Jack Paar Tonite

In the early seventies, ABC was getting respectable but not overwhelming ratings in late night with The Dick Cavett Show. Some at the network wanted to cancel Cavett and try something else but there was a problem: The show was critically-acclaimed at a time when very little on the ABC schedule was. No one wanted to endure the newspaper editorials and denouncements that would surely come if the network cancelled one of its few respected programs. The answer? The ABC Wide World of Entertainment, a rotating “wheel” of experimental and not-so-experimental programming in what had been Cavett’s time slot. One week a month, it would still be Cavett’s…so it wasn’t like ABC was dumping him; just cutting him back. Two weeks a month, it would be specials, some of which would be pilots for new programs. And the fourth week, it would be the second coming of Jack Paar…back hosting a late night show seven years after The Jack Paar Program (the prime time series he did after departing Tonight) left network television.

Paar’s new show debuted January 8, 1973 to surprisingly little notice. The first broadcast was a particular mess. At the taping, Paar was introduced by his announcer/sidekick Peggy Cass and the host entered to a thunderous ovation and proceeded to do a monologue that had the studio audience in hysterics, Then suddenly, his director (Hal Gurnee, who later gained fame directing David Letterman’s show) stopped the proceedings. There had been a technical snafu: No one had pressed the button to roll tape and they had to start over. Paar fumed, the audience had to pretend to laugh at jokes they’d heard only minutes before…and the show never quite recovered from that.

Later episodes with no technical glitches weren’t a lot better and people who’d heard of Paar but not seen him before got to wondering what was so special about the guy. He seemed out of touch with the current world, dragging out way too many anecdotes about the past. They brought on many of his old guests but the conversations seemed forced and not as wonderful as before. As the whole ABC Wide World of Entertainment tanked, Paar tanked with it. He later claimed that ABC had decided the rotating format wasn’t working and had pressed him to do the show every week instead of every fourth week. This seems unlikely since he was the lowest rated thing in the entire package. (Cavett’s ratings dropped, as well. Audiences just couldn’t get in the habit of following a show that disappeared from the air for weeks at a time. At one point, the legendary comedy writer Jack Douglas, who Paar had engaged to mail in monologue material, sent nothing for a long time until a note arrived. It said, “Sorry I didn’t send anything last week. I forgot you were on.”)

The show went largely unnoticed. On one episode, a young comedian named Freddie Prinze made his TV debut with a solid stand-up comedy routine…but nothing happened to his career. Later that year, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show booked Prinze, he did just as well there…and became an overnight superstar with offers to headline in Vegas and star in his own TV pilot. Thereafter, Prinze just forgot about Jack Paar Tonite and referred to his appearance with Johnny as his TV debut. No one seemed to notice it wasn’t.

Jack Paar Tonite lasted eleven months before Paar resumed his retirement. He later appeared in occasional specials for NBC and PBS but had the good sense to not attempt another series, despite the occasional offer.