Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The One Failure of Arnold Stang

Network radio comedy and comedy/variety shows were filled with all kinds of really talented secondary players, many of whom were in great demand. Yet so few of them broke out of their “also appearing tonight” role and moved into stardom. Even the great Mel Blanc failed in a sitcom supposedly tailored for his talents.

New York Herald-Tribune critic John Crosby probably elucidated the reason the best. Radio sitcoms were, by and large, corny, obvious and trite. And while some secondary players were extremely versatile, they were suddenly called upon to change roles when given their own shows. They had to be the funny straight man around whom a half hour of plot revolved instead of someone who came on, did a couple of minutes of schtick, and was quickly replaced by the next routine. A couple of minutes of Mr. Kitzel on the Benny show is funny. A half-hour of Kitzel is painful (as anyone who heard the failed Kitzel radio pilot can attest). It’s too bad, because the actors themselves were more than capable on air.

That brings us to Arnold Stang, who had a fine career in cartoons (mainly in New York) and was screamingly funny taking the wind of Milton Berle on radio and television. Stang was great with Henry Morgan on radio. He was given a chance at radio stardom, too. The results were predictable. Here’s Crosby from July 15, 1948.

Radio In Review
Stooges And Superstition
A STOOGE, according to Webster’s International Dictionary, is “a foil.”
Webster’s in this case is giving us the runaround, keeping the franchise without being very helpful.
Anyway, I chased over to “foil” and found a number of interesting but not very enlightening definitions. The only one that seemed at all probable was something that “enhances or sets off by contrast”.
That isn't a bad description of a stooge though it’s by no means exhaustive. The reason I undertook all this research—all of a minute or so—was to find some hint as to why stooges when divorced from their comedians do so badly.
The definition goes a long way toward explaining it. A stooge is ornamental, a bit of fancy ironwork around the balcony but not the main support. After all, a man can’t very well enhance or provide contrast to himself.
ALL OF WHICH is a longwinded introduction to Arnold Stang’s new show, “It’s Always Albert” (CBS 8:30 p. m. Fridays). Stang, Henry Morgan’s man in the regular season, is a rather different stooge whose special qualities resist the printed word. His grunts and ejaculations—eh, yeah, neyah—are a sort of an articulate East Side New York commentary on this and that.
“How do you like Hollywood?” Morgan asked him once.
“Eh!” said Stang, summing it all up briefly and bitterly.
I like it but I realize a lot of people find Mr. Stang’s language a little too close to that of the gibbon for comfort.
HOWEVER, I CAN’T say I’m at all happy with Stang as a featured comedian. In this vehicle, he plays a harebrained and impoverished composer, a characterization I find wholly credible.
He is called on to be stupid, inept and recalcitrant—all qualities which I think miss the essence of the Stang character about a mile. As a composer he is harassed by his brother and sister-in-law, who bounce insults off his head from all angles, into selling his music and raising little dough for the family.
This falls into the familiar dull routines of trying to interest millionaires or movie producers and then upsetting the soup over them.
The jokes are long, painful and so carefully telegraphed that you find yourself wincing, waiting for the blow to fall. The brother is played with demonic energy by Jan Murray, a former night club entertainer, and the sister-in-law is Pert Kelton, who isn’t bad though her material isn’t of much help.
Also, I’m afraid Stang’s stylized mannerisms get awfully wearisome in half an hour. I’m sorry about the whole thing.

Stang’s only other starring roles came in cartoons and in each case (Herman the Mouse, Top Cat), his character was far removed from what fans expected him to portray on radio and television.

“It’s Always Albert” is long-forgotten and was hardly a setback to his career. Stang seems to have preferred not being a star and he left behind a great body of work. You can read a little more about him on the Yowp blog, though it focuses a lot on his work at Hanna-Barbera.


  1. It's interesting that Stang's earliest animated roles at Paramount also put him in the position of voicing dumb/loser characters (Shorty, Tubby and the first couple of Wolfie cartoons), before they decided he worked better voicing the cartoon's smart guy/hero, which Hanna-Barbera would follow with "Top Cat".

    Paramount's move may have been because Sid Raymond did such a great job with memorably dumb voices you couldn't avoid not using them as much as possible. But the Famous staff seemed to come to the same conclusion as Crosby about Stang being miscast as an idiot.

  2. In 1993 I interviewed Arnold Stang for my TV show in New York.

  3. This is great! Thanks, RR.