We’re sad to hear of the passing of comedian Jonathan Winters, who died last night at the age of 87 of natural causes in Montecito, California. Winters had a prolific career in television and film, and was known for many of the memorable characters he created, including “Maude Frickert”, “Elwood P. Suggins”, and “King Kwasi.” He made several appearances on The Tonight Show over the years, had his own program, The Jonathan Winters Show, and won an Emmy for his role on Davis Rules.
Below are some selections from Winters’ 2002 Archive interview:
She was the first female comedian to headline a Vegas Club, the first woman to sneak into the all-male Friar’s Club (in drag!), and one of the first successful female stand-up comics. She’s also appeared on more Bob Hope Specials than anyone except Bob Hope. Phyllis Diller, who turns 95 today, is not only a television pioneer, but a pioneering force for women in entertainment, as well.
Born Phyllis Aida Driver On July 17, 1917 in Lima, Ohio, Diller wanted to be a pianist as a young girl. She attended college at the Sherwood Music Conservatory in Chicago for three years, but left to finish her studies at Bluffton College back in Ohio. She eloped in 1939 with Sherwood Diller, the brother of a classmate, and moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan and then to Alameda, California, where her husband worked at the Naval Air Station. Diller first got a job writing gossip and shopping columns for a local San Leandro newspaper, then as a fashion writer for Conn’s department store, moved on to writing for KROW radio in Oakland, and then to KSFO San Francisco as head of merchandising and press relations.
Her husband encouraged Diller to move to the talent side of the business, which she did by creating her “Phyllis Dillis, the Homely Friendmaker” persona:
Diller and a few friends put together an act, and she soon became the breadwinner of the family. She began a five-year run performing at the Purple Onion night club, toured the country, and in 1958 made her TV debut on You Bet Your Life with host Groucho Marx. She had just begun to comprehend the importance of theatricality and slowly started crafting her signature look: bleach-blonde hair, colorful costumes, and exposed “chicken-legs”:
Two additional items became part of Diller’s persona – her laugh:
And her ever-present cigarette holder:
One of Diller’s most memorable creations was “Fang”, the mythical husband-figure she often complained about in her act, who wasn’t actually based on her real-life husband:
In 1962 Diller made her first hugely successful appearance on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. She soon secured her first movie role, as nightclub hostess “Texas Guinan” in Splendor in the Grass, and appeared in several regional theater plays including “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” with co-star Blythe Danner. In 1961 Diller became the first female comic to headline in Vegas, at the Flamingo. Of her Vegas act she told us, “I wrote my own material, and no one had ever heard it from a woman’s angle. Now the mother-in-law is his mother… I did a lot of housewife stuff. My first bit was stuffing a turkey. Now you think, well, this isn’t going to interest men, but it did because they’re interested in women. It became funny. If it’s funny, it’ll sell.”
Diller published her first book in 1963 and in 1964 made the first of many appearances on Bob Hope Specials. Diller felt she instantly clicked with Hope:
Throughout the 1960s Diller appeared on numerous talk and game shows, including: The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, I’ve Got a Secret, and Match Game. She traveled to Vietnam to entertain the troops with Bob Hope, and in 1966 starred in The Pruitts of Southampton, later retitled The Phyllis Diller Show – a half-hour sitcom about a wealthy family who suddenly becomes poor (“the opposite of The Beverly Hillbillies” as Diller described it.) She also appeared in a series of films including That Spy, Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number (with Bob Hope), and The Mad Monster Party.
1968’s The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show started out as a 90-minute special that blossomed into a season-long variety show (one of the writers of which was a young Lorne Michaels), and in 1970 became the sixth Dolly in Broadway’s “Hello, Dolly.” In the late ’60s and early ’70s she enjoyed a semi-regular role on Love, American Style, and debuted her “Dame Illya Dillya” concert pianist persona in 1971, which kicked-off a series of symphony shows around the country and allowed her to utilize her piano skills. She very publicly underwent a face-lift in 1972, appeared as judge on the premiere episode of The Gong Show in 1976, and in 1983 became the first woman to dress in drag to sneak into the all-male Friar’s Club (for Sid Caesar’s roast):
Diller suffered a heart attack in 1999, and hasn’t done stand-up since being fitted for a pacemaker. However, she played “Gladys Pope” on the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful from 1999-2004, and continues to make talk show appearances. She’s also active in voiceover work, voicing the Queen in A Bug’s Life, and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nuttiest Nutcracker.
Stand-up, Broadway, TV, movies, voiceovers… Phyllis Diller is one talented lady. Happy 95th, Phyllis! Here’s to many, many more!
It could be argued that Letterman’s “Stupid Human Tricks”, sketches with Rupert from the deli across from The Late Show studio, and Leno’s “Jaywalking” segment can all be traced back to Mr. Steve Allen. Allen was, after all, the original host of The Tonight Show, the nationally-networked show born out of the locally-produced Steve Allen Show that Allen started in 1953. The Tonight Show, or Tonight! as it was originally titled, was America’s first foray into national, late-night programming, and Steve Allen’s gift for ad-libbing and performing were perfectly matched for the setting and the time period.
Allen left The Tonight Show in 1957 to concentrate on his prime-time program, again called The Steve Allen Show, which he had hosted since 1956 (that’s the show on which Elvis performed “Hound Dog”). In 1961 the show went from NBC to ABC, retitled as The New Steve Allen Show, and lasted one final season. He then hosted a syndicated program that aired in late-night, The Steve Allen Westinghouse Show, which was a particular favorite of a young David Letterman during his college years. The program ran from 1962-64, and was by Allen’s account, “the wildest talk show ever done.” It was on The Steve Allen Westinghouse Show that Allen’s pranks and sketches, some of which he developed on his earlier programs, really blossomed.
In his 1997 Archive Interview, Allen recalls the origins of The Steve Allen Westinghouse Show:
Describes a memorable elephant tug-of-war sketch:
Discusses the giant tea-tank bit (later recreated by David Letterman):
And details how he began his prank/funny phone calls:
Late-night today is infused with the legacy of Allen’s sketches. Who’s got a “Stupid Pet Trick” to show off?
On May 22, 1992, Johnny Carson’s record-setting thirty-year reign as host of The Tonight Show came to an end. Carson took over The Tonight Show from predecessor Jack Paar on October 1, 1962, and over the next three decades delighted the world with “Carnac the Magnificent” skits, the wedding of Tiny Tim, and the national debuts of young comics Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld. Carson left The Tonight Show twenty years ago today, and many would argue that every late-night host since has been trying to fill his shoes.
Bette Midler was a regular on the program, and memorably appeared as the last guest on Carson’s Tonight Show:
Many of the Archive’s interviewees worked on or appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Have a look as they reflect upon the show’s thirty-year run and gracious host.
Sidekick Ed McMahon on the legacy of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson:
For years he was Jay Leno’s right-hand-man, on both The Tonight Show and the short-lived Jay Leno Show. Though Kevin Eubanks may best be known as the former Tonight Show with Jay Leno bandleader, he’s also an accomplished musician in his own right. He attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, plays the piano, violin, guitar, and trumpet, and has recorded several albums. Oh, and he’s appeared on Muppets Tonight, Hollywood Squares, and Days of Our Lives.
Eubanks discusses his easy rapport with Jay Leno in his 2011 Archive interview:
Phyllis Diller was interviewed for the Archive of American Television in 2000 about her long career in comedy, both on TV and the stage. Her trademark cigarette, fright wig, and of course, that iconic laugh were all discussed during her three-hour interview by Fred Wostbrock. We’ve selected some short clips from Phyllis about her tricks of the trade, and advice to young comics (not “comediennes”, she prefers “comic”!) and just how the heck to be funny after all these years.
Phyllis Diller’s advice to aspiring comics:
On her iconic laugh:
On the difference between being a comedic actress and a “COMIC”:
On why she always held a prop cigarette:
On why she picked on “Fang” and how he became a standard bit in her act:
In her Archive interview, Suzanne Somers discusses her early years as a single mother and struggling model/actress. When she landed a small but memorable role in the feature film American Graffiti it led to appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and her casting on Three’s Company. Somers describes being mentored by Three’s Company producer Michael Ross and star John Ritter and how she came to grasp the essence of comedy acting. She speaks frankly about the pitfalls of her meteoric rise to stardom, which eventually resulted in her exit from Three’s Company. She then speaks about her subsequent work as a Vegas headliner, author, and star of 1990s sitcom Step By Step. Suzanne Somers was interviewed in Malibu CA on July 15, 2009; Stephen J. Abramson conducted the two-hour interview.
Starting tonight, Jay Leno returns to his Tonight Show berth, continuing the hosting duties he initially began in 1992. The Tonight Show’s long history started with Steve Allen (photo, left), who hosted the local WNBT-TV Tonight from June of 1953, going national on September 27, 1954. When Allen launched a prime time series in the summer of 1956, he cut back his Tonight hosting to Wednesday through Friday, and a series of guest hosts did the Monday-Tuesday hosting (eventually Ernie Kovacs took this on permanently) until January 1957. When Allen left, a “new” format emerged, a news magazine-type show (akin to the Today show) called Tonight! America After Dark, which lasted until July 1957 when The Jack Paar (Tonight) Show debuted. Following Paar was a six month interim Tonight Show that ran from April to September 1962 with guest hosts, until future “King of Late Night” Johnny Carson (photo, right) became a TV icon hosting The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992.
Little known today is the show that launched NBC’s late night programming: Broadway Open House. This variety series began on May 29, 1950 and ran from 11 PM to 12 Midnight. The initial hosts were Jerry Lester (Tuesday, Thursday, Friday) and Morey Amsterdam (Monday, Wednesday). The loosely formatted undertaking is described by The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows thusly: “Stars were invited to drop in and chat, or perform if they felt like it, and the regulars performed in comedy skits, songs, and dances.” Broadway Open House aired its final show on August 24, 1951. Between Broadway Open House’s demise and Steve Allen’s Tonight, NBC filled the late night time slot with the occasional special, such as several productions under the banner of NBC Opera Television Theatre.
Long before the Conan O’Brien-Jay Leno hubbub of the last several weeks, there was a much more famous and dramatic exit of a Tonight Show host: Jack Paar.
Fifty years ago today, following his monologue, Jack Paar walked out on The Tonight Show (with his tearful utterance: “…there must be a better way of making a living than this”). Paar had been angered over a joke that had been “bleeped” by the network and on February 11, 1960 announcer Hugh Downs was left to contend with the hosting duties. A few weeks later, Jack Paar returned to the show and remained until 1962.
“They showed a shot of me looking astonished and I explained to the audience why I looked astonished because I didn’t know he was going to leave when he left. I knew he was going to leave, but I didn’t know how soon.”
Audio of Paar’s walk out speech as posted on You Tube:
A pop culture moment in TV occurred when singer Tiny Tim married Victoria Mae “Miss Vicki” Budinger on December 17, 1969 on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Tiny Tim had gained prominence for his odd appearance and falsetto voice, playing the ukulele and singing such songs as “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” When he mentioned to Johnny Carson that he was engaged, Carson casually suggested that he should get married on the show. In what certainly came off as a publicity stunt, the two were married in front of an audience of millions of TV viewers.