When Johnny Carson decided to leave The Tonight Show, he gave America one year’s notice. But when Carson’s predecessor, Jack Paar, made his most famous exit, viewers had no warning at all. What sent Paar out the door was, simply, a joke — a joke that contained one phrase so faintly, quaintly off-color that these days it wouldn’t even bring a blush to Bob Hope’s cheeks. On Feb. 10, 1960, NBC censored Jack Paar’s reference to a ”WC,” or water closet, during his Tonight Show monologue.
”Paar was really pissed off,” recalls his then-sidekick, 20/20’s Hugh Downs. ”He called a press conference the next day and announced he was going to do something really horrendous that night.” How would the host of America’s late-night institution, on which he had starred for 2 1/2 years, get the last bitter laugh? Before the taping, Downs cornered Paar in his dressing room. ”He was pacing back and forth, and finally said, ‘I’m leaving the show, Hugh.’ I assumed he’d tape the show and make a dramatic announcement at the end.”
But the end came 87 minutes early. Just as Carson later built his reputation on unflappability, Paar built his on I-could-blow-at-any-moment emotionalism, and that night, he blew. After a three-minute skewering of NBC over the censorship, Paar, in tears, said, ”There’s gotta be a better way to make a living,” and walked off the show. ”I was stunned,” says Downs. ”I was sitting on the couch, and I did the rest of the show from there. I didn’t want to move into his chair — that would look pretty nakedly ambitious.”
In the following weeks, network executives sought to soothe their burnt-up, burnt-out star, who returned to the show a month later with a better deal and remained its host for two more years. Paar, now 73 and living in Greenwich, Conn., went on to write books, but nothing became his career like his temporary departure: It solidified his image as the hottest head in entertainment’s coolest medium. ”Before then, there was a Pagliacci syndrome in show business,” says Downs. ”You know, smile though your heart is breaking. Well, Paar would cry if his heart was breaking, and people were fascinated. Those were great years,” he concludes. ”I wish Paar had enjoyed them more.”
Feb 11, 1960
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