I'm making my way through Gerald Nachman's book Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians Of The 1950s And 1960s as fast as my short attention span will let me. The book is really bolstering my shaky knowledge of some of comedy's pioneers. For example, I've long been familiar with the name Steve Allen, but my knowledge of him was based more on his 70's and 80's television appearances than anything else. I always got the impression that Mr. Allen was more egotistical than entertaining, but now I think I misjudged him a tad. Turns out this guy was a real trailblazer, not only the original host of The Tonight Show, but the originator of many of the bits that are most associated with his later late-night successor Johnny Carson (and every other late night host, at that!). Here is a short excerpt:
Allen claimed that Carson had stolen his "stump the band" routine, not to mention the even more ruthless pilfering of Allen's late-show movie with resident pitchman, which Carson renamed "The Tea -Time Movie with Art Fern" ("fern" itself being a favorite Allen nonsense word). Carson's "The Great Carnac," in which Carson wrapped himself in a swami's turban, duplicated Allen's Question Man routine ("A precise copy," noted Allen, although Ernie Kovacs had a similar bit), in which his know-it-all wizard provides the questions to answers from Tom Poston. For example: A. "Butterfield 8-5000"...Q. "How many hamburgers did Butterfield eat?"...The routine in which a camera zooms in on someone's face in the audience, followed by a funny caption line, began with Allen ad-libbing silly descriptions; it became a regular fixture under Carson's, and now Leno's, reign.
Here is a couple of video's from The Steve Allen Show featuring The Unidentified Flying Objects, a parody of hipster combos. Along with Allen, you'll see Don Knotts, Louie Nye, Pat Harrington, Jr., and Tom Poston. Take it away, boys!
Focusing more on Allen's ad-libbing abilities, this clip from his incarnation of The Tonight Show shows him getting some comedy mileage out of a walking talking baby doll, before singing a song called "Love Thy Neighbor".