Television pioneer Joe Franklin, credited as the creator of the modern TV talk-show format, died on Saturday, January 24, in his longtime home of New York City. He was 88.
A New York institution, Franklin began his permanently local broadcast career as a teenager during the golden age of radio, writing skits for The Kate Smith Hour. He soon jumped from radio to television, landing his own talk show on WJZ-TV (later WABC-TV) in 1950. In 1962, he moved to WOR-TV (later WWOR-TV), where he stayed for more than three decades. He was listed in the Guinness Book Of World Records for having the longest continuous television talk show in history.
Franklin was a nondescript character who was happy to have all of his many guests take center stage. He hosted performers like Woody Allen, Julia Roberts, Bruce Springsteen, Robin Williams, and Richard Pryor in their earliest TV appearances. The chatty, friendly Franklin spun his showbiz patter to talk to a wide variety of guests, from a bail bondsman to Barbra Streisand, Miss Universe to Spinal Tap, without notes or cue cards or pre-production meetings. He said in 2002, “You don’t rehearse your dinner conversation. I’m not saying I was right, but I lasted 43 years.”
Even Joey Ramone was a fan:
The New York Times reports that, by the time of his retirement in 1993, Franklin had hosted “more than 300,000 guests in his more than 40 years on the air.” After his retirement, he focused on his immense collection of memorabilia, much of which flooded his Manhattan office. Steve Darnall, WDCB radio host and Nostalgia Digest publisher, recalls meeting with Franklin in New York for a visit. “When we got to Joe’s office… well, it wasn’t so much an office as a path,” he said. “The room was filled—and I mean filled—with books, records, assorted paraphernalia.”
Franklin’s chatty mannerisms and showbiz vocabulary made him parody-ready for someone like Billy Crystal, who played a version of Franklin of Saturday Night Live. But Franklin was so much more than a punchline: He established a format that paved the way for future late-night hosts like Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and Jay Leno. As Darnall says, “His enthusiasm and mannerisms made him an easy target for parody, but there was no denying that his affection for show business remained intact. He was a character in the best sense of that word.”
Franklin also appeared as himself in countless films like Ghostbusters and Broadway Danny Rose, as well as the very first episode of This American Life. In it, he gave host Ira Glass advice on how to have a successful show, which Franklin obviously knew a lot about.