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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

Years later, many rock aficionados have yet to forgive Allen for that. More provocative, though, have been his comments that Presley's talent, while considerable, had its limits, and that rock music in general--including the great majority of songs recorded by the Beatles--is generally inferior to jazz.

"The music of the true golden age--the 1920s, '30s and '40s--was simply superior to most of what you hear on the air today," he told the Times Festival of Books audience. "To put it in more specific terms, 'Rhapsody in Blue' is better than 'Switchblade, Baby, I'm Going to Stab You Tonight.' "

How about the '60s youth culture?

"I will never to my dying day look back on Woodstock as some great point in American history," Allen says. "I think it was a national embarrassment. People stoned. People peeing, you know, next to some stranger. People screwing in the grass.

"I mean, I'm all for peeing and screwing. I'm not trying to get 'em made illegal. But in public? I don't think so."

Allen is not angry at teenagers alone. In 1991, he published "Dumbth," a scathing look at how ignorance and lazy thinking have polluted American life. He laments what he sees as the erosion of rational thought in the body politic, and he has no use for superstition.

On a recent episode of "Politically Incorrect" on television, host Bill Maher said: "I believe in ghosts, I believe in numerology, I believe in astrology. Does that make me stupid?"

"Yes," Allen answered.

No subject riles him more, however, than the state of American pop culture. In a recent speech at a Canadian television festival in Banff, he unloaded on the media.

"We're not just talking about television here," he said. "Much of modern entertainment--films, recordings, radio, comedy clubs--already involves vulgarians addressing barbarians. . . . If you think our society is sick now, stand by."

He has come a long way from the night when he shocked TV big shots by putting Lenny Bruce on his show. Or the time he told viewers that his next guest--a scowling, unkempt singer named Dylan--would one day make a big noise in the world.

As Allen sees it, he simply has adjusted to changing times. He has gotten older and, he hopes, wiser, and he has tried to be open-minded. What remains intact is his gift for comedy. He can still bang out punch lines with the best of them.

Question: "What do you think about sex on TV?"

Answer: "I'd be careful of the antenna."

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