Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Quintessence of Nothing

Was there a radio star more quoted than Fred Allen?

It’s hard to pin down Allen as a cynic, pessimist or a realist. Perhaps he was a bit of all three, judging by what he had to say about the entertainment industry of his day and California, a particular topic of dislike. Many of his observations have been preserved and requoted, but some are buried in old newspaper columns that we have endeavoured to pull from dusty archives and bring to you.

Buried amongst Fred’s disappointments and annoyances are some cute one-liners that he would have used on his radio show—if he had a radio show. At the time of this column, December 19, 1951, he barely had a TV show. He, Jerry Lester and Bob Hope were appearing on a rotational basis as the hosts of “Sound Off Time,” a live Sunday night variety show that petered out in early 1952. At least one TV failure awaited him before he found a modest level of comfort (and he decidely looks uncomfortable on certain broadcasts) as a panelist on “What’s My Line.”

Fred Allen Raps Favorite Targets
HOLLYWOOD, Dec. 19.— (AP)—Sour-faced comedian Fred Allen, here for a movie stint, paused long enough to level a blast at his favorite target—vice presidents. Allen has long been a critic of the executive mind, particularly in the air networks and advertising agencies. He blames such bigwigs for television’s failings, including his own.
“My shows have been pretty bad,” he admitted openly, “except the last one. The reason is that until now I had been doing what everybody else said I was supposed to do. But on the last one, I disregarded their advice and did the kind of show I wanted. The sponsor was dropping the series anyway, so what, did I have to lose?
Many Screwy Notions.
“These executives have a lot of screwy, notions about TV. They say everything has to have movement. Even if you’re standing still and doing a monologue, there has to be two guys running around behind you.
“After all, entertainment is entertainment, whether you’re running a race or standing still. But you can't convince executives of that. I’ve always thought that the meeting of executive minds produced the quintessence of nothing.”
The Boston comic has had many a run-in with executives. It started back with his first air show. The wife of one of the sponsors liked organ music.
“We were trying to put on a snappy show,” recalled Allen, “but we had to stop in the middle of it to switch to the New York Paramount for two minutes of organ music.”
Influence Rapped.
He believes that the advertiser’s influence in TV produced a bad effect, “just as it did in radio.”
“The TV performer has the same importance as the label on a can,” he argued. “The show itself is not important; it’s whether the show can sell the product. “I think it’s bad in any medium when the entertainment quality is not the important thing. A discriminating audience has certainly helped the movie business. Pictures had to get better, because people found out they could eat popcorn right out in the open; they didn’t have to go in darkened theaters to do it.”
Allen is here to play a TV performer in a sequence of “We’re Not Married.” I asked him if he planned any more pictures.
“No,” he replied. “I was never any good in pictures, and I never really had pictures written for me. I did my first one because they couldn’t get Ned Sparks. I did another because they liked the first one. Then, I did one with Jack Benny because we were supposed to be fighting on the radio.
“Besides, I’m tied down to an exclusive deal with NBC. They won’t let me work for any other network. Even when I’m not working, I’m not working for NBC.”
I remarked that he was looking amazingly well for Allen. Even the bags under his eyes were small valises.
“I’ve been on a diet for two years because of my high blood pressure,” he explained. “I can’t eat anything with salt. In fact, I can’t even return to New York by way of Salt Lake City when I go back; that's how strict it is.
“I had to give up drinking and smoking, too. At my age (57), I’m not allowed any pleasures. Why do I work? Just for the convenience of the treasury department.”


  1. Allen's comments about network competence, advertising interference and the demanding nature of the Internal Revenue Service folks would feel right at home coming out of the mouths of any of today's TV comedians, which may or may not be ironic, given Fred's distaste for television.

  2. I don't think things really change all that much, J.L.

    1. True, Yowp. But Allen's cynical/pessimistic/realistic takes on things -- especially the pop culture of the time -- were more up front than most other comedians of the time period. Fred obviously wasn't as coarse as some of today's comedians (and pretty much disdained TV in large part for its coarseness, while others today embrace it for the same reason), but the overall tone is in the same ballpark.