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Tuesday 16 Jul 2024

Funny Business
Streeter Click

A radio essay on humour by Fred Allen

Reminded, on Sunday, 26 February, that Bill Hicks, incongruously, was gone 17 years, to the day, a thoughtful friend, who works the serious side of comedy, said, "Gone so long, and so long seems like yesterday." Reflecting on the occupation, today, he said, "I look at the comedic landscape, and it pains me that [new comedians] never knew Bill or Sam [Kinison] or, well, the list goes on and on. "It pains me more that [new comedians] don't care to find out." They don't care to know about Bill, Sam, Groucho, Lenny, Pinky Lee; Josh Billings or Artemis Ward (Charles Brown), Gallagher and Sheen or "Uncle" Jim Harkin. The list does goes on, and, in modern times, dates to Voltaire (1694-1778). 

The history of humour is largely lost, much as the history of most everything. Who can name their great-grandmother? Who cares to know their great-great grandfather fled his home, in Kilkenny, Ireland, at age 12, to work and die building the Rideau Canal, which runs from Kingston to Ottawa, Ontario.

As the Network Era of Radio spun helplessly into the abyss, in the late 1940s, networks scrambled to fill time. NBC was never adventurous. General Robert Sarnoff, who, as a 15-year-old telegraph operator, conveyed the news and details of the sinking of the Titanic, lead NBC along a cautious path.

Slow to jump on the opportunities offered by television, the NBC rooster was purloined by Frank Stanton at CBS. Holding only Bob Hope and Milton Berle, with life time contracts, NBC lost its major radio stars in an instant. Although "Amos and Andy" moves to CBS, in 1947, The exodus gathered speed when Jack Benny jumped to CBS on 1 January 1948.

In no time, the rooster of familiar radio stars segued to television, and gave CBS a 20 year ratings lead on NBC and upstart ABC. In 1949, NBC, desperate to fill off-prime time hours, especially on Sundays, began a series of half-hour, quasi-documentaries. The focus of the Sunday afternoon shows was mostly current affairs and, what, today, we'd call, history of pop culture. One of these shows, hosted by Fred Allen, seems as applicable today as 62 years ago, when it aired.

Fred Allen was born John Florence Sullivan in Somerville, Ma, on 31 May 1894. After high school, he worked up a vaudeville act, the worst juggler in the world, which was a ruse for his edgy humour. As "Uncle" Jim Harkin said, Allen constantly prowled for work, as he was fired every few days for doing comedy that shot over the heads of the audience.

Allen wouldn't yield his style, says Harkin. "I suggested he drop a few old hokums in between his loftier material. He wouldn't go for it, saying he'd stick with what he did 'til it worked." Work it did. At the height of the Great Depression, after more than twenty years working his stuff on the vaudeville circuits, Fred Allen was making $8,000 a week. That translates into about a million 2011 dollars a week. He found a place for his comedy, his satire, really, and that place was everywhere. Among comics, only W C Fields, Ed Wynn and Groucho Marx were in his league.

In 1934, Allen followed pal, Jack Benny, into radio. His product was topical wit, edgy and heavily laced with adlibbing from all the cast. Allen was peerless, says Stefan Kanfer, "when he described a town so dull that one day the tide went out and never came back or a scarecrow so frightening that the crows returned corn they had stolen two years before."

Jack Benny, says Kanfer, had " a jeweller's eye for [ensemble] comedy, a mastery of the running gag and the momentous pause. Benny ran a tight ship,  rehearsed a lot and stuck, mostly, to the script. Often, with Allen, it's hard to know if the script was in play or not. If a cast member fumbled a line, another would adlib it across the goal line. On the topic of adlibs, Benny said, "My best adlibs are the ones I rehearse the most."

Various Fred Allen comedy shows found a quick and large audience. The first was the "Linit Bath Review," in 1934. A tough negotiator, Allen bounced back and forth between CBS and NBC as well as various nervous advertisers.

Allen ended his radio career on NBC, in 1949. Poor health and quiz shows were the official reasons for Allen retiring from radio. Allen took a sabbatical from radio, in 1945, 'to get his high blood pressure under control.' This made health a viable reason for retiring. He wrote day and night," says Harkin. "[W]hen he wasn't writing, he was reading. [Allen] was work, work, work. The occasional time he'd go out to a club, was mostly to research topical gags."

When the USA entered World War Two, in December, 1942, all new broadcast licences were put on hold. In 1948, 127 television stations went to air across America and 127,000 television sets were sold. Eight times that many, a round million, sold the next year, 1948.

The new television stations spiked demand for content. For CBS, this meant segueing top radio talent to television. This talent CBS mostly seduced away from NBC, in the late 1940s.

The transition was rougher for NBC. Radio was soon thread bare. Television increased the price of existing talent beyond what the dwindling audience of network radio could justify, and, for CBS, at least, there was no reason to spend money to develop new radio talent. To fill vacant prime time slots, CBS, NBC and ABC resorted "quick and dirty" reality content, that is, quiz shows and hack dramas, such as "Broadway is My Beat" and "Barry Craig: confidential investigator."

Starting in 1947, "The Fred Allen Show" faced one or another quiz show, in several time slots. In 1948, "Name that Tune" was clobbering Allen in the Hooper Ratings. Top prize on the quiz show, $50,000, was awarded to a listener, supposedly called at random, who could correctly name an esoteric piece of music.

Harkin found out contestants weren't exactly called as implied. It seems "Name that Tune" made random calls in the afternoon, on show day, looking for contestants. Those who agreed to participate were told to stay close to the phone, while "Name that Tune" was on-air, so they wouldn't miss the call and would hear the mystery music.

To counter "Name that Tune," Allen offered to match the top prize for any listener, picked for the quiz show, who choose to listen to his show instead. If you were called and agreed to take part in "Name that Tune," but listened to Allen instead, you got $50,000. Nice deal for the listener: take a chance naming the tune or get ten years salary from Allen, for sure. Sadly, it didn't work.

There's some speculation that a contributing factor to the Allen retirement was Portland Hoffa, his wife. She was a integral part of his shows, the ditzy blonde, so to speak, subtly wise and always witty. Advertisers didn't care for her. They complained she was shrill and abrasive, which, in retrospect, she was not. Until the late 1940s, Allen was sufficiently popular to prevail, but when the bottom fell out of his audience, his sway dissipated, too. Portland was to go and Fred wouldn't go on without her.

In 1951, Fred Allen joined the panel of the hit show, "What's My Line," on CBS, where he was effective and where he stayed. He seemed a bit bewildered by television, especially the need to stick to the script and not move around. The "What's My Line" format was ideal for Allen: ask a few questions, interspersed with wit and wisdom. On other television shows, he was stiff and one-dimensional, a stark contrast to his radio performances.

Fred Allen passed unexpectedly and suddenly, on 17 March 1956. He'd gone out, late in the evening, to get the early editions of the morning newspapers. On his way back, he had a fatal heart attack in front of his apartment building, on 57th Street, in New York City.

In 1949, Allen hosted one episode of the NBC radio documentary series, "Living," which was called "Humour." He was the perfect choice. Allen was the top radio humourist, in the USA. Many considered him the leading wit, in any medium, of his day.

The title of the radio documentary was, "What is Humour?" The goal was to answer the title question, but also cover what humour does for us and how to describe and rate American humour, at the time. The most interesting parts of the documentary involve the history of humour, according to Allen.

Comedians, as workers in all occupations, especially if creative, need to know what went before. There's no excuse not to know, and benefit. The Internet and recording technology ensure what you need to know is available or will be, if you wait a moment.

Click here to listen to the 30-minute radio documentary, "What is Humour?" hosted by Fred Allen and written by Lou Hassen. The show ran Sunday, 30 January 1949. The description, analysis and conclusions offered  in 1949, seem as relevant, today, as then.

Don't forget, you can minimize the QuickTime screen and listen to Fred Allen as you surf or do other things. The best way to listen to radio is to turn off all the lights, including the computer screen, sit back and hear the words, listen to the ideas and connect with the obvious lessons.


Stefan Kanfer (2001), "Groucho: the life and times of Julius Henry Marx. Vintage. P. 319.

Streeter Click is editor of GrubStreet.ca.

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