Don't Look Back

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I
have an idea for a book. You may be able to help me. I’m looking
for stories of truly money-transferring entrepreneurial decisions:
in business, government, sports, etc. Such a decision should be
in the category of company-changing for both the beneficiary and
the loser. The all-time example from sports is the Boston Red
Sox’s decision to sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. A classic
example in the entertainment industry is Sam Phillips’ 1955 decision
to sell Elvis Presley’s contract to Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk
(aka "Col." Tom Parker) for $35,000. In business, IBM’s
decision to let Bill Gates keep the right to license what became
DOS has to be the biggie of our generation. If you have a favorite
— one that is reasonably well known in a particular field
send
it to me
, with a link or two to Web sites that describes it.

In
this report, I discuss one such decision, the results of which
are again in the news.

JOHNNY
CARSON’S CAREER

The
death of Johnny Carson was a major story all over the English-speaking
world, as a Google search
indicates
.

Yet
he had been off the air for 13 years. He had become invisible — an
amazing feat for anyone with a face so recognizable.

The
BBC asked for written comments, some of which it published a couple
of hours later. I submitted this:

In
1955, I was 13. At 6:55 a.m., I would watch Johnny Carson, the
very funny weatherman, on local Los Angeles television. The show
was broadcast only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and lasted five
minutes. Then I ran to catch the school bus, which arrived two
blocks away at 7:05. It was worth the risk.

I
think I am right about the two-days-a-week schedule. But I can find
no reference on the Web to his brief career as a local weatherman.
It was part of the morning show, "Panorama Pacific." My
memory of Carson’s weather report, which was comedy more than weather,
has never faded. Neither has my memory of my twice-weekly race to
get to the school bus pick-up on time.

Carson’s
"Tonight
Show
" was an institution. On "The Today Show,"
which did a long segment on Carson on January 24, Matt Lauer said
that at one stage, "The Tonight Show" brought in 20% of
NBC TV’s revenue.

That
got me to thinking. Carson inherited the show in 1962 from Jack
Paar, who was not funny. Paar had inherited it in 1957 from Steve
Allen, who had invented the format. Allen was very funny.

I
want to talk about Steve Allen, and the example he set. Some things
we should copy. Others, not.

OH,
NO, STEVERINO!

In
1950, I had my own bedside tabletop radio. I was supposed to go
to bed around 8. But I would sometimes wake up around 11 p.m. and
turn on Steve Allen’s KNX radio show. I was eight years old.

By
then, Allen’s show was the #1 nighttime show in Los Angeles. Nobody
watched TV that late. He had begun with a half hour of music and
chatter, but he began to reduce the time devoted to music. Ratings
grew. People began showing up at the station. The show’s producer
moved Allen to a studio where people could watch it being broadcast.

The
show went to an hour, but KNX refused to pay him more money when
it doubled his time slot, so he thought of a way to fill the time
with less preparation. He began to invite Hollywood celebrities
to come on the show for an interview. They came to plug their latest
movies or records. His audience grew even more.

One
night, Doris Day failed to show up. Allen had 30 minutes to fill.
He picked up his microphone and went into the audience. He began
to interview people at random. He thought very fast on his feet,
and he made the interviews funny. He did it again another night.
It became part of his show’s format. Because the show was taped,
he could cut out weak stuff if he had to. This was basically his
"Man in the Street" format, which he used to great effect
with comic actors in the late 1950s: Don Knotts, Louis Nye, and
Tom Poston.

He
moved to New York City in late 1950, which disappointed me. He created
"The Tonight Show" as a local TV program in 1953, and
in 1954, NBC took it national. For three years, Allan perfected
the format: celebrity interviews, a live band, comics performing
routines. The format was perfect for his skills. He was a master
improviser.

In
mid-1956, he launched a weekly variety/comedy show, opposite Ed
Sullivan on Sunday nights, "The Steve Allen Show." For
six months, he did both shows. I cannot imagine how he did this.
Then, in early 1957, he resigned from "The Tonight Show."

His
weekly show survived longer than most comedy shows: four years.
A comedy show eats up scripts. It also eats up talent. The public
eventually gets bored. Bob Hope recognized this early and did only
specials. Allen’s career as a comedy star ended no later than 1960.
He did other shows and used other formats, but nothing ever achieved
the popularity of what he had done in the 1950s.

He
never stopped working. He wrote over 50 books, none of them a best-seller.
He wrote about 9,000 songs, which got him into the Guinness
Book of World Records
, but only one became a hit: The McGuire
Sisters’ 1956 version of the theme from Picnic.
He wrote the lyrics, but only after the instrumental version had
become a hit. ("South Rampart Street Parade" also did
OK.) He once wrote 400 songs in one day at a music festival in Michigan.
(radio
interview
) His work ethic was remarkable. In this sense, he
is a role model for anyone who values sheer output.

But,
in 1957, he walked away from an entertainment format that he invented,
brought to national TV, and bequeathed to his heirs.

As
an entrepreneur, he blew it. But he was also an artist, and I think
his desire to extend his comic abilities led him to abandon his
own creation, in which he was highly gifted. He had grown up in
Vaudeville, and his comedy show returned to his roots.

Beginning
five years after Allen quit "The Tonight Show," Carson
turned the format into a cultural phenomenon. Who knows if Allen
could have achieved this? Frankly, I doubt it. He was cerebral — an
intellectual. I’m not sure he could have held the attention of the
nation for three decades. I’m sure that the format couldn’t have
held his attention.

His
decision to walk away from a show that became an enormous revenue-generator
and a cultural phenomenon turned out to be the equivalent of a track
line spur that moves an engine into the boondocks: a sidetrack.
Allen never got back on track. It’s one thing to wind up like Dick
Cavett when you start out as a joke writer for Carson, as Cavett
did. It’s something else to begin as the equivalent of Carson and
then wind up like Dick Cavett.

Don
Knotts got his start on Allen’s show as one of the men in the street
Allen interviewed each week — the nervous one. "Are you nervous?"
Allen would ask. "No!" Knotts would respond, terror in
his eyes. That weekly skit led to the role of sheriff’s deputy Barney
Fife. By 1967, Knotts was one of the most famous comedians on television,
a four-time Emmy winner as best-supporting actor. Allen was not
quite forgotten, but he had faded from the scene.

Few
people ever have the talent that Steve Allen had.

Of
those who do, few ever get the opportunity to prove it. Almost no
one invents a format that is not only perfect for his own abilities
but perseveres after his departure. Hardly anyone’s invention produces
a flow of revenue comparable to what "The Tonight Show"
has produced, let alone its spin-offs and imitators.

Carson
made a huge fortune and quit while he was on top, as he had been
for 30 years. He spent the rest of his life on his yacht, seeing
places he wanted to see, and avoiding crowds, which he hated. That
makes sense to me. But Allen’s departure seems to me to be one of
those bad decisions about which I plan to write my book.

A
CONTENDER

One
of the most powerful dramatic dialogues in movie history was Marlon
Brando’s plea with Rod Steiger in the back seat of the car in "On
the Waterfront." His character, a broken down ex-prize fighter,
wails: "I coulda been a contender." He had thrown a fight
on command by his older brother, and he never got another chance
at the big time. Maybe he could have been a contender, but probably
not. He thought he could have been one, and this sense of loss weighed
heavily on him.

That
sense of loss weighs heavily on a lot of men, I think. It’s why
that scene gets shown, along with his "Stella!" wail,
whenever there is a TV show on Brando’s career. Men identify with
it. (Women are more likely to identify with the Stella wail. Note:
his famous phrase, "What do ya got?" he never actually
said. A character in "The Wild One" repeats what he had
said off-camera.)

Steve
Allen was more than a contender. He was more like a heavyweight
champion who surrenders his belt in his prime, loses twenty pounds,
becomes a light-heavyweight, does well, but finally retires after
a long series of exhibition fights at state fairs.

What
Allen and Carson did, what Jack Paar did, and what Jay Leno says
he will do in 2009 — retire from "The Tonight Show" — most
men cannot imagine doing. "Why quit while the money is rolling
in?" One reason is economics: so much money has already rolled
in, and so much time has rolled out. The trade-off between money
and time moves in favor of time.

LOOKING
BACK

I
never got the impression that Allen looked back at what might have
been. He probably did. But it did not affect his output. He kept
producing books and songs and scripts. The doing meant more to him
than the winning. This is a good attitude. I regard it as a morally
correct attitude. It keeps productive people at their work even
when measurable success doesn’t come. It keeps a truly productive
person from becoming paralyzed by the might-have-beens of life.

It’s
obvious that Carson never looked back. He wanted out of the spotlight
on his own terms, and he achieved it. He escaped the cameras and
the crowds.

I
think Carson made the right decision. I think Allen made a mistake.
Carson had developed an existing format, as well as his own skills,
to a level beyond which more creativity was unlikely to make any
visible difference. He maxed out.

Allen,
in contrast, had invented the format. He was just getting started
in 1957. He chose instead as the format for his talents the weekly
TV comedy show, which Ed Sullivan had adapted from Vaudeville, and
which would eventually fade as an entertainment medium. Bob Hope
saw its limitations from the beginning. In 1956, Milton Berle had
quit: the first headliner to become a headstone for the weekly variety
show format. No one was ever to survive that meat grinder of comedic
talent.

It’s
not that Allen missed out on great wealth. He was in it for the
laughs, including his own. He was legendary for breaking up in fits
of laughter on-camera. But what he created became a unique entertainment
format, one that has spread all over the world. He had at least
one eight-year-old kid listening in at midnight in 1950. He had
tens of millions of viewers watching in 1956. He had a gift for
making guests join in. And he could do what Carol Burnett did decades
later: interact with the audience and get laughs.

Allen
invented the format, developed it, got a huge audience for it, and
abandoned it. I hope he didn’t worry about his career’s might-have-beens.

THAT
OTHER MIGHT-HAVE-BEEN

What
hardly anyone knows is that there was a fifth figure in the history
of "The Tonight Show," a shadowy figure. Jack Paar was
not NBC’s first choice to replace Allen. The initial replacement
was a sacrificial lamb from the sports division, who could not handle
it. He bombed. His name is so obscure that it belongs in Trivial
Pursuit. Even I don’t remember it. But he was not the shadowy fifth
man.

NBC
executives went on a hunt to find a replacement for Allen. They
sent headhunters all over the country. One of them discovered a
radio broadcaster in Cincinnati who seemed promising. The headhunter
made him an offer to come to New York, which he did. NBC offered
him Allen’s job. But there was one snag. They had recruited Jack
Paar from CBS TV’s news show at noon. Paar was supposed to be given
his own show. This never worked out. NBC had him under contract,
so they offered him "The Tonight Show" as a kind of honorable
mention. They didn’t think he would take it. They were wrong.

This
left the Cincinnati guy out of the running. He had quit his job
in Cincinnati. He liked New York, and he thought he would stay.
He got a job at WOR radio: a late-night monologue talk show. His
name was Jean Shepherd
.

Jean
Shepherd
is not a household name outside of New York City, but
he gave us a phrase that we all know: "You’ll
shoot your eye out, kid!" He wrote and narrated A
Christmas Story
(1983).

He
did the most creative radio show I ever heard, 45 minutes a night,
five nights a week, commenting on everything under the sun. I used
to listen in the mid-1960s when I lived near Philadelphia, and again
in the early 1970s, when I lived 20 miles north of New York City.

Night
after night, he verbally re-created a boys-eye-view of northern
Indiana during the Great Depression. What Shepherd did for Hammond,
Indiana, Bill Cosby did for Philadelphia. Cosby used his stories
as a launching pad for a billion-dollar career. Shepherd never rose
to Cosby’s financial heights.

If
I were to name America’s greatest humorists, the list would be short:
Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Jean Shepherd. Dave Barry would be
fourth. Barry is very funny, and a great critic of contemporary
nonsense. But Shepherd was more than funny. He re-created a world
that had been lost by 1960, a boys’ world that centered around kids
radio shows and buddies and pick-up ball games. Television and video
games have destroyed that world. What we read in In
God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash
and Wanda
Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories
is gone forever. It was
a good world. I know of nothing that preserves it better than the
best of Shepherd’s stories. A
lot of his radio shows are for sale.
They should all be in the
Library of Congress.

If
Shepherd had gotten "The Tonight Show," he might have
made it work. Carson would not be remembered, nor would Paar. But
then we would not have the stories of Flick and Schwartz and Scutt
Farkas and the Bumpus family. I’m selfish. I’m glad he didn’t get
"The Tonight Show."

When
you think about it, what do we have left of "The Tonight Show"?
A few vague memories of Carson’s eye-rolling. A few lines from Karkac,
a routine that had been created by Allen in 1958: "The Question
Man." A few classic scenes. He came into the living rooms and
then the bedrooms of tens of millions of people for three decades.
He absorbed more time of more people than anyone in mankind’s history.
What does mankind have to show for it?

Yet
in his final radio broadcast, in late 1999, as a guest on Alan Colmes’
talk show, Shepherd made it clear that he didn’t think much of his
own radio work. Like many highly talented people, he had regrets.
He did not seem to appreciate just how much joy he gave to his audience,
and what a unique cultural contribution his stories had made for
those who listened to him. It wasn’t what he hadn’t done that constituted
his regret — "The Tonight Show" — but the work that he had
done, which he regarded as of marginal value. That’s a sad end to
a great humorist’s career in a medium that was perfect for him.
Radio allowed him to create verbal images of the past in the same
way that actors did for Little Orphan Annie in Shepherd’s youth.
There was no TV screen to intrude on our far more creative imaginations.

SECOND
CHANCES

Allen
got second and third chances. They never panned out as "The
Tonight Show" did for his successors. Shepherd missed his big
chance at fame and fortune, but got his radio show. In retrospect,
this did not impress him, but it impressed a lot of us at the time.

Allen
did not let his decision paralyze him. Shepherd in 1999 was still
looking forward to new projects, which were not fulfilled. He died
in 2000. Both of them kept writing. Each of them was determined
not to let his talents atrophy. Neither of them looked back at what
might have been, as far as the public could tell.

Because
of this, their early successes were not first chances. They were
stepping-stones. But stepping-stones can go in directions that we
do not foresee. That’s basic to stepping-stones. That’s basic to
entrepreneurship.

Some
people, myself included, see Allen’s stepping stone in 1957 as a
sidetrack. I don’t see Shepherd’s missed opportunity as a sidetrack.
The point is, the past really is past. We know this intellectually,
but emotionally, we have trouble coping. Allen coped very well.
So did Shepherd.

CONCLUSION

If
you can fit your talents into a format that makes you a skilled
practitioner, and if you really like what you practice, you are
a success. If you think you can do better, as Allen thought in 1957,
then you may want to take on an uncertain future and change tracks.

Allen
did one thing really wisely: he tested the new track. He did "The
Steve Allen Show" for six months before he quit "The Tonight
Show." This was sensible. It’s also a rare opportunity. Most
people must choose one or the other.

Men
who quit their day jobs for a shot in the dark are rolling the dice.
I don’t recommend it. If you can test the waters on evenings and
weekends, it’s wiser.

But
I do recommend making the change if you feel stifled. If you think
your present job is holding you back, then it’s time to start making
plans to get out.

However,
do this first. Vow to yourself beforehand that if you fall flat,
you won’t look back in regret. Falling flat once is not the same
as failure. But looking back after falling flat is a sure-fire program
for both failure and lifelong regret.

No
matter who you are or what you do, you are making an impression.
It may not seem to be much, but it contributes its bit to the sweep
of history. Regrets are basic to life. "Woulda, shoulda, coulda"
haunts us all. But our regrets should be guidelines to better decisions
next time. They should teach us lessons. If they don’t, then they
are excess baggage. Forget about it.

January
27, 2005

Gary
North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.freebooks.com.

Gary
North Archives

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