Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Radio's Smart Dummy

There was a time when the most popular show on network radio starred someone who wasn’t real.

Charlie McCarthy was an invention of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, who took advantage of the fact that radio was a sound medium. On radio, you couldn’t see that Charlie was a ventriloquist’s dummy. But you could hear the sarcasm and insults McCarthy directed at every man in his path (with movie starlets, his behaviour was predictably different), so he sounded like any real, flesh-and-blood person who came through the radio speaker. People say that ventriloquism shouldn’t have worked on radio. It’s very simple. No one listening thought of Bergen and McCarthy as a ventriloquist act or, at least, filed it in the back of their minds. They thought of Charlie as someone who was larger than life.

Bergen was blessed with Zeno Klinker, Keith Fowler (a drinking buddy of Charlie’s on-air nemesis, W.C. Fields) and other fine writers who managed to avoid making McCarthy’s invectives sound forced, as well as his own quick-wittedness to add his own when the occasion suddenly presented itself.

Someone noted for barbs was Herald-Tribune critic John Crosby. He continually aimed at overused and obvious premises, trite plots and inane dialogue which filled Old Time Radio. The 1946-47 season arrived. On a Monday, Crosby gave a qualified passing grade to the low-key Ethel and Albert. The next day, he decried Judy Canova as non-inspirational. The following day, he turned to his old friends Bergen and McCarthy. Crosby had his perennial favourites—Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Henry Morgan (who he reviewed that week) to name some—and Charlie McCarthy was on the list. But Crosby had no reservations about telling the big stars they stunk. He did that in the following column:


NEW YORK, Sept. 11.—The flame trees are turning scarlet on Fire Island, the Atlantic feels like shaved ice, and the smell of wood smoke is in the air again. On a recent Sunday night, like the smell of burning leaves, came another small but unmistakable sign that Autumn is almost here.
“Why are you late?” inquired Edgar Bergen of that small razor-tongued hedonist whose voice is familiar to about 70,000,000 Americans.
“Because I didn’t get here on time,” said Charlie, who hasn’t changed a bit.
“Why didn’t you get here on time?”
“Because I was late. You want to go around again?”
Lordy, lordy, I said to myself, I’ve been treading water all summer long and at last land is in sight. The McCarthy show was the first smart comedy program I’ve heard in what seems like forever. If I get a little hysterical, ignore it; I’m over-wrought. In fact, I’m fed up with Summer, let’s face it. I’m tired of wet bathing suits and sand in my hair and Flynn’s bar and grill. I’d like a martini, very dry, at the St. Regis and I want to wear shoes again, the leather kind, and I wish Fred Allen were back.
Charlie was in rare form. He’d intended, he said, to spend the Summer improving his mind but spent most of it improving his technique. And his technique, one of the most subtle and sure-footed in radio, is as sharp as ever.
After considerable meditation, Charlie tells Bergen he plans quit radio. “You don’t know what you’re saying,” says Bergen. “Oh, yes, I do. I read your lips.”
Bergen points out that quitting radio is a serious step but Charlie is adamant. “I decided I’m getting no place and you’re helping me.”
“But, Charlie . . .”
“No no no no no no. I say no and that’s final. I’m using my veto power. I’m walking.”
“But you mean so much to everyone.”
“Especially you. You get your pound of flesh for 75 cents.”
“But if you left radio, what would you do? Remember, Charlie, Satan has work for idle hands.”
“Yeah? What does he pay?”
I’ve heard better dialogue but one thing every McCarthy show has is a distinctive McCarthy flavor. Charlie is a rounded, fully developed character with more flesh and blood than a dozen Abbott and Costellos. Over the years, Bergen has endowed this small self-possessed cynic with a heart and a soul as well as a highly articulate set of vocal chords. Charlie is America’s Pinocchio.
I’ve never been a Mortimer Snerd man. Snerd, it seems to me, is one joke, endlessly repeated. But, in my new benign end-of-summer moody my feeling changed toward this slack-jawed imbecile who is only barely conscious he is alive. Mortimer, in case you hadn’t heard, spent the Summer in school. It came as a great shock to him to discover that school has been out all Summer, though, he said, he’d become a little suspicious when he won all the games at recess.
Guest star on the McCarthy program on that Sunday was Jimmy Stewart who proved again that movie stars, particularly one who has been in the Army for five years, shouldn’t get mixed up with the experts in front of a microphone. Mr. Stewart, bless his shy, wide-eyed American soul, was just plain awful and, if he didn’t have such a fine war record, I’d tell him so.

While a star that was a wooden dummy proved not to be a problem on radio, television was a bit of a different matter. Radio listeners already envisioned Charlie McCarthy as a living, breathing, talking, walking character, not something sitting on a guy’s knee. That made it a little difficult to build a televised comedy/variety show around him. Still, Bergen and McCarthy found a place on the TV game show “Who Do You Trust” (sitting at a desk was the only thing necessary). The pair retired in the mid-60s, only to return to the stage five years later (sitting on a stool was the only thing necessary). He announced his impending farewell to an audience in Las Vegas in 1978. It really was “farewell.” Bergen died two weeks later on September 30th at the age of 75. Charlie moved to the Smithsonian, showing his lasting impact he had on American culture.

Note: Crosby’s next column dealt with a special show on Mutual with a unique framing device: the “Unknown Soldier” of World War Two rose from the grave and discovered how little the world had progressed in the year since peace was signed with Japan, thanks to greed, hypocrisy, racism and and the prospect of atomic war.

1 comment:

  1. In one of the Fibber McGee and Molly features that Bergen and McCarthy (and Snerd) appeared in, they had either a child or a midget dressed as Charlie McCarthy for long shots in scenes in which he was walking around, and when he was dancing with women in a musical number. It looked really strange.