A couple of years ago I spotted five of those Golden Channel Nine Comedy DVDs going cheap – Golden TV Week Logie Moments, Channel Nine Salutes Bert Newton, Graham Kennedy: The King of Television, The Best of the Paul Hogan Show and The Best of the Don Lane Show – and snapped them up. The latter was a particular bargain at $3, but unlike the other discs, which I watched quickly, The Best of the Don Lane Show sat on my coffee table for months and months, unplayed. Maybe it’s because to my generation Don Lane was a guy who’d clearly been famous once, but for what we weren’t sure. His appearance on The Late Show was fun, and he presented American football on the ABC and turned up in the odd special, but that was it: he was just some old has-been in embarrassing trousers. So why am I about to launch into a heartfelt tribute to the Lanky Yank? Because, to paraphrase his theme song, he made it so easy.
If there’s one thing about Don Lane that came across on that Best of… DVD it was the ease with which he entertained. His relaxed, smooth style enabled him to present live TV, interview guests, perform song and dance numbers, chat to the audience, do stand-up comedy, and plenty of other things besides – the last ever Don Lane Show (an extra on the DVD) saw him juggle a ball, do a routine with his labrador Shadow and conduct an interview with last-minute surprise guest David Bowie, whom he’d never met. Plenty of people have done some, all or more of these things, but few have been as cool – and as skilled – as Don Lane.
Lane was an old-school, all-round entertainer who’d honed his skills through more than a decade on the tough US club circuit, and several years presenting The Tonight Show in Sydney. He could crack wise and cope when things went wrong, charm a difficult guest or put a nervous member of the public at ease. In many of the tributes to Lane over the past couple of days, his friends and fellow stars have noted that he was a generous performer, not caring who got the laugh, as long as someone did. A well-known example is the famous footage of a live link-up between Lane’s Tonight Show and Graham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight. During a song Kennedy held up a sign saying “GO HOME YANK”, causing Lane – and everyone else – to convulse with laughter.
What makes Lane interesting in this day and age is that his style of performance bore all the hallmarks of an era now passed, and key to it was experience and good judgement. Sure, Lane mucked around when he could, and the barrel segments with Bert Newton were almost unprofessionally shambolic, but he knew the craft he loved so well that he could get away with breaking the rules. There’s a received wisdom that a host, particularly one who’s the highest-paid entertainer in the country (as Lane was at one time), is as much a star as anyone they have on their show. But when Robin Williams came onto the Don Lane Show for his first ever chat show appearance, wearing roller skates and bursting into the surreal improv he became known for, Lane sat back and enjoyed it, even walking off set to give Williams the spotlight when he started to roll about the place and play with the props.
Deflecting attention away from himself and onto the guest was something Lane did during many of the interviews on his show. By leaning over the arm of his chair and looking into his guest’s eyes, Lane could create the atmosphere of a relaxed, intimate chat – not easy in a large, hot, over-lit studio. In this way Lane soothed many a nervous, unhappy or intoxicated guest – and with his encyclopaedic knowledge of sport and show business, and ability to crack sharp gags, Lane could make it funny and interesting too. It’s a tribute to his skill and likeability that big overseas stars of the period, such as Sammy Davis Jr, Liza Minnelli and Phyllis Diller, became friends with Lane, appearing on his show time and time again.
But Don Lane wasn’t just talented, funny and easy going, he was classy and charming. He had a notorious eye for the ladies and a fast-paced lifestyle, but never came across as a sleaze, despite the many times Bert Newton referenced glass coffee tables (although what of the several possible things Lane is supposed to have done with one has never been made clear). Sure, Lane got riled-up occasionally, punching Ernie Sigley at the Logies one year (which alone is a reason to like him), and famously telling skeptic James Randi to “piss off” when Randi de-bunked many of the psychics and supernatural proponents Lane’s show had featured, but during a 1994 reunion special (also on the Best of… DVD), Lane recanted, even showing how right James Randi had been about Uri Geller.
The Best of the Don Lane Show is now one of my favourite DVDs, and one of the few I’ve watched numerous times and shown parts of to friends (a group of British TV enthusiasts and sceptics not only loved the James Randi sequence but were fascinated by the bizarre satellite cross to London in the final Don Lane Show, where British TV presenter Angela Rippon hosts a party in Don’s honour at which Billy Connolly and Pamela Stephenson, Chas and Dave, Noel Edmonds [before he became Britain’s answer to Daryl Somers with the Hey Hey-like show Noel’s House Party], Bernie Winters, Cilla Black and Harry Secombe’s manager pretend to quaff champagne in Michael Caine’s restaurant on a chilly London morning). Many would dismiss The Don Lane Show for lacking edge, being indulgent, banal, embarrassing or messy, but the guest list’s impressive, the production values are high, Lane’s a fabulous host and it’s lots of fun.
As I re-watched the final Don Lane Show and the 1994 reunion special this weekend in preparation for this blog, I was struck by how differently Lane handled those difficult shows to Daryl Somers. Lane had none of the bitterness and sense of entitlement that Somers displayed when his show was axed – “this isn’t a wake, it’s a celebration”, he told the audience – and none of the desperate desire to return with his reunion special. Lane was sad and nostaligic, but forward-looking, and the reunion show featured up-and-comers Jane Kennedy, Tom Gleisner and Santo Cilauro (then making the first series of Frontline). Compare this to the role-call of acts whose best was most definitely in the past on the recent Hey Hey reunion.
Don Lane had a dignified end to his career at Channel 9 and a dignified, quiet death in a Sydney nursing home last week. When Daryl Somers finally departs the stage, will he go with such grace?