Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Ignorant Comedy

Puns can be handled two ways—either in dead earnestness, as if the teller truly thinks they’re funny, or with tongue-glued-in-cheek that the listener can’t help but laugh at the idea anyone would try to get away with foisting tired old corn on them.

The latter can apply to old vaudeville acts, animated cartoons and a quiz show that appeared on both radio and TV. It was called “It Pays to Be Ignorant,” and threw out questions and answers like this—

“How can you tell a Jersey cow?”
“By its license plate.”

“It Pays to Be Ignorant” was welcome relief to some who were bored by the languid stuffiness of the venerable “Information Please” where pretentious questions were asked of highbrow panelists. “Ignorant” parodied intellectual quizzes by being the least intellectual programme on radio, where a question like “Who wrote Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?” would bring about a barrage of groaners from the brain-dead panel on writing, Beethoven, the number nine, phonies and anything remotely connected with them. Much like a Tex Avery cartoon at MGM, the jokes came so fast you didn’t have time to think about them before the next one slapped you.

The show was created by Tom Howard’s daughter Ruth and her husband when she worked in local radio in New Haven, Conn. She took it to her dad, who reworked it and shopped it around. Finally the Mutual station in New York, WOR, debuted “Ignorant” on June 25, 1942 and it ended its radio life on NBC on September 26, 1951, making stops on TV in 1949 and 1951.

The proceedings weren’t too silly for venerable Herald Tribune syndicate columnist John Crosby. He would have panned the show if he thought it was trying to be seriously funny. It took him about six years to review it. Here’s his column from about November 4, 1948.

Radio In Review

The Corn Is Green
IN A medium where corn, as the word is understood in show business, has become a respected and lucrative though non-agricultural industry, “It Pays to Be Ignorant” deserves, and in my case, achieves a great measure of respect simply because the program harvests more per acre than any other.
For the benefit of those —as they say on the radio—who tuned in late, “It Pays to Be Ignorant” is a veteran program both in respect to its age as a show and to the ripeness of its participants.
It is a parody on all quiz programs; its moderator, Tom Howard, and its three experts—Harry McNaughton, Lulu McConnell and George Shelton—are cheerfully ignorant of all rational information but appear to have forgotten nothing ever written by Joe Miller.
AS REGARDS the jokes, no program on the air is more shameless. They tell jokes on this program that would cause even Joe Miller some embarrassment; they tell these ancient wheezes in a self-confident, unceasing roar that ranges from Tom Howard's fog horn tenor through McNaughton’s bleating mockery of an English accent to Lulu McDonnell’s gravel-voiced screech.
The technique is simple. Howard howls a question at his experts, a really difficult question such as: “In what country is the Bank of England?”
Pandemonium then breaks out. No one ever gets around to answering the question but, for the next three minutes, the air is blue with every joke about banks, about money, about England—each worse than the last one but each exploded at you with such idiotic good humor, with such speed and above all with such mastery of timing and inflection that you haven’t time to examine the joke’s antecedents.
“IN WHAT COUNTRY is the Bank of England?” howls Tom Howard. “Mr. McNaughton, there’s a question you ought to know.”
“Yes, indeed,” squeals that raffish Englishman, McNaughton.
“You mean you know it?”
“No, I mean I ought to.”
“Where is the Bank of England?” repeats Howard, louder than the first time.
“Don’t tell me you’ve lost the Bank of England already!” bellows Shelton.
“HE’S JUST misplaced it,” shrieks McNaughton.
Miss McConnell at this point interposes her voice, which fortunately is inimitable: “I keep my money in a mattress.”
“Why do you keep your money in a mattress?”
“So I have something to fall back on.”
“Miss McConnell,” roars Howard, “you already have something to fall back on.”
“My wife keeps her money in a silk stocking,” screams McNaughton. “It’s a joint account.”
“Let’s get back to the question,” screams Howard. “Where is the . . . ”
“I WISH I HAD enough money to buy an elephant,” whispers Shelton, rattling the chandeliers.
“Why do you want to buy an elephant?”
“I don’t. I just wish I had that much money.”
“I don’t need money,” howls somebody. “I got rich relatives.”
“You got rich relatives?”
“I got a cousin in Arizona who’s worth $10,000.”
“You got a cousin worth $10,000?”
“Well, that’s what the sheriff is offering for him.”
THESE TERRIBLE and wonderful gags hurtle out of your microphone at a speed considerably greater than sound is accustomed to travel; the teamwork of the four veteran comics is extraordinarily good, each one playing straight man when the occasion requires, and, even making generous allowance for my personal idiosyncrasies, I’m forced to conclude they are very funny people.

Let’s see if you can hear the pun-fest. Click on the arrow below and you should hear a show broadcast on the Armed Forces Radio Service on October 5, 1945. The AFRS took network shows, edited out the commercials and dated references, then recorded the edited version onto transcription discs that were sent to military radio stations.

1 comment:

  1. Even for a punster like me, It Pays to be Ignorant is an ordeal at times. Information Please is at it's worst entertaining, and at best a delight.