In Praise of Steve Allen

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Despite living with television sets for nearly 65 years, most of us dread being in front of a camera. We love criticizing people on TV but wouldn't dream of switching places with them. Those who have been interviewed on national TV know what a jarring experience it is. Much prep work is required to keep from forgetting what you want to say or sounding like an idiot. [Pictured above: Steve Allen]

Our TV phobia is warranted. No other medium exposes liars, frauds and fools faster, which is why we admire those who are smooth and likable on the screen. The truth is the likable part is a lot harder than the smart stuff. To be likable, you need natural confidence, a take-charge demeanor, fluid body language and just the right amount of self-deprecation.

Today's news and talk shows feature seasoned on-camera talent with a few of these qualities. And yet none comes close to the ease and charm of Steve Allen. Allen, who died in 2000, has always been a target of baby boomer derision, particularly among jazz fans. Many view him as too slick and smarmy, a glossy-talking corporate type who chose to accompany Jack Kerouac on piano, was a bit casual with Count Basie and didn't quite know what to make of Bill Evans in July 1969.

Even still, much of the Allen animosity seems a bit unfair. In addition to being comfortable on camera, Allen had a fast unscripted wit; wrote dozens of books; could play respectable piano, vibes and trumpet; was a prolific songwriter; was a movie actor; could sing; knew pop and jazz inside and out; and was genuinely funny—appealing to both highly educated and working-class audiences. He was too tall for the roll—often leaning in to reduce his towering height—and he was much brighter than most of his guests, who seemed hopeless without a script or sheet music. But Allen was clever and knew precisely when to back off and let his guests shine. 

Think of your favorite TV personality today and compare him or her to Allen on the following clips. When you do, you'll likely see him in a different light. Despite all of his talents, Allen always played the gifted amateur—fully cognizant of his role to bridge the space between the stage and the seats. He also knew there was a fine line between impressing TV audiences and rubbing it in. Let's not forget that much of what Allen invented on TV—man-on-the-street interviews, skits and conversational, banter—is still in use today.

Perhaps the secret of Allen's enduring appeal was keeping his ego on a short leash and remaining cheery in a commanding sort of way. There was something purely American about him—optimistic, entrepreneurial and eager to learn after leaping. He was obviously the brightest guy in the room but never became a know-it-all—a difficult feat to pull off.

Today's on-air talent would do themselves a world of good watching hours of Steve Allen—a relaxed host who could think on his feet and used his intellect to make the viewer feel good. 

Here's Allen in action in what must be the longest dolly shot in TV history (thanks to Jim Eigo for sending it along)...



Here's Steve Allen in 1953. Listen carefully how he delivers his jokes, making sure the lines don't sound forced or rehearsed...



Here's Allen surprising Judy Garland on her TV show. Compare how at easy and how easily he ad libs compared to Garland, who seems scared to death...



Here's Allen with three all-star trumpeters. Watch how he deftly convinces you that he stinks so his standing is reduced and you'll accept him as one of the quartet without thinking he's a jerk...



Even in 1997, Allen is all charm. Again, catch how he insists he can't play the vibes and then does a decent enough job with Terry Gibbs. A master of lowering the bar so he could exceed expectations...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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