More than 50 years ago, before Jay Leno left and returned to and left “The Tonight Show” again, Jack Paar stole the spotlight with a controversial incident of his own.
In this decade, when we think of Tonight Show controversies, we recall Jay Leno’s departure, then return, then departure again from the host’s chair, finally being succeeded by Jimmy Fallon in 2014. The saga certainly caught – and held – the public’s attention, as the coveted late-night timeslot changed hands again and again.
But controversy is nothing new to The Tonight Show. More than 50 years ago, before Fallon succeeded Leno, before Leno and Conan battled it out, and before Leno and Letterman squared off, Jack Paar stole the spotlight with an incident of his own.
In 1960, television standards were much different from today. 2012 TV viewers may see seriously steamy romantic scenes and gore to rival any R-rated horror movie, and hear language that would have shocked prior generations. But early television was much tamer: no steaminess, goriness or profanity allowed – and neither was a joke about a toilet, even if you called it a “W.C.” (that’s “water closet” for you younger readers who may be unfamiliar with the term).
Jack Paar was the king of late-night when he made just such a joke. Late-night TV has always pushed the boundaries, and Paar’s joke – about confusing a water closet with a wayside chapel – was a fairly gentle push. But the censors cut it from the broadcast anyway.
Paar was not happy with the omission. When he realized that the joke had been cut and was never going to run, he left the show. Not after a long struggle with the network… not with an announcement that he’d be retiring… he just picked up and walked off the set in the middle of an episode, stating, “There must be a better way of making a living than this.”
Watch Paar’s famous departure, starting at 2:07 of this interview.
Paar left his announcer to complete that night’s broadcast, and he stayed gone for almost a full month. When he did return, he went on like nothing had ever happened – but it had. Paar was, by his own admission, highly emotional, and the incident affected him. So did the effort of putting on a daily 105-minute show. Two years after the walkout, Paar left again, for good – though the audience and the network were prepared for it this time. He was replaced by the next late-night star, Johnny Carson.
Paar’s TV career wasn’t over – he continued on for a few years in prime time, with a less grueling schedule than The Tonight Show offered. His prime-time show featured some of the greats of the 1960s – Richard Burton, Liberace, a young Bill Cosby, and many more. Here he is in 1967, interviewing Judy Garland.
Jack Paar would have turned 94 today. He’s been gone for more than eight years, but he is still remembered as a talk-show classic.