Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsWriters

The Perennial Steve Allen

Pioneer of Late-Night Talk TV Remains a Prodigious Comedic and Critical Force

January 09, 1998|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Minutes after he kicked off the first-ever "Tonight" show back in 1954, Steve Allen peered into an NBC camera, shuffled some white note cards on the desk and cracked his opening joke:

"I want to give you the bad news first, folks," he told a national audience. "This show is going to go on forever."

He was talking about the program's late hour, but on that historic fall evening in New York, Allen was more clairvoyant than he knew. His casual remark--flip, hip and genial--just as easily could have applied to his own career.

Some 44 years later, "The Tonight Show" has become a fixture in American pop culture, and Allen seems equally perennial. Beyond his credentials as a comic and pioneer of late-night talk TV, he is a respected jazz pianist, a poet, songwriter, novelist, dramatist, political pamphleteer, recording artist, actor and philanthropist. At 76, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Indeed, Allen's prolific qualities are almost irritating.

Books, essays and polemics seem to pour out of him, as though he were a modern-day Voltaire. He recently published his 48th title and wrote his 6,000th song. With his wife, actress Jayne Meadows, he appears at concerts, charity dinners and debates. The couple have appeared on "Homicide" and "St. Elsewhere," and they were cast in a highly praised production of A. R. Gurney's play "Love Letters."

"In some ways, I feel more active now than I did many years ago," Allen says on a quiet morning in his large, gated Encino home. "I feel like I always have. Energetic. Very, very involved."

Yet there is a telling difference between the graying Steve Allen of today and the brainy prankster of the '50s, who jumped into vats of Jell-O and broke up viewers with bizarre man-in-the-street interviews, long before Letterman and Leno.

Avant-garde in his 30s, he's on guard in his 70s, railing against a decline in America's cultural and intellectual life. He has become an increasingly conservative voice on some issues, even though many of his views remain firmly left of center.

Allen once talked like a populist; now he decries the growing stupidity and gullibility of the American public. He crusaded against the Vietnam War, but blames the counterculture for contributing to the moral decline of our national life.

These days, he speaks out on the declining civility of TV sitcoms; he denounces stars like Madonna, who he says flaunt vulgarity. He dismisses much of rock 'n' roll as an art form inferior to American music of the '30s, '40s and '50s.

It's a remarkable evolution for a man who was once on the cutting edge of liberal politics. Long before it became fashionable, for example, Allen protested and wrote about the plight of migrant farm workers. He publicly debated William F. Buckley in 1963, holding his own against the conservative author.

Standing apart from such mainstream comics as Jack Benny, George Burns and Milton Berle, Allen introduced many young, iconoclastic artists to TV--including Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, the Smothers Brothers, Steve Martin and Billy Crystal.

Behind his trademark owlish glasses, he projected a smart but surreal sensibility. He was a jazzman loose in prime-time, the thinking person's comic, one step ahead of the censors.

But that was then. Now, the seemingly unthinkable question is asked: Has Steverino become just another angry old man?

"Hardly," answers Allen, amused by the thought.

"The sea in which I swim has changed greatly," he says, suggesting that shifting cultural standards are to blame. "So I don't feel that I've changed much at all. I just got a hell of a lot older."

*

He can still make an audience gasp with laughter.

During an appearance at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April, Allen was irked that no one had been officially assigned to present him to the overflow crowd in a UCLA lecture hall.

"I'd like to thank the powers that be for that very flattering introduction," he said dryly, as the crowd roared. When he finished, Allen used the same gag to say goodbye:

"It seems to me I've been talking for hours and there must be some plan for me to stop," he deadpanned. "Or maybe that decision was left to the guy who introduced me."

As the talk turns serious, though, Allen speaks in complex, compound sentences that sometimes meander. Armed with a pocket tape-recorder, he'll stop in mid-spiel to dictate the fragment of an unrelated idea or something about his show biz career. His answers can take forever, but you forgive him: When it comes to looking back, he's got a lot of material to rummage through.

By now, the rough outlines of Allen's life are well known. His parents were vaudeville performers, but he was raised by other family members in Chicago after his father died and his mother, an established star, continued performing on the road.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|