There was a local radio columnist, back in the network days of the ‘40s and early ‘50s, who griped about the La Brea Tar Pits. He had nothing against the tar pits themselves. He just didn’t want to hear them on network radio comedies, with audiences guffawing after every reference. He hated references on radio shows that only the studio audience, being locals, would get.
There’s another way of looking at it. Listeners weren’t dumb. In a lot of cases, they either had a good idea what the reference was about, or the name was funny in itself (does anyone really need to know where “The blue goo of the La Brea Tar Pits” is when bus tour guide Frank Nelson rattles it off on the Jack Benny show?). So they went along with the gag, even if they lived in New York City, like syndicated columnist John Crosby.
Here’s Crosby’s gripe, printed February 25, 1947, as he takes aim at Benny’s writing staff: John Tackaberry, Milt Josefsberg, Hal Goodman and Al Gordon.
MAYBE ONLY PSYCHOPATHS CAN WRITE RADIO SCRIPTS
It Would Seem To Be Proved In Hollywood
By JOHN CROSBY
The Nation's two most popular art forms, radio and the movies, are owned and controlled by New York front offices and New York banks, but the creative processes are all highly concentrated in Hollywood, the land of the Lotos. The centralization of culture has had a sweeping and possibly uplifting effect on our exteriors—our women’s clothes, our Interior decoration, our speech and our mannerisms, its effect on our thinking is, at best, questionable.
In the long run, radio programs and movies originate with the writers, and Hollywood is not a good place for writers. As a matter of fact, the concentration of the Nation’s best writers in any American city is hardly a good idea; in Hollywood it’s particularly bad. There is a state of mind about Southern California—not necessarily an evil one, but a pervasive one. An idea born in this balmy, damp climate comes out in pastel shades. Honeysuckle gets into a writer’s prose, sticks to the adverbs, smells up the plot. The same idea born in New York—where the subways are crowded, the gin is strong and the golf courses, for all practical purposes, nonexistent—is more vigorous, possibly uglier, but certainly sharper.
There’s nothing the matter with the California brand of idea (John Steinbeck is an excellent example of the pastel-shaded writer who has done magnificently with the California idea) except that, if all the writers gravitate out here, our ideas will become lopsided.
Perhaps the easiest but also the most unfair example of this localization of ideas is the Hollywood reference—that is, Hollywood and Vine, and the Brown Derby, the Hollywood smog, the Hollywood automobile accident rate. Actually, all good radio writers and producers strain valiantly to avoid this sort of thing. But the Hollywood state of mind is difficult and perhaps impossible to avoid.
A prominent radio producer pointed out nothing happens to writers in Hollywood, at least nothing resembling the experiences of people outside Hollywood. The writers’ options are picked up or dropped; their swimming pools are completed or not completed; their horses run the wrong way at Santa Anita.
But the writers are so insulated from cold, hunger and poverty that the struggle for existence, which motivates most of us, is remote. Consequently, problems of most radio programs are either very tiny (“Ozzie ate too much Christmas dinner”) or outsize (“He’s got the secret formula for the atom bomb. If don't head him off, New York City will be in ruins by morning”).
You can't make up what happens to the boy next door unless you have had some experiences with the boy next door. In Hollywood the boy next door is likely to be another writer. Radio producers, I find (at least the good ones), are as conscious of this at this as anyone else. A producer, who had better be nameless, informs me that his search for good radio writers is constant and heartbreaking. Writers, he says, are interested in their contracts and in their salaries, but not in their work. For obvious reasons, they are eager to please the producer, but an eagerness to please is hardly conducive to real creative writing.
A GROUP AFFAIR
This is the logical result of the radio writing system. Since a script is a collaborative job—with four or five writers, a producer, a comedian and sometimes the star all contributing ideas—the individual writer’s interest in the total work is not that of, say, a novelist whose novel is entirely his own. Also the writer gets no credit outside the trade in spite of the fact that no actor could exist without him.
Radio writers, I find, are neurotic, keen-witted specialists. Their appreciation of writing is highly developed. Just as an engineer sees more in a bridge than you or I, they see more in a joke you or I. Writers at a Jack Benny rehearsal, I discovered, laughed harder at their own jokes than anyone else. If there were any gags in that script (and it was a very funny script), that failed to amuse the average listener, I’m sure Benny’s writers could have explained to him with overpowering logic why the joke was funny and why he should have laughed.
They are specialists, you see, living in a world of other specialists in a land far removed from most of the people who hear them. Their contact with the is a set of figures, a Hooper or a sales chart, which tells them nothing about the hopes, the interests, the fears, the joys, the sorrows or the world outside.
Occasionally, there are references on network radio comedy/variety shows that are a little baffling but that involves time, being some 60-plus years removed from them. But Benny, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, they all had writers. And they all have fans even today. The psychopaths knew what they were doing.