The son of American vaudeville entertainers, bespectacled American comedian Steve Allen led a peripatetic childhood, shunted off from one relative or boarding school to another. As a balm to his loneliness, Allen became a voracious reader, providing himself with a wide and varied intellectual base. Breaking into showbiz as a radio disc jockey, Allen soon learned that inserting humor here and there would draw a lot more attention than merely announcing the records and reading the stockyard reports. In order to supply himself with an endless stream of material, Allen memorized every joke book and "college humor" magazine that he could get his hands on; the result was his uncanny ability to conjure up precisely the right wisecrack at the right time. Developing a strong following while hosting a radio program on Los Angeles' KNX in 1948, Allen received his first network exposure in 1949, and was also featured in several films, including Down Memory Lane (1949) and I'll Get By (1950). In 1953, Allen was hired to host a local late-night program on New York's WNBC-TV, which later developed into the NBC network's Tonight Show. Extraordinarily busy during the years 1956 and 1957, Allen hosted Tonight, headlined his own hour-long weekend variety TV series, starred as the title character in The Benny Goodman Story (1956), composed several popular songs (his piano skills were shown to excellent advantage on his TV programs), and filled up his spare time by writing books, plays, and magazine articles. He left Tonight in 1957 and closed out his NBC weekender in 1960. One year later, he was back with a Wednesday-night hour on ABC, which had the misfortune of being scheduled opposite Wagon Train. In 1962, Allen launched a syndicated 90-minute "madness and music" nightly series, a fondly remembered effort which lasted until 1964; a second syndicated nightly followed in 1968.
During his heyday, Allen helped develop and nurture such talents as Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Don Knotts, Bill Dana, Gabe Dell, Tim Conway, Steve Lawrence, and Eydie Gorme. He kept busy in television throughout the 1970s and 1980s with such highly praised projects as PBS' Meeting of Minds, wherein Allen would host round-table discussions with actors posing as the great leaders and intellects of history. Long married to actress Jayne Meadows, Steve Allen showed no signs of slowing down in his early seventies (despite a well-publicized bout with cancer), as he continued to write books on a multitude of subjects, accept TV and movie guest-star appearances, make SRO personal appearances, and even occasionally return to his roots by hosting TV and radio talkfests.