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TV History: Tonight & Berle

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Prof. Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2017. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

Arrival of Tonight and the Downfall of Berle

by Jarod Luedecker

Milton Berle was television’s first major star and enjoyed success when his show Texaco Star Theater was the number 1 show in America from 1948-1951 (Edgerton 114). However, Milton Berle was out of style by 1956 (Edgerton 119). Meanwhile, Steve Allen on Tonight was emerging as one of television’s top personalities. Despite the similarities between Milton Berle and Steve Allen’s shows, the differences between them reflect the changing attitude and needs of the television audience in the mid-1950s. My analysis of the accompanying clip will highlight the differences between the two shows. Furthermore, the analysis will illustrate that Tonight’s inventive yet familiar talk-show style pushed Berle’s vaudeville style out of the way, because the audience was ready to embrace the inventive style of a variety talk-show, illustrated in Tonight.
Tonight engages with many elements of the variety show that Berle uses in The Buick-Berle Show. Both of the shows thrive on the popularity and likeability of their hosts. Audiences tuned in to watch Milton Berle’s goofy antics or Steve Allen’s down-to-earth aura. Both shows utilize a variety of elements. For example, both The Buick-Berle Show and Tonight feature musical performances as shown in the video clips. Both of the shows feature a celebrity guest appearance with Zsa Zsa Gabor on Tonight and Mickey Rooney on The Buick-Berle Show.
Despite the similarities, the differences between the two shows highlight the inventive style of Tonight that audiences were beginning to embrace. First, Tonight was a late-night show, which most networks were not producing at the time (Edgerton 164). The opening of the show depicts New York City as a “hip, happening” spot (Edgerton 171). While many audiences were starting to prefer domestic sit-coms, Tonight is able to capture the glamour of urban live television.
The new time slot also introduced a new format that differed from The Buick Berle Show. In Tonight, there is no fictional narrative and little attempt to invent a “domestic space” (coined by Spigel). Steve Allen walks into the seating area of the crowd at the end of the show and freely engages with the audience. Audience members write cue cards, which Allen reads from at the start of the show. As a result, Tonight is a new participatory experience. While Milton Berle addresses the audience at the beginning of his show, the show makes a larger attempt to alternate between “the stage space and the domestic space” (Spigel 17). This is evident in the opening scene when a man throws a shoe at the television screen that appears to hit Berle. Therefore, The Buick Berle Show establishes both a story space and stage space, while Tonight functions largely with only the stage space. Tonight then appears to be less of a gag than The Buick Berle Show, and audiences must have preferred the shift to loosely scripted variety.
The Steve Allen show is loosely scripted as illustrated by the fact that one of the ping-pong players suddenly suggests that they play a game and Allen asks what score they should play to (4:04). The unscripted nature added to the thrill of watching live-television, and the audience embraced the change of pace from Berle’s repetitive gags. Due to Tonight’s unscripted nature, the show features much more “talk” rather than the fiction that The Buick-Berle Show employs. When Steve Allen brings his celebrities on the show, he has a conversation with them as shown by the interview with Zsa Zsa Gabor. In contrast, Mickey Rooney is integrated into the scripted storyline in The Buick Berle Show. Furthermore, Tonight even features a news segment which of course is not fiction. The contrast between unscripted and scripted shows illustrates Weaver’s attempt on Tonight to elevate mass culture. It seems that audiences started to prefer less fiction and higher brow entertainment.
Ultimately, Tonight became more popular because of its inventive and new format that both urban and suburban audiences were ready to embrace. Suburban audiences began to grow tired of Berle’s ethnic comedy that was “unabashedly Jewish” (Edgerton 125). The Buick-Berle Show was stuck in the old ways of television. It was considered “throwback humor” (Edgerton 115) and the scene with the secretary illustrates women’s misunderstanding of the language, just as Gracie Allen did in the 1930s with Gracie and Allen (Douglas 116). These points illustrate that The Buick-Berle Show was outdated.
In conclusion, Tonight presented a new variety talk show and audiences preferred the unscripted and loose style. Steve Allen had a softer demeanor compared to the faces that Berle makes at the beginning of his episode. Steve Allen played smooth jazz on the piano compared to the outdated vaudeville performance that Berle engages in during his episode. Therefore, the success of a completely different personality in Steve Allen, shows the audiences shifting preferences to a hip, nice host on a loose and fun talk-show.

Works Cited

Douglas, Susan. "Radio Comedy and Linguistic Slapstick." Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. N.p.: Random House, 1999. 100-23. Print.

Edgerton, Gary. Columbia Histories of Modern American Life : The Columbia History of American Television. New York, US: Columbia University Press, 2010. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 19 January 2017.

Spigel, Lynn. "Installing the Television Set: Popular Discourses on Television and Domestic Space, 1948-1955." Private Screenings. Ed. Denise Mann. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1992. 3-38. Print.

Tonight & The Buick-Berle Show

This clip contains excerpts from an episode of Tonight that aired on December 9, 1954, and excerpts from an episode of The Buick-Berle Show that aired on September 21, 1954.

from Tonight & The Buick-Berle Show (1954)
Creator: Steve Allen, Milton Berle
Distributor: Archive.org
Posted by Christine Becker
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