Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Good Evening Anybody

Not all network radio and early television programmes were golden boughs on the tree of entertainment. Some shows were stupid. Henry Morgan could have told you. In fact, he did.

The Morgan I saw as a young man was on a 1970s revival of “What’s My Line” where he was as innocuous as everything else on it. The show that had begun in evening clothes in the early ‘50s had become as Park Avenue as a station wagon. However, Morgan had built his reputation in show business by being completely dismissive of his radio sponsor and any product he happened to be selling, and soon expanded that to become completely dismissive of show business.

There’s gentle lampooning of the radio and TV world, like the funny commercial parodies on “The Carol Burnett Show.” And then there’s outright sabre-in-the-gut satire, like the politically-correct makeover given to ‘Ol’ Man River’ by a censor (played by Daws Butler) on “The Stan Freberg Show.” Morgan was in the latter camp, along with an increasingly bitter Fred Allen and few others. And it’s a good thing they were.

Morgan occasionally kicked around the fourth-place Mutual Broadcasting System in a 15-minute radio ramble addressed partly to New York listeners and partly to whomever was on the other side of the glass in the control booth. He graduated to the third-place network, ABC, in a half hour show. He and Mel Blanc (on CBS) debuted in the same time slot on the same day (September 3, 1946), at least on the East Coast. You couldn’t find two opposite comedians. Blanc relied on his trick voices and a bunch of standard-issue supporting characters. It was the kind of show Morgan might have ridiculed (as he might have with “The Falcon” on Mutual and “A Date With Judy” on NBC, which aired opposite them).

New York Herald-Tribune critic John Crosby had little toleration for the banalities of radio, so it’s no surprise he was a kindred spirit with Morgan. He reviewed Morgan’s first show, a fine review because I concur with his conclusions (a “bad” review is one with which someone doesn’t agree). Morgan’s concepts are very clever and his skewering of the Lucky Strike “tear and compare” ad campaign was probably gutsy for the time. But the execution needed a bit of work. You can hear the show on-line and judge for yourself.

Radio Review
NEW YORK, Sept. 13.—Some time ago I expressed the wish that Henry Morgan, one of radio’s original wits, would some day be given a big half hour program of his own with entertainers, an orchestra and all the trimmings. Well, he’s got one now, the Henry Morgan show, and you’ll find him, in the East, on the American Broadcasting Company network.
So far as I know, this is the first time the Santa Clauses of broadcasting have paid heed to any of my pleas and I’m deeply grateful and greatly astonished. It was a lovely gift, Santa, even though the paint on it is chipped here and there and some of the workmanship is not as good as it appeared when it was in the window.
The Henry Morgan show is almost but not quite as shapeless as Morgan’s 15-minute program every evening over WJZ, New York. Morgan does most, though not all, of the talking, and the target for his smooth nonsense on opening night was almost exclusively radio and some of its more patent absurdities.
“Now about this program,” said Morgan, “I’ll tell you the truth. The American Broadcasting Company was suddenly stuck with 30 minutes of dead air. They had all this time with nothing in it. Where this 30 minutes came from is a story itself.
“Some say that the guy who comes in here in the morning and opens the station for the day arrived one morning when his watch was a half hour fast. He started broadcasting a half hour too soon, and by evening here was this empty half hour sticking out. Of course, the executive responsible for this was dealt with. Before they fired him, they made him turn in his ulcer.
“Anyhow they were stuck with this time. A vice-president suggested they get the public library to sponsor 30 minutes of silence. The library turned it down because they said they weren’t getting a real 30 minutes of silence. At the opening, the announcer said ‘Sssh.’ Listen, kid, everybody turned it down until they came to me.”
Then Morgan started flailing away at radio, sometimes hitting it on the button, sometimes missing. It was fun even when he missed. There was something called “Great Sayings of Unfamiliar Men,” a public service program. After that Morgan trod delicately on the feet of all the cigaret manufacturers with his own cigaret commercial. Then came a sketch, a sort of parody on the “Cavalcade of America” with overtones of the “March of Time,”
called “This, Then, Is America.”
“Each week we pay tribute to the men and industries that make our great Nation. Tonight we salute the shirt-making industry.” I won’t pretend this was as funny as it could have been, but I applaud the fact Morgan recognizes the pomposities of some of those weighty industrial programs. Morgan wound up playing the only soldier who didn’t write a book about his war experiences.
He called it “My Three Years with Eisenhower” and I hoped he’d do a satire on that volume complete with Ike, Winnie and Harry Butcher. Instead, he trotted out the familiar GI gags about a soldier whose supply sergeant had his own ideas on what size shoes he wore.
Incidentally, Morgan’s taste for zany music hasn’t changed a bit, even though he has a real live orchestra in place of the usual recordings. On opening night, there was a bagpipe number, a circus march and yodelling.
It was an uneven show but its heart was in the right place. Satire is so rare in radio, particularly satire about the industry itself, that it deserves an audience, and I hope it gets one. If you’ve never heard Morgan, it’ll take awhile to get used to him. But, once acquired he is a pleasant habit. He ought to have a sponsor, but after the way he kicked the potential sponsors around opening night, I’d be indeed surprised if he ever found one.

Morgan made his television debut on the DuMont Network on June 6, 1946. Five years later, he had the distinction of not one, but two TV failures within months of each other. By then, Morgan had been pushed on NBC by Fred Allen and did a half-hour radio show on the network from March 13, 1949 to June 18, 1950. Campbell Soup, which had been sponsoring Jack Carter, bought NBC TV time in late 1950 to put Morgan opposite dramas on the other three networks. Morgan came up with a great concept that “The Gong Show” did years later—he ridiculed TV talent contests with inane acts that didn’t seem to quite get what he was doing.

John Crosby, once again, bloomed forth with words of praise (he had noted in a previous column “Henry Morgan will not accept criticism...I ought to know. I’m in the business”). This appeared March 21, 1951.

Radio In Review
Earmarks Of Success
HENRY “If-At-First-You-Don’t-Succeed” Morgan is with us again on a TV program which has all the earmarks of success, a terrible thing. At least, a terrible thing for Mr. Morgan who has carved out a fruitful career for himself by failing at most everything he did in radio. However, his were not ordinary failures. When a Morgan show folded, the air was full of clamor and controversy, stimulating stuff to the industry, the columnists and, I suspect, Mr. Morgan himself.
Back when I was a boy, the native population could be divided roughly into two classifications—those who listened to Morgan and to nobody else on radio, those who didn't listen to Morgan and listened to everything else.
This made it easy to cast a dinner party. You put a pro-Morgan next to an anti-Morgan, all the way down the line. Within five minutes the pros would be breaking soup plates over the heads of the antis and everyone would have a lively time. It was a surefire way to break a lease, too.
Now success looms. He’s got a sponsor and everything. Pretty soon the teen-agers will be annoying him for his autograph, the trades people will expect him to pay his bills, he’ll have to learn how to deposit money and, in general, life will be vexing.
TO GET DOWN to the show itself, The Great Talent Hunt (N.B.C.-TV, 9:30 p. m., Fridays) is a parody on all the talent shows that infest television. That in itself is significant. When television starts parodying itself on a regular weekly basis—it's been done intermittently before it has reached a degree of self-analysis which is one of the first inklings of maturity.
In announcing his new show, Mr. Morgan said he was seeking odd talents. “You know, a man who tap dances on Jello, things like that.” I don’t think anyone has tap-danced on Jello yet, but the talents on display have been almost equally curious.
At various times, Mr. Morgan has produced the world’s champion wood-chopper, a lady punching bag expert from South America, a farmer who played castanets with his muscles, a welder who played Sleepy Time Gal on a matchbox, and a couple who sang arias while standing on their heads.
An appearance on his show, Mr. Morgan cheerfully confesses, is the first step on the ladder to oblivion. “Immediately after his appearance here,” said Mr. Morgan of one contestant, “a very important producer called him. He rushed to the phone, fell through the cellar door and broke his neck.”
It’s a very gentle, disarming and rather surprisingly handsome Mr. Morgan who wanders through these innocent proceedings. “Welcome, to the great Talent Hunt or as it is often called ‘Movies are better than ever’. This program is performing an enormous contribution to television. Makes all the other shows look good.” Then on come the people who play xylophones with their kneecaps. I don’t know what enchanted forest Henry flushes these people out of, but he seems to have an inexhaustible supply of them.
MR. MORGAN treats them gingerly, as if he were afraid they might disappear before his eyes. There is no real meeting of minds. The lady punching bag expert, a humorless lady, didn’t seem to know what Henry was doing there or what he stood for exactly. And Henry seemed a little puzzled about it himself.
Arnold Stang, Mr. Morgan’s perennial sidekick, whose face matches his ludicrous accent in every particular, has passages at arms with Mr. M. when the talent gets out of the way. Very funny exchanges, too, these two supplementing each other perfectly.
“Got a terrific act to close the show,” says Stang.
“A flight of pigeons?”
“No, this is a person.”
“Oh, people!”
“What’s the matter with people?"
“We’ve already had ‘em, on the show.”
I couldn’t vouch for that last statement.

The “Great Talent Hunt” premiered February 16, 1951 and last appeared April 13 (May 4 on the West Coast thanks to kinescopes). The final guests were a woman who played a piano with a sheet covering the keyboard; a couple who danced on 10-foot high stilts, a man who played a toy flute, and another who played a bicycle pump. Reviews were mixed but only one counted. Campbell Soup hated the kooky acts. Morgan was forced to make an instant change. So back it was to comedy/variety on April 20 with Morgan and Aaron Ruben penning the scripts, and a supporting cast of Arnold Stang (as Gerard), a rising comedian named Art Carney, singer Dorothy Claire and dancer Dorothy Jarnac. Campbell’s verdict? To quote Gerard: “Ech!” After June 1, “Battle Report” appeared in the Morgan time-slot.

Yes, Henry Morgan had been replaced with the Korean War.

CBS gave viewers and a mellower version of Morgan starting April 29, 1952 opposite Milton Berle. Satire begone! Here’s our friend Crosby from May 20th.

Keeping up with new quiz shows is a murderous occupation, I do my best. Among the late-comers is Henry Morgan, who has tried about everything else.
The Morgan show, “Draw To Win,” on CBS-TV, 8 p. m., Tuesdays, which throws it up against Milton Berle, who isn’t the competition he once was. On “Draw To Win” a couple of cartoonists, Bill Holman, who draws Smoky Stover, and Abner Dean, plus a couple of guests—at least one of whom can’t draw—play what amounts to charades on a drawing board.
One of the cartoonists will compress an expression like “eating on the hog” into some sort drawing and the other guests will make wild guesses about it.
The drawings are pretty ingenious and Morgan contributes a certain raffish affability and good-natured sagacity, as emcee, but as a program it is a little formless so far and has a tendency to still at certain points, breathing heavily.

Affiliates yawned. The show was picked up by nine stations compared to Berle’s 47. It seems to have petered out over the summer, depending when kinescopes were delivered (“Draw” aired Thursdays in San Francisco, Fridays in Los Angeles). Of note to animation fans is one broadcast featured guest cartoonist Irv Spector. But “Draw To Win” may have given an inspiration to master game-show makers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman. Later in the year, Morgan was hired to be a panellist on their “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1952 where he achieved his greatest success (with the masses, at least) and got petulant with the lovely Betsy Palmer in the process.

Morgan was never shy about stating his opinions (he told his first wife he would leave her if he ever bought her a wedding ring; one reason she sued him for divorce). In fact, he did so with a Greek fraternity on an issue far removed from comedy, which John Crosby recorded for posterity. We’ll post Morgan’s surprise golden bough next week.

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