It’s been thirty years since June 30th, 1984, the day Alan Thicke called his “personal D-Day,” the day his talk show was cancelled, and the day his wife, singer Gloria Loring, filed for divorce. These days Alan Thicke has been doing pretty well for himself. He refers to himself as the “affordable Shatner,” and has a new reality show, Unusually Thicke. Plus, he’s still getting residual money from his TV themes.
To most, Alan Thicke is Jason Seaver from Growing Pains. To some, he’s a man who never gave his son Robin a decent rhyming dictionary. To others, he’s a theme song composer, personal friend of Robin Sparkles, and an omnipresent Canadian in media. And to just a few, he’s remembered as the host of Thicke of the Night, a failed attempt to eliminate Johnny Carson from the airwaves and one of the biggest flops in TV history. In honor of the thirty years since the cancellation, let’s take a trip to the Talk Show Graveyard and see what we can learn about it.
How it started:
Around 1982, Johnny Carson’s ratings were taking a nasty hit, as were all network ratings. The cable boom and the growing accessibility of video cassettes dropped viewership of the three networks dramatically. This did not make for happy affiliates, as their ad revenue for otherwise popular shows like Tonight were shrinking as the viewers scattered.
Noted TV executive Fred Silverman, who had recently been fired from NBC, knew through firsthand experience that Carson was more vulnerable than people believed. Now the president of his own production company, Silverman decided to create his own show to compete against Carson. Enter Alan Thicke. Prior to 1983, you’d be hard-pressed to find an American who knew Alan Thicke’s name or face, but almost everyone with access to television had seen shows he had produced, written, or composed the theme for.
We’ll start with the theme songs. Thicke wrote (and occasionally sang) over thirty TV theme songs. His three most notable were the old Wheel of Fortune theme, The Facts of Life theme (sung by his wife Gloria), and the Diff’rent Strokes Theme (where he contributes some vocals). Statistically speaking, you either watched one of these live or saw them on Nick At Night in syndication.
North of the border, however, Alan Thicke was a household name. He was the host of daytime talk show The Alan Thicke Show on CTV, one of Canada’s biggest networks. The show was massively popular: the Montreal Gazette referred to it as the “biggest success in the history of Canadian daytime programming.” Weekly highlights were broadcast in primetime under the name Prime Cuts. Here’s an example:
This snippit of Prime Cuts sees appearances by the Unknown Comic, Gil “Buck Rogers” Gerard, and hockey great Phil Esposito. Teased throughout the clip and shown in full at the end is the video for “Hockey Sock Rock,” featuring Espo on vocals, and the Unknown Comic, Gerard, and Thicke lip syncing backup. Three things that must be stressed about “Hockey Sock Rock:” A) it was written by Thicke, B) Sean McIndoe did a delightful breakdown of the video, and C) it was an actual record in real life that was sold in actual record stores. Its B-side was Marcel Dionne and the Triple Crown Line singing “Forgive My Misconduct,” a song made almost entirely of hockey puns.
Thicke was also known for his charity work. His son Brennan (AKA Not Robin) is diabetic, and Alan has done countless fundraisers for juvenile diabetes research.
In the late 1970s/early 1980s, Thicke acted as an unofficial celebrity liaison for the LA Kings hockey team. The Kings had poor attendance at the time and had no celebrity fans at the games, so Thicke helped arrange celebrity appearances in the crowd. NHL fans will tell you that this is still an important part of the LA Kings’ identity, as evidenced by this Pinterest board.
Behind the scenes, Thicke was one of the most sought after producers and writers in show business. He had written for everyone from Barry Manilow to Olivia Newton-John to Richard Pryor. Thicke was also a writer and producer for the Norman Lear parody talk show Fernwood 2Night, which later became America 2Night.
When Fred Silverman first set out to make a late night competitor to Carson, he wanted John Ritter (then on Three’s Company) to be host. It was Ritter’s idea to bring Thicke on as a producer. The project was halted when Ritter’s contract with ABC forbade his involvement. Silverman eventually got his hands on some tapes of The Alan Thicke Show and he determined that Thicke was the man for the job. Thicke originally planned to do both Thicke Of The Night and The Alan Thicke Show concurrently, but this proved to be impossible.
Thus began what may be the show’s only lasting legacy: the press campaign. In January 1983, Alan Thicke was introduced at an LA press conference as “The Second Coming of comedy.” During this conference Silverman declared that “[o]nly once in a decade does a comedy talent like this come along.” There were billboards, posters, interviews, ads, radio interviews–many emphasizing him as the man who would knock Carson off the air. All in all, Metromedia (the company distributing Thicke of the Night) spent one million dollars promoting the show (2.4 million in 2014 money) promoting Thicke of the Night, a show with an unknown host going against a TV institution.
While Silverman played the angle that this was going to be the show that knocked Carson off the air, Thicke himself knew that copying Carson would be career suicide, and pitched the show to the public as “alternative programming” that would shake up the format.
Thicke of the Night was sold in syndication to about 120 TV stations, and most opted to air it opposite Carson or Letterman. A handful of NBC stations ordered TOTN as well, most notably the Baltimore NBC affiliate, which dropped The Tonight Show to prepare for it. This makes Baltimore the only top twenty market to ever drop The Tonight Show at any time. (Check out the byline on the linked article; it’s an early-ish work by Bill Carter, author of The Late Shift and basically the go-to guy when it comes to talk show news.) WBFF–at that time an independent TV station, now the Baltimore Fox affiliate–showed Carson instead. Some NBC stations put TOTN after Carson, preempting Letterman instead.
On September 5th, 1984, Thicke of the Night premiered. The battle for late night had begun.
What it was like:
Alan Thicke wrote and performed the show’s theme song, which was released as a single:
The single’s B-side was called “Grandma”, a loving ballad about the singer’s grandmother that sounds way too much like it should be played at a funeral. The theme song was also covered by Al Jarreau. The show itself changed formats and looks many times over the course of its ten-month run, to the point where it’s nearly impossible to describe what it was like, but it always combined talk, sketches, and music.
The show included a cast of regulars who would act in sketches and perform as collective sidekicks to Thicke. The cast featured several hirings and firings throughout the show’s tenure, but it included Gilbert Gottfried, Richard Belzer, and Arsenio Hall. Both Hall and Belzer would go on to have their own talk shows as well–Arsenio first as the guest host on The Late Show and then the famed Arsenio Hall Show, and Belzer as the host of Hot Properties, where he famously got knocked out by Hulk Hogan.
Here’s a sample intro to the show. (Note: Despite the recommendations made on this video, Deadshirt.net does not suggest you visit livesex101 dot net.)
The show had some fascinating people on staff. Patrick Carlin, brother of a certain George, was one of the writers. A young Ben Stiller did a college internship at the show, and refers to it as a gratifying experience.
No full episodes can be found online, and even the clip selection is limited, but just enough evidence of the show can be found to provide a sense of it. For example, if you search “Thicke Of The Night” on YouTube, this is likely the first clip that will come up:
That’s Fee Waybel of The Tubes–apparently cosplaying as a bee–explaining what his band stands for, followed by Richard Belzer doing a solid Mick Jagger impression. For the record, not only can he still do it, he’s improved.
The musicals guests were of particular note. TOTN was more likely to book rock bands and lesser known musicians than Carson. This led to some notable musical moments, including early bookings of now-famous bands. A few examples:
The first TV appearance of Red Hot Chili Peppers. This was one of the earliest lineups, pre-Chad Smith and John Frusciante. I’m not quite sure what Anthony Kiedis is wearing either, but it looks like he’s prepared for the Kryptonian equivalent of Mardi Gras.
The show also featured the first TV appearance of Bon Jovi. It sounds like they are lip-syncing, but the moment is important nonetheless. There’s an interview at 3:46.
Other notable events:
– At one point mud wrestlers were booked for a four episode stretch. Arsenio Hall did the play-by-play. This was among the more famous moments on TOTN. The clip also features Thicke doing a bit called “The Sounds of Baseball,” full of jokes that have not aged well. (I had to watch this for you, so the least you can do is watch it as well and understand what I’ve been doing for you all.)
– This uncomfortable interview with Frank Zappa:
– This weird video segment followed by a game called the Playmate Olympics, where Playboy Playmates Penny Baker and Denise McConnoll compete to see who can dress a man to look more like Hugh Hefner:
– This story about Bonnie Tyler trolling the staff of TOTN on live television by changing the lyrics to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
– While this is not directly related to the show, it is worth noting: in February 1984, Thicke was doing a charity telethon and his wife was away from their children as well. During this time, six year old Robin Thicke was bit by a husky on his right cheek. The bite required plastic surgery. Alan Thicke informed the telethon audience what happened to his son but decided to turn what happening into positive energy because he couldn’t do anything about it that second. The cause got record donation. While Robin physically recovered, I’ll leave it to you at home to determine if this had any effect on his psyche.
Why it ended:
Terrible reviews and exceptionally terrible ratings.
Thicke acknowledged that TOTN was understaffed and overlong: TOTN had five writers making 7.5 hours of programming a week, while Letterman had twelve writers making four hours a week. Thicke believed that ninety minutes was too long. Carson had stopped doing ninety minute shows several years earlier, and they might have done better in a one-hour format.
The reviews were brutal. The AP may have put too fine a point on it by saying “[k]inder things have been said about child molesters.” Noted TV critic Tom Shales suggested that Thicke should be deported back to Canada. People Magazine wrote negatively about the show on multiple occasions; a few months into the run they called him “less a threat to Carson than to the sleeping pill industry.” Towards the end of the show’s run they ran a particularly vicious review of him, in which they declared him “impossible to watch… for more than ten minutes at a time,” that he had “no discernible sense of humor,” and was “aggressively boring.” Thicke referred to himself as “the entertainment industry’s whipping boy, the poster boy for failure.” Eventually Thicke feared seeing his name or picture in newspapers because of the terrible things that might be said about him. Years later, even Silverman himself said that when Thicke moved full time to America to do the show, he left his talent at the border.
As bad as the reviews were, it’s ratings that usually kill TV shows, and ratings were terrible, leading some channels to bump the show to a less valuable, less damaging timeslot. The ratings were so bad that at one point the show scored ‘trace rating’ in Philadelphia–meaning that it was watched by so few households that Neilsen couldn’t even assign a rating to it.
Thicke also had difficulty booking guests, due to being a relative unknown. Carson and Letterman’s name recognition alone could get people on their shows, and with that came the freedom to ask any questions they wanted. Thicke was repeatedly told by stars’ agents that if he asked their clients any questions that went outside certain parameters, they’d walk and Thicke would never see another one of their clients.
All of these difficulties can be traced back to one cause in particular: the show was overhyped.
Thicke himself nicknamed the show Sick of the Hype. Thicke has stated many times that the hype killed the show, because it promised more than they could possibly provide. Carson agreed. “They should have sneaked it on and let it find its own audience,” he said, after it was cancelled. “There is a danger in promising more than you can deliver.”
Behind the scenes, however, his snark was a little more evident. There was a joke floating around Carson Productions started by Johnny himself. “What’s the difference between the Titanic and [Thicke of The Night]? On the Titanic there was entertainment.”
In retrospect, it was clear that Thicke was uncomfortable with the way he was being presented. At the aforementioned LA press conference Thicke said that during the lavish praise he was receiving “a couple of times I wanted to turn around to see who they were talking about.” During an interview on the CBC’s Tommy Banks Live six months prior to TOTN‘s premiere, Thicke seemed slightly uncomfortable when Banks asked him about how Silverman was promoting the show. While Silverman and Thicke were not always at odds with each other, they had many disagreements–Thicke in particular was not a fan of the mud wrestling–but were so swamped by the show they never had time to argue.
In 2002, Conan O’Brien stated that he watched the intro to TOTN‘s premiere episode and was disgusted when Thicke picked up a guitar to play with his band. Conan stated that guitar playing was his hobby and he took this as a lesson not to inflict hobbies on his audience. Of course, the Conan of the past few years kind of owes Thicke an apology in that regard.
On the same day TOTN was cancelled, Thicke’s wife Gloria served him divorce papers. While Thicke was emotionally devastated, he has been fond of saying that he was “divorced and cancelled on the same day.”
Thicke of the Night broadcast its last episode on June 15th, 1984.
Thicke became–and to an extent, remains to this day–the poster child for failed talk shows. For a period of time he became, in his own words, “the guru for late-night failures,” leading Joan Rivers and former sidekick Arsenio Hall to seek his advice when they each took their own shots at late night. Though Alan Thicke had a bad year, the show did succeed in getting his name out there. After spending a year writing and taking acting lessons, Thicke got back into show business as Ultimate TV Dad Jason Seaver in Growing Pains. He found the role comfortable and it helped provide much-needed stability in his life.
Thicke has always displayed a sense of humor about his failed tenure as a talk show host. In 1986, a mere three years after Thicke Of The Night was cancelled, Thicke played a murdered talk show host in a Perry Mason TV movie, part of a film series produced by Fred Silverman. In the 1990s he played an egotistical talk show host on the short-lived sitcom Hope and Gloria.
He also was the go-to host for half of the events in the ’80s, especially anything that tangentially involved Canada. This included everything from the opening of the Skydome (now the Rogers Center) in Vancouver (please watch the video, it’s delightful) to the 1988 Crystal Light National Aerobic Championships. The entire event can be watched online (starting with this video) and is worth your time if only because it’s a near-perfect encapsulation of the 1980s. Here’s a taste:
Thicke once joked that “[t]he show was ahead of its time… it should’ve been on in 2084, when all of us are dead.” Like most good jokes, whether or not he intended it in this case, there’s a kernel of truth to it; one need look no further than the top rated show on late right now, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Music and sketches are integral parts of the show, the host gets involved, and a somewhat regular cast (albeit a less notable one) is utilized. Even if his didn’t work out, Alan Thicke and Fred Silverman basically invented the modern talk show.
Unfortunately, in some circles, the name “Thicke” has forever been tainted by a certain award show performance; specifically one where he wore a black and white outfit, sang a song with ridiculous lyrics, a complete misuse of equipment associated with sports fans, and had backup dancers do absurd things. It was an absolute cultural travesty, even if the music was catchy.
I am referring, of course, to Alan Thicke’s performance at the 1988 NHL Awards.
What, were you thinking of something else?
You can find more Talk Show Graveyard here.