Jack Paar: selective memories Preview: What's best about 'As I Was Saying' is what remains unsaid. Ignore 'history' and let TV nostalgia take over.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"What's it like doing 'The Tonight Show?' It's a traumatic experience," Jack Paar says.

"Traumatic experience is a psychiatric term that I've recently learned. It means I not only have a hole in my head, but when the wind blows, I hear flutes."

Paar, the performer who invented the late-night format for which Johnny Carson is often credited, did seem to be tuned to a frequency all his own. The conventional wisdom today is that the high-strung and openly emotional Paar "lived his life on television."

You'll hear that pseudo-psychological analysis in "Jack Paar: As I Was Saying..." tonight at 9 on PBS. It comes from the program's producer, Michael Macari. Ignore it.

Also, ignore anything that sounds like sociology, and you will have a lovely two-hour trek down memory lane courtesy of public television's "American Masters" series.

The film clips are a delight, and, if you're a boomer or beyond, they'll transport you to a fondly remembered black-and-white past. Paar was the host of "The Tonight Show" (1957-1962) and a weekly variety program (1962-1965) before going into semi-retirement with only an occasional special the past three decades.

But don't kid yourself. This is nostalgia, not television history. It's an appreciation, not the documentary that PBS claims it to be. It will leave you with a warm feeling for Paar and a melancholy sense that something important has been lost from American life. But it's mainly feelings, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, feelings.

The clips do push those emotional buttons, though. There are clips with Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy making appearances on Paar's show during the 1960 election, which might come as a shock to the political analysts who still think Bill Clinton plowed virgin land in 1992 by taking his campaign to "The Tonight Show" and "The Arsenio Hall Show." Viewers of "As I Was Saying..." will see Nixon playing the piano with all the talent Clinton brought to the saxophone for Hall's show.

The best clips, though, involve performers like Judy Garland. In a show filmed in London -- yes, some 40 years before Dave took his show all the way to Washington, Jack went to such places as London and Africa -- Garland tells a marvelous story about

Marlene Dietrich and the legendary actress' seemingly boundless capacity for self-absorption.

The conversational cake is iced by Garland sharing a catty aside about Dietrich, which she says was whispered to her by none other than Noel Coward, the big cat himself.

And, through it all, Garland is slurring her words. She's loaded, and you wonder if she'll finish the story or go to pieces right before your eyes.

The crack-up factor when Garland and Paar sit down to talk is through the roof. They both heard flutes when the wind blew.

Pianist Oscar Levant heard them, too. And viewers will hear Paar asking the chain-smoking Levant what he does for exercise.

"I stumble and then I fall into a coma," Levant snarls as he flicks an ash off his cigarette.

As great as such filmed moments are, though, the package in which they are wrapped is full of holes. The worst problem is the narrow range of voices gathered by the producers to talk about Paar.

There's a couple of blah-blah-blah snippets from Bill Cosby, but most of the rest comes from five sources: Paar, "Tonight Show" director Hal Gurnee, sidekick Hugh Downs, writer Paul Keyes and Hy Averback, a friend from Paar's USO days in World War II. It is virtually all "misty, water-colored memory" talk of the way they were with what appears to be no research to check recollections.

For example, in stressing how Paar helped African-American comedians like Godfrey Cambridge and Cosby launch their careers, Gurnee tells a story about Paar wanting to see Cambridge work before a black audience instead of "The Tonight Show" audience, which Gurnee characterized as "mostly white."

"So," Gurney says, "we went down to Morton State, a black university in the South ..."

There is no Morton State. There's a Morgan State, a historically black university way down yonder in Baltimore. Maybe Gurnee was thinking of Gary Morton, the former producer of "The Tonight Show," for whom he once worked.

Whatever he was thinking, the fact that it wasn't checked gives you some sense of how concerned the producers are with verifying what they are told.

This is PBS giving the guys who made the show free rein to tell you what it all meant. And, shock of shocks, they tell you it was landmark, the likes of which we will never see again.

What's been lost, we are lead to believe, is what executive producer Susan Lacy calls "intelligent, volatile, witty conversation."

I don't know if that's true. I think it fits too neatly with the "coarsening-of-our-culture" and "dumbing-down-of-America" hypotheses so favored by those who seem to most resent new voices of diversity being added to the national conversation.

Personally, I can live with the crudeness of Madonna's language, if she succeeds in effectively exposing David Letterman's sexism. How much worse is Courtney Love on heroin than Judy Garland on uppers, downers and booze?

I love Jack Paar. Who couldn't love a guy who makes his tearful, farewell speech on "The Tonight Show" with his German shepherd sitting at his side for emotional ballast? Yes, that fabulous clip, too, is here tonight.

But I hate the hip-shot, pop analysis and lack of historical standards in this program. This is an important part of our cultural history, and we deserve more than just feelings and fleeting images from public television.

'As I Was Saying'

When: 9 tonight

, Where: WMPT, Channels 22, 67

Pub Date: 5/07/97

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