Wednesday, 27 November 2013

More George and Gracie

George Burns and Gracie Allen were among the radio stars who jumped into television. They did it successfully, remaining on the air until Gracie had enough and retired in 1958.

There were a few changes when the show became visual. Harry Von Zell replaced announcer Bill Goodwin, son Ronnie played a role, and George chatted with the audience as if he were on a stage with his “life” going on in the background. But the show still focused on Gracie’s mangling of logic as the characters around her—as well as the audience—stopped to think “What did she just say?”

Syndicated columnist John Crosby had a look at the TV show—and he wasn’t all that happy with it. Then he took another look and felt a little better about it.

The first story appeared in newspapers on November 3, 1950.

More In Sorrow Than In Anger
Television makes me nervous from time to time and, in trying to track down this particular neurosis, I have reached something approximating a conclusion.
At least this is as close to a conclusion as I ever get. I get particularly jumpy when the old entertainers approach television for the first time. I sit there, palm sweating, hoping they’ll be good.
I consider this an imposition on my good nature. It’s really none of my business whether the old entertainers, the ones who were world famous in radio, are worth their salt (a word meaning $7,000) in television. Still checking around my small circle of friends, I find they do this too.
Radio is such an intimate medium that these performers become friends of the family. When they embark on TV, you feel pretty much as if they were your small son undertaking the Gettysburg address at commencement.
You hope to God he remembers his lines, that he doesn’t fiddle with his necktie and that he doesn’t fall flat on his face when he makes his exit.
I was struck with this nervousness particularly sharply by the Burns and Allen television debut. Now, George Burns, despite all evidence to the contrary, is one of Hollywood’s wittiest citizens.
Their opening show, I’m told, was three months in preparation. And I can’t understand what happened to all that time and all that intelligence. Not that it was a bad show.
In fact, it was a pretty good one. But it didn’t seem up to all that travail. The jokes were all on what you might call the middle level, as if Mr. Burns was afraid of going over our heads.
They were also, I’m afraid, familiar jokes, and here again I got the feeling that this was deliberate, as if Mr. B. felt that old jokes are soothing to old customers, that a new joke might upset our digestions.
If this is the approach Mr. Burns is using, I would like to register strong disapproval.
I feel affronted when I am treated like a backward child, and I have a hunch other listeners do too. The Burns and Allen television show is a carefully done replica of the Burns and Allen radio show.
In fact, the Burns and Allen radio program has been treated with a reverence generally accorded only to the restoration of public buildings.
As a gesture toward the visible aspects of television, the Burns had fragmentary settings of their house and the house of their next door neighbors who were, and always have been, important parts of the Burns and Allen plots.
However, the goings-on in these houses are exactly as they were in the old days. Gracie still befuddles door-to-door salesmen with her terrible innocence of all matters practical. George’s badinage with his announcer, Bill Goodwin, has not changed a syllable.
A lot of it was very amusing, but none of it seemed to belong on television.
One thing I’ve noticed about virtually all the old radio comics, newly transferred to television. They all talk too much. George Burns even acts as narrator on his show.
Well, of course, one had to have a narrator on radio to inform us that Gracie had just got back from the grocery store. But on TV, we more or less assume that Gracie has been shopping when she walks into the living room with a bagful of groceries.
Still, George insisted on telling us these plainly visible things. The only explanation I have for this strange behavior if that George Burns doesn’t really believe that television actually exists, that he doesn’t believe a picture is being transmitted, that he thinks the whole thing, in short, is a monumental hoax.
I say all this more in sorrow than in anger because I think Burns and Allen are two very gifted and charming comedians. And anyone who has ever talked to George Burns for 10 minutes will tell you that he is a very funny fellow.
I just wish he wouldn’t supress his wit so skillfully on the air.

And this is Crosby revisiting the show. The column is from May 8, 1951.

Small Apology And A Few Posies
I took a pretty dim view of the original Burns and Allen television show. Now I’m prepared to take it back. Well, some of it anyhow.
It struck me originally that Mr. Burns and Miss Allen showed entirely too much reverence for their radio show. In fact their TV show departed not at all from the old formula which the Burnses have lived on successfully for so many years.
These complains still are entirely valid. The Burns and Allen show (CBS-TV 7 p.m. alternate Thursdays) still resembles their radio show to a remarkable degree.
But I’m afraid it works rather well, much as I hate to admit it. George still opens the show with a bit of narration, setting the scene, as it were, just as if it were a radio show despite the fact that the scene is all set for him.
Still, he’s a pretty funny monologist and this little patch of radio is not at all hard to take.
Miss Allen always has been a favorite of mine because of her social and magnificent gift for feminine irrelevance.
Irrelevance, of course, is not confined entirely to Miss Allen, all women being pretty gifted in this direction. But Miss Allen is especially comforting to male listeners who have been driven nuts from time to time by their wives’ habit of wandering about a mile away from the point.
After listening to Gracie for a bit, you breathe a sigh of relief and reflect that the old girl isn’t THAT bad.
Most of Gracie’s gags are as visual as possible on the TV show.
Gracie, for example, reading a cookbook: “For best results, frankfurters should not be cooked long.” So she chops them up short.
Gracie is a menace whenever she dips her nose into a cookbook. Once she read that fairly familiar line: “Roll in cracker crumbs.” She rolled in them.
What, what can you expect from a girl who drives with the emergency brake on so as to be ready for any emergency? Or one who says: “Oh, that’s too bad. I hope he didn’t die of anything serious.”
Of course, a good deal of Gracie’s nonsense comes perilously close to horse sense. Gracie, for example, bedeviling a tax expert: “Where does the money go?”
“Well, for example, it helps pay your congressman.”
“Why not just list him as a dependent? You mean Republicans help pay Truman’s salary?”
“Yes, they do.”
“That’s certainly rubbing it in, isn’t it?”

Louella Parsons broke the story on February 19, 1958 that Gracie was retiring at the end of the TV season. Burns went it alone for a year with a revised situation. A heart attack claimed Gracie Allen six years later. Her humour still holds up, and will so long as you can turnaround words in the English language.


  1. Crosby was a VERY cynical radio/TV critic. Sometimes, he had to be "prodded" into taking another look at a show he initially "sneered" at.
    David Bianculli, formerly of the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, has a similar attitude- when he reviewed "DEAL OR NO DEAL" during its initial week in 2005, he didn't care for it. However, it became a hit DESPITE his negative review...and I'm sure his friends {or family} must have said to him, "Look, David, go back and take another look at that show. It's BETTER than you think!!!". He did....and, like Crosby, he was "won over" by it, and gave it a positive review a short time later.
    And then there was the time he was all ready to hate "SURVIVOR" before its premiere in the summer of 2000. In his brief notice about the show in the DAILY NEWS that night it initially aired, he noted, "Meanwhile, the Professor tries to make a radio transmitter out of a coconut" {a reference to "GILLIGAN'S ISLAND", which he LOATHED}. And the next day...."Mr. Teleliteracy" gave "SURVIVIOR" a RAVE review! And he's been a champion of it, ever since. Which goes to show that some critics are often their own worst enemies.....

  2. The "cracker crumbs" gag was actually delivered by George in one of his opening monologues: "Once, Gracie was frying fish, and I had to buy her a new dress. The recipe called for her to 'roll in cracker crumbs'...."

  3. Burns and Alllen was one of those shows that was heavily tweaked for a variety of reasons during its first few seasons, almost always for the better. Harry Morton is a relatively 'soft' character in the early going -- the arrival of Fred Clark made him a much better foil for Gracie, since it allowed him to be frustrated/angry over Gracie's convoluted logic (Larry Keating's Harrry Morton was even better, because his use of sophisticated synonyms allowed him to insult Gracie in ways she could then misconstrue, further irking him in the process.

    Both of Crosby's columns here also came prior to the switch from Bill Goodwin to Harry von Zell as announcer, which was another improvement to the cast. Von Zell already had displayed enough comedy timing for Jules White at Columbia to put him in a couple of short subjects, and his passive befuddlement gave Gracie a new foil along with Blanche to pinball her ideas off of (along with making George's continuous firing of Harry a running gag in later seasons). Bill Goodwin's persona, in contrast, was as more of a confident outsider who was above getting involved with Gracie's shenanigans -- good for pushing product, but not as good in moving the plot along.