NBC Slights “The Tonight Shows” 50th Anniversary

New York Daily News – http://www.nydailynews.com
NBC blows a golden opportunity
Monday, September 27th, 2004

Everything that’s wrong with television these days, and with NBC in particular, is reflected in tonight’s stunning disregard for TV history, tradition and quality.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the “The Tonight Show” – and NBC isn’t bothering to mount a retrospective special in prime time.

Instead, while it could be celebrating one of the most durable and influential entertainment series in network history, Jeff Zucker’s NBC proudly presents another first-run edition of “Fear Factor.”

To be fair, NBC hasn’t turned its back on its past completely. “Today” started showing anniversary “Tonight Show” clips on Friday, and features special retrospective segments today. Also, this evening’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” features Garry Shandling and musical guest Hilary Duff in what it’s describing as “a special show paying tribute to NBC late-night’s 50th anniversary.”

So even though Leno famously failed to thank his 30-year predecessor, Johnny Carson, the night he took over “The Tonight Show,” there will be some form of homage tonight on “Tonight” – presumably not only to Carson, but to Carson’s equally pioneering predecessors, Jack Paar and Steve Allen.

Even so, there are two horrendously misguided aspects to this.

First, if NBC is choosing tonight to celebrate, in its own words, “NBC late-night’s 50th anniversary,” it’s throwing the party about five years too late.

Any true golden-age anniversary of NBC late-night should be keyed to “Broadway Open House,” which aired weeknights on the network from 11 p.m.-midnight beginning in May 1950.

Jerry Lester was the live program’s host three days a week, with a company that included the statuesque Dagmar, TV’s first sex symbol. Morey Amsterdam, later of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” was the other host when “Broadway Open House” launched. NBC late night, for the record, started there.

The other ghastly aspect of NBC’s treatment of its own history is the absence of a prime-time special tonight. The network is planning a major “Seinfeld” reunion special this Thanksgiving, fondly remembering a show that left the air only six years ago.

But “The Tonight Show,” in prime time, is old news. Even “Today,” when it turned 50 two years ago, celebrated in prime time. So why not “Tonight”? The current NBC regime is either too young or too unappreciative, or both, to comprehend what a stupendous, stupid snub this is.

When “Tonight!” was launched on Sept. 27, 1954, Steve Allen warned his audience at the start, “This program is going to go on forever!” So far, it has, and each incarnation has made an indelible mark on TV and popular culture. The current host has given us “Jaywalking” spots, real-life ad and headline blunders – amusing variations on bits that can be traced to the original “Tonight” show, but are part of NBC’s late-night continuum.

Allen’s “Tonight!” (1954-57) gave us “Stump the Band” and the “Answer Man,” the desk-and-couch arrangement for guests, and lots of freewheeling comedy and stunts that David Letterman still echoes today. “The Jack Paar Tonight Show” (1957-62) elevated conversation, candor and the unpredictability of live TV to new, still unchallenged heights. “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” (1962-92) gave us just about everything. Leno, just the other night, frolicked with zoo animals the way Carson used to do, and with equal delight.

What a legacy: Art Fern and Aunt Blabby, Carnac the magnificent, the monologues, the guests, the great times, from Ed McMahon screaming “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” to Bette Midler serenading Carson goodbye with her own lyrics to “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).”

Midler knew how to honor a legacy with taste and class. Too bad NBC doesn’t.

Seven years from now, though, NBC probably can be counted on to present a prime-time 10th anniversary special – of “Fear Factor.”

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