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'The Jack Paar Collection'

Cover for <i>The Jack Paar Collection</i> DVD (Shout! Factory/Sony Wonder 2004)
Cover for The Jack Paar Collection DVD (Shout! Factory/Sony Wonder 2004)

Leno and Letterman have had their moments, and Carson is growing ever funnier in memory, but they're all just pretenders to the throne. The guy who first made late-night television safe for insomniacs is still the king, and happily, he's back for 384 minutes of laughs and snappy conversation in what proves to be a stellar "Best Of" collection.

He's brought some buddies with him -- Jonathan Winters losing his mind, Jack Kennedy losing his hauteur, Judy Garland just losing it. We get to see Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, both barely out of their teens, Fidel Castro waxing charming, and Richard Nixon sounding almost human.

Some of the celebs get coaxed into stunts: Liberace is persuaded to sit down at a piano and decorate Cassius Clay's poetic boasts with arpeggios, and Bette Davis, croaking with laryngitis and smoking like a chimney, gamely demonstrates how to do a Bette Davis impersonation.

Mostly, though, these folks just talk -- establishing that there was once a time when stars knew how to converse on topics unrelated to their latest movies/books/records. That their host actually sounds interested has a good deal to do with why the conversation sparkles some four decades later.

Paar's tastes were as eclectic as his guests were varied, so he knew what to ask Billy Graham about evangelizing, and how to coax Richard Burton (who looks like an overgrown choirboy) into cracking up the crowd with drinking stories and slightly bawdy Churchill anecdotes.

Watch 'em and weep... and wonder at the 40-year progression of the late-night talk show -- from a place where its inventor thought audiences would be intrigued if he popped down to Havana and talked to Fidel Castro (beating out the rest of American broadcasting and most of America's diplomats) about his kids and the state of the Cuban revolution, to a place where Ben Affleck gets interviewed about his breakup with J-Lo.

What's Included: The first of the set's three discs contains an hour-long PBS documentary that does a decent job of placing Paar in context for those who don't know him, as well as clips from interviews and reminiscences by folks who knew him well.

Disc 2 features what are billed as the host's favorite monologues, plus six full-length interviews from The Jack Paar Program, including Robert Kennedy’s first public appearance after the death of his brother, President John F. Kennedy.

Disc 3 has three complete shows that let the host display his trademark wit as he chats with the likes of Winters, Burton (there's a bonus bit of his Broadway Hamlet), Davis, Cosby, Garland, Robert Morley and Arthur Godfrey.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.