Paar, Jack Harold

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Paar, Jack Harold

(b. 1 May 1918 in Canton, Ohio; d. 27 January 2004 in Greenwich, Connecticut), anecdotalist and television host.

Paar was one of the four children of Howard Paar and Lillian (Hein) Paar, both of Dutch descent. His father worked as a division superintendent for the New York Central Railroad and was frequently transferred to new locations; his mother was a homemaker. Although the family moved often, Paar spent most of his childhood in Detroit and Jackson, Michigan. When Paar was five years old, his older brother was killed in an automobile accident.

Paar had a stutter as a boy. After reading how the Greek orator Demosthenes overcame the same speech problem by filling his mouth with pebbles and shouting to the sea, Paar was inspired to experiment with elocution. He stuffed his cheeks with buttons and bellowed out newspaper and magazine articles to his bedroom walls. Slowly his condition improved.

Paar contracted a mild case of tuberculosis at age fourteen. During his eight-month convalescence, Paar learned about electronics and radios by tinkering at a bedside workbench built by his father. By the time he was sixteen, Paar was bored with high school and fascinated with broadcasting. He left Jackson High School to pursue a career as a radio announcer, and he never made any further attempts to receive formal education.

A series of jobs at radio stations in the Midwest and East allowed Paar to develop a comic announcing style and storytelling skills. While employed at station WGAR in Cleveland in the late 1930s, Paar fell in love with a young woman who had auditioned as a pianist at the station. They married and then divorced two years later. A few months later they remarried but soon divorced again. Decades later Paar claimed he remembered his first wife’s name was Irene but could recall little else about her.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Paar enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the Twenty-eighth Special Service Company, a troupe of entertainers that performed for combat soldiers. During his initial physical training in Pennsylvania, Paar met Miriam Wagner at a dinner dance. The following day they were engaged. They were married on 9 October 1943 and remained together until Paar’s death more than sixty years later. They had one child.

Paar’s company performed throughout the South Pacific. His comedy based on the undemocratic class system of army life was enormously popular. Sidney Carroll, a war correspondent in the Pacific theater, wrote a glowing article for Esquire about the success of Paar’s antibrass act. When he returned to the United States, Paar received many employment offers from networks and movie studios. He returned to radio as a vacation substitute for Don McNeill of the Breakfast Club (1933–1968) and served as Jack Benny’s summer replacement in 1947.

Paar signed a contract with RKO Pictures and appeared in a few B movies. RKO loaned Paar to Twentieth Century–Fox in 1951 to play opposite the actress Marilyn Monroe, then an upcoming starlet, in the movie Love Nest. Paar’s first work in television came in the early 1950s as the emcee of game shows, including Up to Paar (1952) and Bank on the Stars (1953–1954).

Hollywood was not a stimulating environment for Paar, who faulted the show business community for phoniness and insincerity. He returned with his family to the East Coast and in 1954 replaced Walter Cronkite as the host of The Morning Show (1954–1957) on the Columbia Broadcasting System. He was only moderately successful. Viewership increased, but the number of sponsors did not. The network changed the format of the program, and Paar became the host of another daytime variety series and made guest appearances on other television programs.

In 1957 Paar was selected by the National Broadcasting Company to be the permanent host of Tonight! (1953–1957). The original host, Steve Allen, had conducted the broadcast in a traditional variety format. Paar transformed the program into a talk show. The host’s opening monologue and the sofa-and-desk set became standards of the late-night genre. In 1958 the title of the program was changed to The Jack Paar Show (1958–1962), although it was commonly referred to as “the Tonight Show” or “the Tonight Show with Jack Paar.”

Paar’s ability to establish intimacy with his audience was the key to the program’s quick and lasting success. His monologue often dealt with his personal life, and amusing events involving his wife and daughter were a major source of material. Paar’s stories often ended with the declaration “I kid you not.” It caught on as a catch-phrase Paar was credited with coining. Paar explained in his autobiography, “Actually it came from the picture The Caine Mutiny and was first said by Humphrey Bogart.... The phrase amused me because it sounded so baroque or Elizabethan.”

Audiences were compelled by the unpredictability of The Jack Paar Show, much of which stemmed from Paar’s emotional personality. He engaged in bitter on-air feuds, notably with the gossip columnist Walter Winchell and the television host Ed Sullivan. Paar also became misty-eyed over the lyrics to a love song or the telling of a sad event. A public opinion poll conducted by Sindlinger and Company revealed Paar was the most discussed person in the nation during much of the run of his program. “What is Jack Paar really like?” was a popular topic of water-cooler and cocktail party conversation

The most famous example of Paar’s volatility occurred in 1960 when Paar told a joke about a Swiss schoolmaster who believed the initials “WC” stood for “wayside chapel” rather than “water closet,” the British euphemism for a bathroom. The National Broadcasting Company censor ordered the segment cut from the broadcast and replaced it with news updates. Paar was incensed and the following day announced on air, near tears, that he was quitting. A stunned Hugh Downs, Paar’s announcer and sidekick, took over the broadcast. One month later the network and the star came to terms. When he returned to the program, Paar began his monologue, “As I was saying before I was interrupted....”

The erudition of many of Paar’s regular guests gave the show the reputation of “smart television.” Among those in Paar’s salon of raconteurs were the British actors Robert Morley, Peter Ustinov, and Hermione Gingold, the columnist Elsa Maxwell, and the pianist and author Oscar Levant. Other frequent visitors included the comedian Cliff Arquette as the character Charley Weaver, the comic actors Dody Goodman and Peggy Cass, and the French singer Geneviève. Paar was a probing host but occasionally turned playful disparagement into stinging remarks that produced noticeable discomfort for his guests.

Discovering comic talent was a part of Paar’s legacy that carried over to his successors. The careers of the comedians Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Gregory, and the Smothers Brothers and the puppet act Jim Henson and the Muppets were nurtured by Paar’s interest. The established comedians Woody Allen and Jonathan Winters were favorite guests. In 1960 Dick Cavett, who later hosted his own late-night talk show, sent Paar unsolicited comic material and was invited to join Paar’s writing staff.

The world of entertainment was not the singular focus of The Jack Paar Show. Paar interviewed many politicians, including presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon and the legislator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. An interview with Robert F. Kennedy, at the time the chief counsel of the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Investigate Improper Activities in the Labor-Management Field, focused on Kennedy’s investigation into organized crime in unions. After the interview Jimmy Hoffa, the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, sued both Kennedy and Paar, but the litigation was dismissed.

On several occasions Paar presented special filmed reports on world events. He traveled to Havana, Cuba, soon after the revolution to interview the leader Fidel Castro. Paar was criticized as giving Castro a platform for propaganda. Paar also visited the Berlin Wall within weeks of its construction, providing viewers a close-up look at cold war tensions made tangible.

In 1962 Paar left his nightly program, and The Jack Paar Show became The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1961–1992). For the next three television seasons Paar appeared each week on a prime-time version of his thinking person’s talk show. A filmed report documenting his visit to Gabon to interview the Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer was among the highlights of The Jack Paar Program (1962–1965). Paar introduced the rock group the Beatles to American viewers. While traveling in England, he encountered Beatlemania and brought back film of the group performing. He aired the footage on his program a month before the band’s first live appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.

Paar retired from television in 1965. He purchased a television station in Poland Springs, Maine, and was involved in its management until selling the station at a large profit. In 1973 Paar was persuaded by the American Broadcasting Company to return to television one week per month for a talk show that would compete with Johnny Carson’s. It was an unsuccessful venture that Paar regretted. Wise investments, particularly in the stock of Polaroid, a sponsor of The Jack Paar Show, provided the Paars with long-term financial independence.

Paar remained largely out of the public eye for the following two decades. In 1998 he underwent triple bypass coronary artery surgery that was complicated by an embolism. In March 2003 he had a stroke. For the last months of his life, Paar was immobilized and contracted an infection that could not be controlled. He died at his home in Greenwich at age eighty-five. His body was cremated, and the ashes were returned to Paar’s family.

Paar never won an Emmy Award, yet his influence on television is enduring. His success cemented the late-night talk show in the landscape of American television. Paar’s complex personality made his broadcasts unique in the history of the genre. His intuitive understanding of the art of conversation allowed him to elicit riveting stories from his guests. His willingness to share experiences from his own life, even those that illustrated his foibles and neuroses, endeared him to viewers. He was a maverick in an era of growing caution and conservatism in commercial television. Ideas and adventures, not show business or fame, were Paar’s life passions.

Paar’s reflections on his life and career are collected in Jack Paar, P.S. Jack Paar (1983). Robert Metz, The Tonight Show (1980), chronicles Paar’s television career. “Late Night’s Light of TV: U.S. Stays Up to View Paar,” Life (9 Mar. 1959), offers a perspective on Paar’s impact. Obituaries are in the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post (both 27 Jan. 2004) and New York Times (28 Jan. 2004). The Jack Paar Collection (2004) is a DVD compilation of Parr’s broadcasts accompanied by interviews with persons who knew and worked with Paar.

Mary Ann Watson