From Publishers Weekly
Lest anyone think that late-night TV's zany characters and stunts began with Johnny, Jay or Dave, this love letter to original Tonight host Steve Allen will set them straight. Alba's portrait depicts Allen as a ground-breaking force in television whose brief stint (1954-57) on NBC's late-night show had a lasting influence on late night TV. Allen comes across as both a regular Joe and a multitalented Renaissance man whose knack for ad-libbing with audiences, loosely scripted gags and improvisational piano-playing in the days of live TV were as nimble as his commitment to progressive social causes. (Imagine Leno or Letterman devoting segments to discussions of drug abuse or organized crime.) Although only a few episodes of the Allen-era Tonight have survived, this book commendably captures the show's flavor in front of the camera and behind the scenes. That's largely thanks to interviews with Allen prior to his 2000 death and his numerous cohorts and admirers: Tonight producer Bill Harbach; regulars Steve Lawrence and Andy Williams; Don Knotts, Tim Conway and Tom Poston from Allen's prime-time variety series; and longtime friends Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner. Highlights include a blow-by-blow comparison between some of Allen's gags and those later adapted by Johnny Carson and others. The book would benefit from better structuring, and more than a few quotes are repetitious, continually praising Allen's wit and innovation without adding any fresh examples. Like Allen, whose sharp wit and genial demeanor appealed to a wide audience, Alba's detailed homage should resonate with a wide array of readers. 32 pages of b&w photos.
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Steve Allen--not Johnny Carson, not Jack Paar--was the progenitor of the late-night TV yapfest, and Alba's tribute to his pioneering includes current midnight-oil-burning rivals Leno and Letterman acknowledging their indebtedness. Less known than his trailblazing is the fact that Allen was instrumental in bringing African American stars to network TV. On the other hand, and seemingly incongruous with championing black entertainers, hisTonight Show
writers included Bill Dana, whose Jose Jimenez performing persona was a long-lived example of another kind of racial stereotyping in TV comedy. Also a dedicated jazz fan, Allen introduced a soupcon of hipness to TV, too, that for many was mitigated, however, by such tiresome routines as his dramatic readings of the lyrics of "Be-Bop-A-Lula" and other rock songs. Yet he perceptively interviewed an eclectic roster of guests. A complicated guy. Including the history of the Tonight Show
band from Skitch Henderson to Doc Severinsen, this is great stuff for broadcasting and pop-culture collections, though sufficiently conversational and nostalgia-soaked for nonspecialist readers. Mike TribbyCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved