Wednesday, 13 May 2015

It Pays To Be Ignorant

In 1959, as network radio sputtered toward its death, CBS melded some familiar elements into a show called “Funny Side Up.” It featured Kenny Delmar and Parker Fennelly basically reviving their “Allen’s Alley” characters under new names (with Delmar substituting Texan jokes for Southern jokes). They were two-thirds of a panel engaged in scripted banter on material sent in by the audience, pretty much like the premise of the parody quiz show “It Pays To Be Ignorant.” “Funny Side Up” wasn’t funny. It was flat.

Astute critic John Crosby hit on the thing that made “Ignorant” such a fun show to listen to. It was tightly-scripted but seemed out of control. The show’s tempo was manic. Wheezy old or obvious jokes didn’t get a chance to lie there—unlike the sedate, suburban proceedings of “Funny Side Up.” They were like a Tex Avery cartoon: set-up, ridiculous punchline, on to the next set-up before anyone has a chance to realise it’s an old groaner.

Here’s Crosby’s review from the start of the 1946-47 radio season.

NEW YORK, Sept. 6.—In a book on fashions, I once recall reading that a particular fashion in, let us say, women’s clothes was ridiculous 15 years after it was introduced, quaint and amusing 50 years later, and a classic 100 years later.
It doesn't take that long for a joke to become a classic. The jokes in "It Pays to Be Ignorant” already have all the attributes of the classic, although I don't suppose these jokes are more than 20 years old. But, like Greek statuary, they follow a rigid pattern laid down by the early masters, and through the years have acquired the yellowed and nostalgic patina of old marble.
This satire on quiz programs is still as corny as Iowa in August and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It’s a lot of fun, too, if you like that sort of thing. Perhaps I’d better give you a sample of the goings-on in “It Pays To Be Ignorant” and let you judge the program for itself.
Tom Howard is quiz master and he is flanked by a battery of experts, consisting of George Shelton, Harry McNaughton and Lulu McConnell. All four are veteran vaudevillians steeped in the wisdom of Joe Miller. If they know anything else, they keep it a deep secret.
Mr. Howard plucks an amateur from the audience and asks him a skull-cracking question such as “How many stories has a three-story house?” Before the poor man has a chance to open his mouth, the experts start throwing gags around like Indian clubs.
“Is the house for rent?”
“If you don’t know where the house is, why don’t you tell that to the people? I’m going to report you to the APU.”
“I once built a house in the country.”
“Well, you built it all wrong. It’s upside-down.”
“No wonder I keep falling off the porch.”
“Let’s get back to question,” yells Howard. “How many stories has a three-story house?”
“My sister in Kansas City has a four-story house.”
“Well, that’s another story.”
So far as I know, no one ever answers any of these questions. Suddenly, Mr. Howard remembers the amateur, or non-expert, who, I guess, simply shifts from one foot to another while this bedlam goes on. The amateur is given a prize of $25.15 and 204 cigarets for no apparent reason, but that shouldn't astonish any one who has ever heard a quiz program.
“It Pays To Be Ignorant” would be unbearable if it didn’t move so rapidly. Before you have a chance to detect the ripeness of these antique gags, three more come shooting through your loud-speaker.
“I was a comedian in a hospital—I kept the patient in stitches.”
“I've been married for fourteen years and I’m still in love. If my wife ever finds out, she’ll kill me.”
“I have a nice girl now—her name is Bottle.”
“I bet she’s a corker.”
“What do you expect for Father’s Day?”
“The bills for Mother’s Day.”
“What lives in a henhouse?”
“Is it for rent?"
These gags are delivered in a rich medley of accents. Howard has a voice like a hoarse bullfrog. Miss McConnell’s voice will remind you of a gravel chute in full operation. As for the amateurs, they simply sound bewildered.

For CBS, it didn’t pay to be ignorant. The network had been airing the show on Friday nights at 9 but looked at the ratings and suddenly replaced it on February 1, 1946 with a sitcom written by Abe Burrows called “Holiday and Company.” The numbers were even worse. “It Pays To Be Ignorant” returned May 2nd. The show began in 1942 as a sustainer on WOR/Mutual, bounced to CBS and then over to NBC, where it finished out its run on radio in 1951. The show premiered for a short run on television on WCBS on June 6, 1949 (opposite a movie on NBC and “Doorway to Fame” on DuMont) and there were TV revivals in each of the next three decades (the 1951 effort on NBC featured the original cast). By the way, to the right you can see the ignorance of one of the radio fan magazines. The misidentified cast depicted is from another show, “Can You Top This?”.

You can listen to an Armed Forces Radio edited version of some ignorance from 1943 below.

1 comment:

  1. This is really freaky! Just this morning I was talking about the 70s TV version of “It Pays To Be Ignorant” hosted by Joe Flynn. Very funny. I used to have a few of the radio shows on cassette tape years ago.