Thursday, January 29, 2015

Joe Franklin RIP

Long before late night television became a big money battlefield, most late night TV was local (even the mother of all late night talk shows, Tonight, began as a local NYC show in 1954). While Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson hosted Tonight between 1954 to 1992, here in NYC one guy had them beat for longevity: Joe Franklin, who hosted his own eponymous late night  show from 1950 to 1993, mostly on WOR. Many credit Joe Franklin for really inventing the TV talk show as we know it.

His show was wacky -- and totally New York. Joe Franklin did not have a band or do an opening monologue. Instead, he sat behind a desk, with a gigantic microphone sticking into his face, and interviewed a parade of eclectic guests, including movie stars, US presidents, rock bands, plate twirlers, restaurant owners, and men dressed as tomatoes (as some have called them, they were the greats, the near-greats, the not-so-greats, the ingrates, and the never-weres).  Joe Franklin interviewed an 18-year old Julia Roberts, interviewed Ronald Reagan five times (before he was president), and was one of the first shows to feature Bette Midler and Barbra Steisand. He was so admired by Billy Crystal that Crystal did several sketches imitating Joe Franklin on "Saturday Night Live." (In the 1970s and 1980s, when WOR was a "superstation" carried on cable systems around the country, Joe Franklin was technically national.)

Joe Franklin was New York. His carried the city in his voice and his show seemed to reflect the city in its glamor and grit, its highs and lows, its beauty and strangeness, the fact that this was a city of the rich and famous as well as the ordinary and totally weird. Honestly, his show's production values were little better than public access but that was part of its charm -- it was low-rent and democratic, just like NYC used to be.

As a kid, I recall seeing Joe Franklin a few times, usually during the summer or during school vacations, when I was allowed to be up at 1 AM or whatever un-Godly hour his show was on. There was something so reassuring about his manner, you felt like you had a friend at that time of night who was looking out for you. He was great.

Joe Franklin died a few days ago at the age of 88 and, like the New York that his show used to broadcast to on those late nights, he will be missed.

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