Catching Up With 'Steverino,' TV's Pioneering Comedian

Steve Allen is no longer a television mainstay, a comedian nonpareil who wows audiences with his flair for improvisation. But that doesn't mean this multitalented performer is looking for things to do. "I do 12 things every day," says a still-vigorous Mr. Allen, in whose honor public television stations are airing a tribute this weekend.

Vigorous? We also should throw in prolific: Allen just completed his 49th book, "Die Laughing" (Kensington Publishers), a comedy-driven mystery that stars who else but Allen and his wife of more than 40 years, the actress Jayne Meadows. He has also written a Guinness-record-like total of 6,500 songs and produced more than 40 jazz albums.

"I've only written one song so far today," he says almost sheepishly during a recent interview. As host of "The Steve Allen Show," which ran on and off from 1948 to 1971, he often performed commercials while playing the piano. But now he has written an unbelievable number of songs. How does he do it?

Well, Allen says, he sits down at his piano in the morning and then gets this "impossible to define" feeling. "That's when I turn on my tape recorder and start recording what I play. The more promising ones will make it onto one of my new albums." Allen, who was a vocalist before he became a comedian, also regularly performs concerts with city orchestras across the country.

Allen, a.k.a. "Steverino," first rose to national prominence in the early 1950s as host of "The Tonight Show," which he created for television in 1953 (no, it wasn't Jack Paar or Johnny Carson). This one show not only launched the careers of such legendary comedians as Jonathan Winters, Andy Williams, and Don Knotts, but it also revolutionized television. He relished his role as the show's host, becoming a master ad-libber and an ambidextrous host who could belt out a song, perform in a skit, and interview a guest all at the same time.

Allen even started off shows outside the studio with "man on the street" interviews that are regularly copied by talk-show hosts today. His laugh alone - a warm, almost giddy chortle - could bring the house down.

"He had so much confidence in himself that he didn't have to act," says Herb Sargent, a writer for Allen's "Tonight Show." "Even though I shouldn't say this, I think he could have done the show without writers," says Mr. Sargent, who is president of the Writers Guild of America. "Working with him was the best experience I've ever had in television, including my days working at 'Saturday Night Live.' "

Allen isn't just a former talk-show host. He also developed the award-winning PBS show "Meeting of the Minds," which ran from 1977 to 1981 and featured interviews with some of the great people in history. Of course, actors stood in.

"For example, Mrs. Meadows played Joan of Arc," recalls Niki Vettel, a longtime fan. "What kind of mind would come up with that great of an idea? An endlessly curious mind, one that is always exploring new things."

Ms. Vettel is also senior vice president of program development at American Program Service, which sells programs to public television stations, and she has just finished producing "Steve Allen's 75th Birthday Celebration." "I couldn't believe there had never really been a tribute show done for him," says Vettel. "So we decided to make one."

Allen says he's pleased with the special, an all-star tribute to the comedian that features Bob Hope, Billy Crystal, and Milton Berle, among others. "For one thing, my mother is shown doing a great routine with me," he says, "and [Ted] Koppel [of 'Nightline'] actually laughs," he cracks, right on cue.

Allen has still got it - that comedic timing that has made him a television legend. And by the way, his 50th book - a more serious offering on the black-white issue in America - should be out soon.

* 'Steve Allen's 75th Birthday Celebration' will be shown on public television stations Dec. 6, 8-9:30 p.m. Check local listings.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.