When Ed McMahon started out in television in 1949, there were no talk shows. What a difference 44 years make.
The late news, in those days, came on at 9 p.m. and then stations went off the air.
Gradually, the TV night lengthened, and in May 1950, NBC broadcast its first talk show, “Broadway Open House,” hostedby Jerry Lester three days a week and by Morey Amsterdam on Mondays and Wednesdays.
“There was a gal named Dagmar,” McMahon recalls, “a big, statuesque, well-endowed blonde and Lester used her as a sidekick, a second banana, like Johnny Carson used me.”
“Broadway Open House” lasted only until August 1951, but it spawned Steve Allen’s “Tonight”in 1954. Ernie Kovacs took over 1956-57; Jack Paar’s “The Tonight Show” held court 1957-1962, and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” ran solid from 1962-1992.
“I was one of the biggest ‘Tonight Show’ fans before I ever worked on it,” McMahon says. “I was a strong devotee of Steve Allen and I watched Paar frequently.”
Like Jerry Lester, Allen had his coterie of players, as did Carson later, with the Mighty Carson Art Players.
“Lester’s format was not a sit-down, as such, with a couch and desk,” McMahon recalls. “Allen started that format. Paar took it to another degree where it really was talk, with some controversy. Then Carson came in with more entertainment where he had the sketches but still did a monolog and did interviews. It really goes back to Steve Allen.”
Meanwhile, talk had begun to develop in daytime TV, recalls Alan Perris, senior VP, firstrun programs, Columbia Pictures TV Distribution.
“In the middle ’60s, he says, “there was Alan Burke, who did a local show in New York, Joe Pine doing a different kind of show out of Los Angeles and a bunch of local market shows. Lou Gordon was one of them in Detroit.”
David Susskind had a serious talk show and then came Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore, singers who knew how to sweet-talk celebrities. Everything changed when Phil Donahue burst out of Dayton, Ohio, 25 years ago.
“You have to give him credit for pioneering it,” says Michael King, president of King World. “I don’t know who else to give credit to. Mike, Merv and Dinah were variety talk shows.”
Burt Dubrow, now executive producer of Sally Jesse Raphael” and “Jerry Springer,” worked on “The Mike Douglas Show” for a couple of years in Philadelphia. “That was when we were very celebrity-oriented,” says Dubrow. “We were there plugging movies and doing demos. I think the woman at home wants more now.”
Phil Donahue’s particular success was that not only did he deal with serious topics, but he handled them in a way viewers could grasp. “When Phil came on as the dean of this industry, he informed people,” says Les Brown, whose own show debuts nationally in September.
“He was a guy, who was able to capture the American public’s attention,” Brown adds,”through the way in which he was able to take some very, complicated issues–that were controversial–and break them down in a simple kind of way–and hold our attention.”
Gale Steinberg, executive producer of the upcoming “Ricki,” worked with Donahue for six years in the ’80s.
“If you look at the progression of topics on that show, you see that Phil started out with some pretty serious things, but he always dealt with them in a commercial way,” Steinberg says. “In his first week, if I’m not mistaken, he did atheism with Madalyn Murray O’Hare and the first-ever show on homosexuality.”
Alan Perris observes: “Back in the ’70s, all talk shows were much more issue-driven. They used to be the same basic topics–capital punishment, abortion–heavy debatable topics. Over the years we’ve evolved into more general subjects.”
Oprah Winfrey came along in 1986 and, says Les Brown, “She took TV to a new level and unprecedented numbers.
“While Phil was able to influence public opinion, Oprah could touch people’s lives and tug at the emotions in a way that had never been done before,” he says. “She showed empathy, warmth and compassion.”
Steinberg borrows one of Donahue’s own phrases to express the difference, “The street we lived on changed.”
Meanwhile, late at night there had been a parade of stars and lesser lights attempting to dethrone the king of late-night television: Johnny Carson. Merv Griffin tried late-night. So did Joey Bishop and Dick Cavett and David Frost. Jerry Lewis tried and so did Joan Rivers, Alan Thicke and Pat Sajak.
Carson proved to be unshakeable, although not even loyal sidekick Ed McMahon ever thought they would last 30 years.
“We felt it clicked from the beginning,” he says. Late-night viewers didn’t know that Carson and McMahon had spent four years on the game show, “Who Do You Trust?” working up their routines.
“All the jokes about my size, the party jokes–all those things we had being doing that for four years,” says McMahon. “It was brand new to a new audience that worked during the day, the late-night group. We knew it worked for us.”
Still, McMahon figured they’d have a five-year run at most. After five years, he figured seven. “We hit seven, I figured, well, 10,” he says. “After 10, I said, if we hit 15, there’s no way we’ll go past 15. Towards the end, every year we thought that this might be the year.”
Carson picked 1992–after a 30-year run–to pack it in. “He picked the right time because we were hot, we were still No. 1,” McMahon says.