Jack Paar Walks Away
February 11, 1960 - This was the day that Jack Paar, host of The Tonight Show, made a very public stand against censorship. A master of the interview, Paar had taken over the popular late-night show after Steve Allen retired.
Paar was known for his quick wit and his unpredictable emotions. He had a good eye for talent and helped rising stars like Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart and the Smothers Brothers.
But Paar was much more than a comedian. He loved to tackle serious topics head-on and he often tapped into politically volatile subjects. He went on the record with heartfelt pleas in support of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. At the height of the Cold War he was the first entertainer to broadcast from the newly constructed Berlin Wall. Audiences liked his style, and Paar quickly tripled the number of stations carrying his show.
At the height of his fame, Paar set off a surprising chain reaction by telling this very long joke:
An English lady, while visiting Switzerland, was looking for a room, and she asked the schoolmaster if he could recommend any to her. He took her to see several rooms, and when everything was settled, the lady returned to her home to make the final preparations to move.
When she arrived home, the thought suddenly occurred to her that she had not seen a "W.C." [water closet, a euphemism for toilet] around the place. So she immediately wrote a note to the schoolmaster asking him if there were a "W.C." around. The [Swiss] schoolmaster was a very poor student of English, so he asked the [Swiss] parish priest if he could help in the matter. Together they tried to discover the meaning of the letters "W.C." and the only solution they could find for the letters was "Wayside Chapel." The schoolmaster then wrote to the English lady the following note:
I take great pleasure in informing you that the "W.C." is situated nine miles from the house you occupy, in the center of a beautiful grove of pine trees surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 229 people and it is open on Sunday and Thursday only. As there are a great number of people and they are expected during the summer months, I would suggest that you come early: although there is plenty of standing room as a rule.
You will no doubt be glad to hear that a good number of people bring their lunch and make a day of it; while others who can afford to go by car arrive just in time. I would especially recommend that your ladyship go on Thursday when there is a musical accompaniment.
It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the W.C. and it was there that she met her husband. I can remember the rush there was for seats. There were ten people to a seat ordinarily occupied by one. It was wonderful to see the expression on their faces.
The newest attraction is a bell donated by a wealthy resident of the district. It rings every time a person enters. A bazaar is to be held to provide plush seats for all the people, since they feel it is a long felt need.
My wife is rather delicate, so she can't attend regularly. I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you if you wish, where you will be seen by all. For the children, there is a special time and place so that they will not disturb the elders.
Hoping to have been of service to you,
Innocuous by today's standards, this long-winded routine was viewed as dirty and uncouth by the NBC censors. Without Paar's input they cut the joke from the show. The next night, a visibly agitated Paar had this to say about what he perceived as an awful betrayal:
I've made a decision about what I'm going to do. I'm leaving The Tonight Show. There must be a better way to make a living than this, a way of entertaining people without being constantly involved in some form of controversy.
With tears in his eyes, Paar walked off the set of the live broadcast, leaving announcer Hugh Downs scrambling to fill the void. The spectacle was big news for the next couple of weeks. After a full month missing in action, Paar finally reappeared on The Tonight Show stage.
Here's what he said:
As I was saying, before I was interrupted. [audience laughs] When I walked off, I said there must be a better way of making a living. Well I've looked... [more laughter] ...and there isn't. Be it ever so humble, there is no place like Radio City. Leaving the show was a childish and perhaps emotional thing. I have been guilty of such action in the past and will perhaps be again. I’m totally unable to hide what I feel. It is not an asset in show business. But I shall do the best I can to amuse and entertain you and let other people speak freely, as I have in the past. Any who are maligned will find this show a place to come and tell their story. There will be a rock in every snowball and I plan to continue exactly what I started out to do. I hope you will find it interesting.
After another successful 3 years on The Tonight Show, Paar retired and passed the baton to a young Johnny Carson. In his time, Paar truly was the king of late-night television, and Carson noted as much when he said he'd settle for being the prince.
Paar died in 2004.