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Shout Factory presents
The Jack Paar Collection (2004)

Jack Paar: They don't understand how we do the show. We just keep talking with no script.
Judy Garland: I know. It's agony.

- from The Jack Paar Program, taped in London and broadcast on December 11, 1964

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: April 07, 2004

Stars: Jack Paar, Richard Burton, Bill Cosby, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Jonathan Winters, Robert Morley, The Smothers Brothers, Arthur Godfrey, Liberace, many more
Director: Hal Gurnee

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 07h:00m:00s
Release Date: March 30, 2004
UPC: 826663476699
Genre: television


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ AB-C C+

DVD Review

Before Jay Leno, David Letterman, and even Johnny Carson, there was Jack Paar. A mildly successful comedian who honed his skills on radio, TV, and in B movies (most notably in the 1951 farce Love Nest that also featured a blossoming Marilyn Monroe), Paar revolutionized television by creating the phenomenon of late-night entertainment when he became the host of The Tonight Show in 1957. With a simple set consisting of two swivel chairs and a podium microphone, Paar crafted an infectious atmosphere of edgy unpredictability that remains a genre staple today. Viewers accustomed to the scripted nature of most TV programming in the 1950s found themselves captivated by Paar's spontaneity, originality, candor, and controversial comments, and addictively tuned in merely to see what crazy things would happen next.

After only five years, however, Paar tired of the grueling late-night grind and handed the reins of Tonight over to Johnny Carson. His subsequent show, the weekly Jack Paar Program, continued in the same freewheeling vein, and the three-disc set, The Jack Paar Collection, culls many classic interviews and monologues from this highly entertaining and sophisticated series. Although late-night TV has become sillier and more mean-spirited since the days of Paar, it's amazing how little has changed in the last four decades (with the exception of pervasive on-air smoking), and how such superstars (and egotists) as Letterman and Leno still follow Paar's simple blueprint. In this case, that old adage really does apply: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Disc 1 consists of the hour-long 2003 documentary Jack Paar: Smart Television, which examines Paar's programs through extensive video clips and the reminiscences of such colleagues as Hugh Downs, Paar's announcer and sidekick; Dick Cavett, who was once a talent booker and writer for Paar's Tonight Show; Regis Philbin; television critic Tom Shales; and Paar's director, Hal Gurnee. The documentary provides only sketchy personal details, focusing instead on Paar's wit, intellect, mischievous nature, and supreme ability to "make things happen" on live TV. Who else would have dreamed of pairing Muhammad Ali and Liberace on the same program, and coaxed them into performing together? And how many hosts would have the gall to shuffle the cue cards on Judy Garland and Robert Goulet, forcing them to hilariously stumble and flub their way through a complicated duet? Paar took such risks and they paid off in huge ratings and substantial notoriety. This engrossing documentary captures the exhilarating flavor of the program and sets the stage for the meat and potatoes of this DVD set—uncut interviews, monologues, and entire episodes of Paar's series, which provide ample evidence of the man's brilliance.

Thirty years before Bill Clinton played his saxophone on Arsenio Hall's gabfest, Richard Nixon became one of the first political figures to reveal his lighter side on TV by tinkling the ivories on Paar's program in March, 1963. Disc 2 contains that sequence, as well as four expanded interviews with noteworthy political figures, and six of Paar's favorite opening monologues. Nixon often sounds like he's still out on the campaign trail, outlining his policies, pontificating on various issues, and criticizing the sitting administration. When Paar asks whether Kennedy can be defeated in '64, Nixon coyly responds, "Well, which one?" Other interviews feature the bizarre—but classic—pairing of Liberace and Cassius Clay (before he christened himself Muhammed Ali). The two engage in some playful verbal sparring, then join forces for an Ali poem set to Liberace's syrupy piano accompaniment. "This kid fights great; he's got speed and endurance," recites Ali, "but if you decide to fight him, increase your insurance." The Rev. Billy Graham discusses (and absolves) our "national guilt" just three weeks after the Kennedy assassination in early 1964, and only a few weeks later, Robert Kennedy unveils plans for the JFK Memorial Library and touchingly reminisces about his slain brother. The only tedious interview features Senator (and presidential candidate) Barry Goldwater prior to 1964's New Hampshire primary. Although dry and stilted much of the time, Goldwater shares a couple of amusing anecdotes about his unique friendship with President Lyndon Johnson, the man he hopes to unseat.

Paar's monologues take us back in time to a tense era when humor acted as a welcome tonic to dire Cold War prognostications. Topical, off-the-cuff, yet filled with an identifiable everyman whimsy, Paar's monologues remain fresh and funny today, and address issues that mainstream television in the early 1960s wouldn't have dared touch. An engaging raconteur, Paar drops names and relates familial incidents in the manner of Regis Philbin, but laces his stories with Johnny Carson's acerbic wit. Paar is always intelligent, but not above sinking to silly gags, which makes his appeal universal. Smart TV indeed.

Disc 3 contains three complete episodes of The Jack Paar Program, giving viewers a marvelous sense of the show's spontaneity and flavor. The first—originally broadcast in November 1962—features a regal Bette Davis (suffering from a severe case of laryngitis) discussing her current hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and the venomous nature of gossip columnists (Walter Winchell in particular). The most amusing segment, however, finds Davis conducting an impromptu seminar (with Paar and fellow guests Jonathan Winters and singer Gisele MacKenzie) on how to smoke like Bette Davis. The screen diva madly puffs on her cigarette while swinging her elbow and shouting the name "Petah!" to the supreme delight of the audience. The second episode (from May 1964) offers up a jovial interview with Richard Burton (and includes an extended clip from the actor's legendary stage performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet), a comic monologue from a very young Bill Cosby, and a chat with TV staple Arthur Godfrey.

The final episode, which aired in December 1964, was taped at the Palladium in London. Paar wittily (and, at times, awkwardly) addresses the differences between Brits and Yanks in his monologue, but the real fun begins when a deliciously catty Judy Garland recounts a hilarious story involving Marlene Dietrich proudly unveiling her new record album to an intimate gathering of friends. ("It was just applause," Garland dryly observes.) Despite a raw throat, Garland belts out two standards, but in this instance her vocals can't match her outrageous comments and self-deprecating anecdotes. (It's a shame, though, that Paar's 1962 program featuring Garland and Robert Goulet—widely considered one of his finest—was not included in its stead.) Few celebrities can successfully follow Garland, so it's no wonder subsequent segments with actor Robert Morley and Randolph Churchill (son of Sir Winston) suffer by comparison.

Worried he had worn out his welcome and afraid of becoming stale, Paar walked away from TV in 1965 at the height of his fame. He would return sporadically over the next few decades for assorted specials and retrospectives, but not nearly often enough. Next to Carson's 30 years, Paar's five late-night seasons seems like a mere blip on television's radar screen, but his contributions to the medium remain enormous. Sadly, Paar died this past January, but this DVD collection finally gives him the comprehensive tribute he always deserved, but never received.

Cavett terms Paar "a meteor who came and went," while Downs sums up the man this way: "Paar was real, and that's what he'll be remembered for." And this excellent three-disc set makes sure he won't be easily forgotten.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Considering these programs are 40 years old and have not undergone any noticeable restoration, The Jack Paar Program looks very good indeed. Although surface wear is often evident, long stretches are remarkably pristine, with heavy grain the only element that compromises picture quality. The documentary on Disc 1 remains crisp and vibrant throughout, and while image quality varies on the original episodes and clips, the material is always watchable, and the content far overshadows any print deficiencies.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The source material lets us down here. The original mono audio has not aged particularly well, with plenty of hiss and surface noise clouding the track, and remastering it in stereo merely augments the flaws. A sharp tinny quality is also prevalent throughout, although the conversations remain clear and easily comprehendible. No such problems exist on the Smart Television documentary, except during the vintage clips.

Audio Transfer Grade: C

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Picture Disc
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Although Discs 2 and 3 could be considered "extras" unto themselves, the only bona fide supplemental material is included on Disc 1. A combination of outtakes from the Smart Television documentary and clips from Paar's program, the 11 entries enhance the already substantive material on the other discs, despite a few unfortunate duplications. The Smothers Brothers reminisce about how Paar exposed them to their first national TV audience; Dick Cavett recalls the circumstances leading up to Paar hiring him; Jonathan Winters recounts how he impersonated President Kennedy during a phone call to an utterly hoodwinked Paar; and Hugh Downs and Regis Philbin chronicle how Paar quit The Tonight Show on the spur of the moment. Four of the six program excerpts can be found in their entirety elsewhere in the set, but the remaining two are worthwhile—Vaughn Meader performing his hysterical impersonation of JFK, and Hugh Downs guesting on The Jack Paar Program and strolling down memory lane with Paar about some of their outrageous Tonight Show experiences.

Extras Grade: C+

 

Final Comments

Fans of classic TV, popular culture, political history, and Hollywood celebrity will find a wealth of fascinating material in The Jack Paar Collection. The three-disc set honors the father of late-night television by presenting some of his finest work, but leaves viewers clamoring for more. Here's hoping this volume will be the first in a series of Paar DVDs—and that his contributions won't be soon forgotten. Highly recommended.

 


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