In one of the contemporary interviews on the three-DVD The Jack Paar Collection set, a former NBC page tells a story about Paar's appeal: On the night that the talk-show host famously walked off The Tonight Show's set, game-show mainstay Gene Rayburn reportedly watched, grumbling about Paar's pettiness and lack of talent. By the time Paar finished making his exit speech, Rayburn had let his cigarette burn down to ash, because he'd been too transfixed to smoke.
Of the current crop of talk-show hosts, only David Letterman and Regis Philbin can match Paar as a raconteur. Letterman especiallyin the golden time between the monologue and the first guest, when he riffs on found video and rants about show-business phoniescomes closest to doing what Paar did on The Tonight Show and The Jack Paar Program between 1957 and 1965. Paar's two NBC talk shows featured conversations with the biggest names in Hollywood and Washington, D.C., but they were also forums for Paar to air his gripes, launch crusades, and even show home movies, all with disarming humility and candor.
The Jack Paar Collection offers a fair sampling of its subject's work, via rough kinescopes of three full episodes of The Jack Paar Program, plus several more complete monologues and interviews from the show, as well as the hourlong PBS documentary Smart Television: The Best Of Jack Paar. Smart Television isn't as compelling as the more comprehensive 1997 American Masters documentary Jack Paar: "As I Was Saying..."the latter has comments from Paar himself, while the former doesn'tand not all of the lengthy show excerpts are top-drawer. The set includes examples of Paar interacting with Judy Garland and Jonathan Winters, but only a brief clip in Smart Television acknowledges Paar's importance to neurotic wit Oscar Levant, whose only consistent creative outlet was The Tonight Show.
But in a way, The Jack Paar Collection's hit-or-miss quality re-creates what watching TV 40 years ago must have been like. Paar packed his monologues with topical references, some lost to history (like feuds between congressmen) and some amusing because of historical hindsight (like Paar's soft mockery of Beatlemania). The host's relaxed, non-confrontational interviewing style frustrates when he's chatting up a politician or entertainer who might have had something more substantive to say, but when he gets Billy Graham talking about the national guilt after the Kennedy assassination, or Liberace and Cassius Clay collaborating on a poetry recital, it's hard to imagine why anyone around in the early '60s wouldn't have watched Paar religiously.