What would have to happen for the host of ‘The Tonight Show’ to walk off on live TV? For Jack Paar, it was the removal of a single joke.
On Feb. 11, 1960, two years before Johnny Carson took over hosting duties on NBC’s The Tonight Show, Jack Paar was the host. That night, he did something unexpected. Overcome with anger and emotion, he walked off the show on live television. He left his co-host, Hugh Downs, to get through the rest of the program without him.
What set Paar off enough to make him leave the show — temporarily — turned out to be the network’s censorship of a joke he told the night before.
To say that standards of decency in 1960 were drastically different than they are today would be an understatement. But when you look at the joke the network decided to cut, you might have a hard time imagining what they could believe was so offensive.
But at 11:41 p.m. on that February night, Jack Paar walked off the show. He prefaced the walkout with criticism of NBC for removing the joke. He told the audience a man gave him the story after his niece gave it to him. His niece, a girl of about 13, heard it from her junior high school teacher, who told it in class and sent copies of the story home. That, he said, should have demonstrated how clean and innocent the joke was.
Reports about the omitted joke in the papers, he said, gave an unfair impression of the kind of joke it must have been.
“If you would read some of the newspapers who think that I had committed a terrible obscenity,” he said.
He called it a little story he thought was as funny as anything anyone ever gave him.
“I’m not going to go into it because they’ll cut me off again,” he said. “It is not at all in any sense of the word an obscene story.”
He acknowledged the story, perhaps, shouldn’t be appropriate at 8:00 on a Sunday night. But at the hour The Tonight Show aired, no one should raise an eyebrow at its content.
The joke involved a term you probably never heard of.
You might have a hard time imagining what it might take to get a network to actually cut a joke. These days, there seem to be few limits, even on broadcast network television.
When Lucille Ball became pregnant in 1953 during the run of I Love Lucy, CBS’s Program Practices Department prohibited the use of the word pregnant on the air. They could say she was “having a baby,” but “pregnancy” was out of the question.
A 1957 episode of Leave it to Beaver called for the use of a toilet. Wally and Beaver sent away for a pet alligator and they decided to keep it in the toilet tank. TV back then — and even well past that — didn’t show toilets on screen. The compromise was to show the tank without the actual bowl beneath it. How they actually used that bathroom remains a mystery!
It’s hard to believe nowadays television was ever that delicate. But with that context in mind, consider the joke that caused the uproar.
It focused on confusion over the term W.C. The initials stand for water closet, an obscure term for an indoor bathroom — a flush toilet.
You can read the full joke as Paar told it at this website. In a nutshell, an English woman, while preparing to move to a new place in Switzerland. But it dawned on her that she did not see a “W.C.” when she toured several rooms. She reached out to ask if there was one near the room she in which she would stay. The schoolmaster she wrote to, who was not that proficient in English, consulted a priest to determine what a “W.C.” meant.
They guessed incorrectly, and the answer to her question, based on their incorrect assumption of what she meant, provided the crux of the joke.
It wasn’t remotely “blue.” I can’t imagine the joke would offend anyone even in 1960.
But NBC chose to simply cut out the joke, showing a news insert instead, without telling Paar in advance.
Paar tearfully walks out.
Fighting back his emotions, he told his audience he made a decision about what he would do. Up until that point, only his co-host, Hugh Downs, knew what that decision was.
“My wife doesn’t know it but I’ll be home in time and I’ll tell her,” he said. “I’m leaving The Tonight Show.”
The audience’s reaction made it clear they did not want him to leave.
Earlier in his tirade, he said he asked the network’s executives to play the actual cut joke to show that he hadn’t attempted to run something obsecene. They refused.
“And I believe I was let down by this network at a time when I could have used their help,” he said.
One of the last things he said, right after announcing he would leave the program, was this: “There must be a better way of making a living.”
When he returned, he had an even better line.
Paar stayed off the show for almost a full month. He returned on the evening of March 7.
“As I was saying before I was interrupted,” he began, to large laughs from his audience. “I believe my last words were that there must be a better way of making a living than this.”
“Well, I’ve looked…” he said, to an even larger laugh, “…and there isn’t.”
Paar remained with The Tonight Show until March of 1962. When he left, they brought in a man named Carson…and the rest became its own chapter of television history.