Late-night TV history: When a former Tonight Show host quit on-air

Promotional portrait of American television host Jack Paar (1918 - 2004) for the TV game show 'Bank On The Stars,' circa 1953. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Promotional portrait of American television host Jack Paar (1918 - 2004) for the TV game show 'Bank On The Stars,' circa 1953. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) /

There have been many hosts of The Tonight Show since the show’s premiere. Many today will recognize Jimmy Fallon, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien, and some may even be old enough to remember Johnny Carson. But it was Jack Paar who delivered perhaps the most memorable moment as a Tonight Show host.

The original host of The Tonight Show was Steve Allen, who debuted the show back in 1954. After a short stint as host (just over two years), Allen left to begin a primetime variety show. The next official host of The Tonight Show was Jack Paar.

Jack Paar hosted The Tonight Show from mid-1957 to early 1962. Paar took the show over and turned it into a massive success for NBC, but it almost ended prematurely.

Jack Paar’s most memorable moment as host of The Tonight Show

The most memorable moment of Jack Paar’s Tonight Show came from a controversy between him and NBC when the network censored a joke. In the joke, Paar used the term “water closet,” which is a flush toilet. Even by 1960s standards, this was overreaching censorship for what the joke was.

After the show when Paar was informed he was being censored by the network, he was not pleased. He returned the next day and did something no other talk show host had done: he quit on-air. Audio of Paar from the show where he announced his resignation still exists.

This was a huge decision by Paar. He was one of television’s biggest stars and he quit on-air. Imagine if that happened today. He’d be trending on every social media app and the internet would be shocked.

A few weeks later, Paar returned as host of The Tonight Show. When he did, he returned in memorable fashion. Paar went on to host the show for a couple more years, only gaining in popularity, before ultimately stepping down again due to the tiring work schedule.

Jack Paar’s influence on late-night TV

Unfortunately during that era television, shows were shot on kinescope and often after shows would air the kinescope would be destroyed. It wasn’t common to consider that the shows could be rebroadcast years later or preserved for history’s sake. Due to this, limited clips of the show are available online.

From what we can see of Jack Paar’s era as host is some influence that continues today. Comedy bits from his era seem to influence those of today. Before Clinton played saxophone on Arsenio in the early ’90s, Paar had Richard Nixon play piano.

Paar may be somewhat forgotten by today’s public due to time. But, he was a memorable television performer and grew the popularity of The Tonight Show. If he didn’t continue the show after Steve Allen left, would The Tonight Show exist today?