he says. "Composing is a somewhat lonely activity, but to me, extremely pleasurable...Musicians get rewarded by being able to create beauty. I create beauty by playing Gershwin, for example. I do that 94% for my own enjoyment. How could it be otherwise if I'm home alone, it's 4 in the morning and I'm sitting there in my underwear or my pajamas, playing Jerome Kern songs for about an hour because suddenly I just want to hear them?"
"If you have a hit song," he continues, "you can profit from that, it's nice but it's not why I write songs. I've never written anything--a book or a poem or a joke or anything--after thinking, God, I've got to get some money going here, I know what I'll do, I'll write ten great jokes--it never works that way. I'll just be watching something on television or listening to a newscast on radio and suddenly a phrase hits me and I've got a joke. Then later the question comes up who do you sell that joke to, or if you're performing, what show can you perform it in. "
It's not that Allen has retired from the money-making world--he often repeats that he works seven days a week. But he can afford to follow his enthusiasms--for a song, a joke, a book as well as a booking. "With so many things on the cafeteria counter for them to choose from," he points out," somebody's usually interested in something I'm doing at the moment."
"Literally everything I do is, to use that dirty word, fun," he says. "Professional comedians have a delightful role in life. You're constantly being told how funny you are, hundreds of people laugh at what you say--it's constant gratification that school teachers other people who do more important work in the world don't get."
But for all his involvement in an active present, his life incorporates a rich past. Especially in his public life Steve Allen cannot escape the constant context of a long career and the effects he's had on people's lives. Back at that bookstore signing, another incident suggests the sometimes antic texture of this ongoing interchange.
From the line of fans emerges a man with a round face and big gentle eyes who hands Allen a card that identifies him as a professional clown. "Look at that face!" Allen says, smiling at him. "That's a clown's face." Speechless with delight, the man moves on, but Allen is reminded of a story.
On his New York morning television show in 1952, he finished an interview with a circus clown who had applied some clown makeup to Steve's face and added the floppy wig and big red nose. Thus attired, Allen took a hand mike into the audience, and thought it would be appropriate to talk to a five year old boy he spotted in the front row. But instead of being enchanted by the clown getup, the boy bolted in fright. "The audience laughed, thinking it was planned. But it put a damper on the next ten or twelve minutes for me."
"About thirty years later I got into a cab in New York," Allen continued. The cab driver recognized him and asked him if he remembered this incident from 1952. "I told him, 'yes, I've been worrying about that ever since. I felt so guilty. I didn't mean him any harm.' He said,' well, you don't have to worry any more. I was that little boy.'"
"'No kidding?' I said. ' At last I get the chance to apologize.' 'No, you don't have to,' he told me. ' It worked out great.' He said, 'Guess what I do for a living now?' I said, 'It looks to me like you drive a cab.' He said,' No, that's just during the off-season. I'm a professional clown.' "
His story was over only a moment before Allen became aware that the clown he just met had returned and was standing next to him--wearing his red clown's nose. Allen responded with his unforgettable laugh.
"I actually carry one of those around sometimes--those rubber noses split in half so you can put it on fast," Allen admits. "On certain occasions to break Jayne up--every two years or so, any more than that it would really be annoying--if she stopped looking at me and we're arguing about something, I'll put it on and walk around in front of her and say, 'Yeah, but I'm not clowning around about this! '"
Allen probably would not escape such encounters even if he could. "I am comfortable talking with eccentrics," he says. "I don't know why." But there is one element that troubles him, and it occurs nearly everywhere he goes-- somebody says, "you're my hero."
"Gosh, I really feel uncomfortable when that happens," he says. "I don't see anything heroic about me and modesty has nothing to do with it. But whatever I've done for better or worse has been done in the sight of thirty million people sometimes, so it's that magnifying effect that accounts for that heroic stature."
Yet it's clear that for many people, he is a kind of hero. He was funny, but a lot more: he personified possibilities. For succeeding generations--especially of young viewers-- Steve Allen showed that you could be comic but still smart, you could wear glasses and still be cool, you could be witty and still sincere. He showed that even without pedigree or pedagogy you could do and be many things at once: a physical clown and a verbal wit, a hip cat and a concerned citizen, a free-spirited improviser and a freelance scholar, a responsible listener and an irrepressible creator. On one of those late night shows he might discourse seriously on some philosophical questions he hadn't quite answered for himself, and a sip of orange juice later, laugh with uncontrollably delight and shout "Schmock! Schmock!" He was Everyman as potential Renaissance Man.
There is even a theory that Allen's career has been hurt because he does too much of too many things. But that, of course, is why he is not just a performer but a model of a multi-dimensional human being, making full use of all his dimensions. That he puts others to shame is our shame, not his. "The real problem is not that there are too many Steve Allens," wrote professor of philosophy Thomas Ellis Katen, "but that there are too few of the rest of us."
Posted by Captain Future at 2:25 PM