• 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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