Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week we’re looking at a few clips from Steve Allen’s primetime variety series for NBC, The Steve Allen Show, which ran from June 1956 to June 1960, and then returned for 14 episodes on ABC in the fall of 1961 (as The New Steve Allen Show), using the same basic format. Although Allen is rightfully celebrated as the first host of the still-running The Tonight Show, his work in the comedy-variety genre has been overshadowed by some of his contemporaries, like Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason. This makes sense, for despite being a jack of all trades, Allen was not the iconic comic performer that many of the other hosts in this genre happened to be (Benny, Caesar, Gleason, etc). However, he was an innovative comic thinker, and a television lover, who surrounded himself with terrific talents — both behind and in front of the cameras — some of whom went on to participate in the series we’re discussing on Sitcom Tuesdays, Get Smart. Accordingly, I want to take a moment to recognize these associations and find some clips that showcase the great people involved.
The most obvious connection between the two shows is Steve Allen head writer and Get Smart executive producer Leonard Stern, who left a post on Phil Silvers to join Allen in October 1956 (after a few difficult opening months that nevertheless included a legendary appearance by Elvis Presley). Stern oversaw a staff for the next four years that included future Get Smart scribes Stan Burns, Mike Marmer, Arne Sultan, and Marvin Worth, along with Herb Sargent, Frank Peppiatt, Hal Goodman, Larry Klein, Don Hinkley, and Bill Dana, the latter of whom also performed on the show, debuting his now notorious José Jiménez character in 1959. Speaking of which, José would go on to become the subject of his own 1963 sitcom, The Bill Dana Show, on which he’d work with Don Adams, a standup comic who appeared quite a bit on the early seasons of Steve Allen, where he gave audiences a preview of the persona he’d refine with Bill Dana‘s Byron Glick and then perfect as Get Smart’s Maxwell Smart.
Stern made it his mission to supply Allen with a reliable supporting cast, so beyond Dana and Adams, the show also included the starry likes of Louis Nye (best known to sitcom lovers as Sonny Drysdale), Don Knotts (yes, Barney Fife himself), Emmy-winning Tom Poston (later of Newhart), and eventually, Gabe Dell, Dayton Allen, and Pat Harrington Jr., the latter splitting his time in the final season by recurring on The Danny Thomas Show. Many of these funny men — particularly Nye, Knotts, and Poston, who were Allen’s primary support from 1957-1959 — were regulars in the series’ most popular sketch, the “Man On The Street” interviews, a sort of “Allen’s Alley” (Fred Allen, that is) that sometimes also involved bandleader Skitch Henderson (later replaced by Les Brown). Also, for the first three years, which were produced live in New York before a move to L.A. in the final taped season (which aired as The Steve Allen Plymouth Show), the announcer was Match Game‘s own Gene Rayburn.
Following the series’ cancellation in 1960, much of the same team reunited a year later for The New Steve Allen Show on ABC. Joining Allen, Nye, Dayton Allen, and Dana were such legends as Tim Conway, the Smothers Brothers, and more Get Smart names, Joey Forman (Harry Hoo), Dave Ketchum (Agent 13), and co-creator Buck Henry, who was also a writer, along with Dana, Burns, Marmer, Sultan, Worth, and a pair of newcomers: Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (soon of The Dick Van Dyke Show). Stern acted as “director” of the comedy sketches. Unfortunately, the ABC iteration was pulled after only 14 episodes, and while the host would stay on TV by moving back to the talk show arena, it was without his exceptional crew from this formative era.
To think that all these TV titans were together — or mostly together — on this one comedy-variety series is an intriguing notion (like the mythical Your Show Of Shows/Caesar’s Hour), and I wish more of it was available for viewing today. As of this writing, I have only seen two dozen entries — just enough to pick out a handful of sketches, which I share now in celebration of the many remarkable talents curated by Allen and his invaluable head writer.
01) “Man On The Street” Sketch (Aired: 11/10/57)
“Man On The Street” is the show’s most famous recurring sketch — Steve Allen (off-camera) would do a succession of “interviews” about a chosen topic. Usually the interviewees were his main comic support — Louis Nye, Don Knotts, and Tom Poston, who quickly developed memorable characters the audience expected to see every week: the effete Gordon Hathaway, the nervous Mr. Morrison, and the forgetful bumbler who never knew his own name.
02) Don Adams’ Standup (Aired: 12/01/57)
Don Adams was a frequent guest early on, and his standup previewed the characters he’d create the next decade. In fact, you’ll definitely see “Glick” percolating here.
03) To Tell The Truth Parody (Aired: 12/01/57)
Leonard Stern’s proficiency with satire is evident in this parody of To Tell The Truth, featuring Allen, Nye, Knotts, and Poston, with Adams, Martha Raye, Jennie Smith, and Errol Flynn.
04) Playing Mad Libs (Aired: 06/29/58)
Stern co-created Mad Libs, and it became something of a recurring feature on Allen’s show. Here’s a segment with guests Oscar Levant, Dorothy Collins, and Tony Bennett.
05) Talking With José Jiménez (Aired: 05/16/60)
Bill Dana’s José Jiménez became a popular feature during the NBC show’s final season, after which the character would hop over to the sitcom world for a few years…
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Get Smart!