Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Gagging on Gags

Imagine one week you’re starring on your own show, and the next week you’re a supporting player on a show that’s taken your time-slot and sponsor. That’s what Louise Erickson had to endure.

It was no surprise, though. Billboard announced in its August 21, 1948 issue that Tums had purchased Alan Young to replace Erickson’s “A Date With Judy.” Judy’s contract ran until January 4, 1949. On January 11th, the Young show made its debut on NBC, costing $8,500 to produce, compared to $4,700 for “Judy.”

In a way, it wasn’t a debut. It was another in a series of shows featuring Young as a clutzy, eager young man with a girl-friend hinting at romance one minute and exasperated at his antics the next. Erickson joined Doris Singleton and Jean Gillespie on the list of actresses playing his suitors. It was a concept that was neither new to Young, nor to radio. Young was already busy. He was co-hosting a variety show with Jimmy Durante, having walked from “The Texaco Star Theatre” in March for not giving him enough air time. And he found time to get married to singer Virginia McCurdy in Tijuana during the run of the show.

How long Erickson stayed on the show is buried in newspapers or radio columns I haven’t uncovered. Broadcasting of March 22nd reported she had rejoined the cast of “Meet Corliss Archer.” The New York Times radio listings for April 26th list Shirley Mitchell in Young’s cast instead of Erickson. “A Date With Judy” returned to the air in the fall on another network (initially without a sponsor). George O’Hanlon took over July 12th as Young’s summer replacement. But Young never returned. The Times’ TV listings grew slowly over the course of 1948 and 1949, with new stations and longer programming days, as well as expanded networks. That’s where the stars were going and that’s where Young went.

Newspaperdom’s best-known radio critic may have been John Crosby, and he got to the bottom of what was wrong with Young’s radio show, which was written by Dave Schwartz, Artie Stander and Joe Young (Bob Fisher joined the staff in March). The column appeared in papers beginning April 18th. You’ll note the sly reference to Don Wilson’s best-known sponsor of the day. Young’s competition, by the way, was “Mr. and Mrs. North” (CBS), “America’s Town Meeting” (ABC, simulcast on TV) and “Share the Wealth” (Mutual). He was the lead-in for Bob Hope.


NEW YORK—The Alan Young show (NBC, 8:30 p.m. EST Tuesdays) is described in NBC press releases as situation and gag comedy, which is exactly what it is.
The situations aren't bad. The gags are awful. That doesn't mean necessarily that Young is batting .500. Some of his shows are almost all gags and his average sinks to .019. Others are almost all situation comedy in which case his batting average is more respectable.
Young plays the part of harassed, earnest, dewy-eyed young man, a sort of contemporary Harold Lloyd, who wants to be an actor and hasn't got anywhere. He has an agent named Ed Brady who steals his clothes and gambles all his money away on the horses. (The starting gate usually comes in ahead of Brady's horses.) He has a girl, Betty, who adores him but whose parents don't. She has a small, cynical brother who views his sister with the detachment of small, cynical brothers. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn't, it? Well, it is.
The one original note in the Young show is struck by Jim Backus, who plays the part of Hubert Updike, the biggest snob in radio. Updike, a wealthy young man whose accent is a parody of Harvard's, gives away all his folding money because the creases spoil the pictures, and likes to stroll in his garden to give his flowers a chance to smell him. He has blue jaundice. (You can't get it in this country. He had to send abroad for it).
Over the years Updike has developed a number of other eccentricities. He had to sell his new Cadillac because the tune played by the horn fell to No. 3 on the Hit Parade. And once he knocked a pedestrian 250 feet and had him arrested for leaving the scene of an accident.
Backus, who plays this highly flavored young man, is easily one of the best stooges in the business. I just hope they don't make a featured comic of him. You have to take Updike in small doses.
I'm also rather fond of the young brother, a perceptive little brat. Once when Young was scheduled to leave town and wailed that this would remove him from the sight of his girl friend's beautiful face, this youngster informed him that her eye lashes came off, her red cheeks came off, her lips came off. "I can put it in a box and ship it to you," he said.
There are a couple of other stooges—Nicodemus [Stewart], a colored man who sounds like his name, and Mr. Beagle, a nasal New England type who sounds like all the other nasal New England types! Young, in fact, is in danger of being overwhelmed by his own stooges. He's a personable and likable young man, but in this show he has surrounded himself with so many spicy characters he is easily the dimmest member of the cast. As to those terrible gags, if you want don’t want to take my word for it, here are some samples:
“Gamble all my money in a plumber’s shop? Oh, I couldn’t. I’m no plunger.”
“What do you want to be an actor for? One day you’re making love to Betty Grable, the next day you’re a has-been.”
“Yeah, but look where you has been.”
That’s enough for everyone?
One last word. Tums, which used to have the world’s worst commercials, no longer has the world’s worst commercials. Tums has Don Wilson in there pitching now and Wilson’s mellow voice—so round, so firm, so fully packed—is probably the only one in existence which can take the curse off all that chatter about acid indigestion.

Both Updike and Young went onto better things. Young won two Emmys for his early TV show, but later gained fame co-starring for six seasons with Mr. Ed and had a fine cartoon voice acting career. Updike was given a new name by a chap named Sherwood Schwartz and placed on an island with six other stranded castaways. And there he remains in endless reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” to this day.


  1. Eric O. Costello6 March 2014 at 03:10

    And, for that matter, a faint echo of Updike (Updyke?) can be seen and heard as the Djini in "A-Lad-In His Lamp" (WB, McKimson, 1948).

  2. Pretty much, E.O.
    And there's no consistent way to spell the character's name. I've seen it both ways in 1940s newspapers.