Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Cantor on Comedy

Eddie Cantor was star of vaudeville, Broadway (and song as a result), early sound films, radio and the first few years of network television which, more or less, was going full circle considering the nature of variety shows back then. So it would appear Cantor knew something about comedy.

He gave his viewpoint about it in an interview with the Brooklyn Eagle’s radio columnist, Jo Ranson, in a short piece published on October 17, 1940. It’s interesting to note that Cantor believed the comics who, in earlier radio times, played up to the studio audience weren’t on the air any more. Cantor’s memory was being selective. Fred Allen groused in Treadmill to Oblivion that Cantor wore funny costumes, beat his announcer and kicked his guests to get laughs from the studio audience, leaving the home listener baffled about what was so funny.

The story was published about two weeks after Cantor returned to the air after a season’s layoff. Radio histories will tell you Cantor had been immediately yanked off the air by his sponsor for a diatribe he made at the New York World’s Fair on June 13, 1939. That isn’t quite what happened, judging by contemporary reports. On May 24, 1939, Variety reported that Cantor would be going off the air on June 26. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco allowed a May 29 deadline pass without a decision about whether to renew Cantor’s contract so it would appear something was going on behind the scenes long before Cantor’s anti-bigotry speech at the Fair. The trade paper finally reported on June 28 that the maker of Camels decided not to pick up Cantor’s option. The speech may simply been the last straw; at this time Cantor was involved in a couple of lawsuits and a messy internal battle in the American Federation of Actors.

There is No Ersatz For Laughter, Cantor
It was in the month of October in the year 1931 that bug-eyed Eddie Cantor made his first appearance on the air. That was at 711 5th Ave. and Merlin H. Aylesworth was prexy of the outfit. Today Cantor, 10 years older and considerably more familiar with the ways of radio, is doing his stuff from Radio City, and he thinks radio has gone a mighty long way since the days of carbon mikes and the wobbly jokes of Ernie Hare and Billy Jones.
"Yes. there have been changes," he says. "They were slow in coming, but the changes have been for the better. The quality of radio comedy is at a higher level now than at any period in radio's history. Puns, jokes and wheezes have passed out of the picture. In their place we have situations involving real people. We are making actors living persons instead of machines that spout jokes. Radio comedy is building characters, not caricatures, and you can give Jack Benny credit for showing the way. He gave us real characters that every listener can recognize."
Faster Comedy Tempo
There's a faster tempo in radio comedy today, according to Cantor. "We're doing in a half-hour now what some programs used to do in an hour."
Cantor observes that comics today aren't playing up to studio audiences as much as they did in the past. "The boys who made people scream in the studios are not on the air any more." He added that funnymen don't make any more gags about Hedy Lamarr or Bing Crosby's nags. That passed out of the window last season. "Nowadays the comics cater to the home bodies. No comic has a right on the air unless he can see in his mind's eye the Nebraskans, the Alabamans, the Iowans and all the rest."
Cantor's Troupe
Speaking of the people who work with him on his current Wednesday program, he declared that Maude Davis, who plays Mrs. Waterfull, "has a better sense of timing than any woman I have ever worked with in my life." Harry Von Zell, his announcer, is "unquestionably the greatest announcer-actor-comedian in the business."
Regarding the future of radio comedy, Cantor holds that "there will be an avalanche, an epidemic of laughter. We need laughter as much as we need music. Laughter is a balance very necessary in these times. You will hear more and more laughter because people will be afraid NOT to laugh. If the dictators didn't suppress laughter they wouldn't have a chance, because laughter makes a people relax and think. As long as we can laugh we're safe. There have been substitutes for oil, for food and clothing, but never has there been a substitute for laughter. There has yet to be an ersatz laughter. Laughter is the most important thing in the world today. It is the oxygen tank to keep America alive today."

It’s no great surprise Cantor lavished praise on Harry Von Zell instead of the announcer of his last show. Bert Parks ended up suing Cantor in December for 26 weeks back salary and damages for what he claimed was a “setback to his career.” Considering Parks’ biggest fame was ahead, first with “Stop the Music” in the late ‘40s and then during a long tenure as the host of the Miss America pageant on TV, being bounced by Cantor didn’t hurt him a bit.

1 comment:

  1. To me, Bert Parks' career peak was portraying one Herbert Ruggles Tarlek, Sr.