Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Joke's Over

How many times have you said “Enough already!” when you’re on-line and see that’s someone’s still joking about something that’s been milked to death? Perhaps you’ve used a stronger phrase.

Like the aforementioned milk, pop culture has a time limit before it starts to go sour and is replaced by something else. It happens in music, it happens on television and it happens with humour. If it didn’t, we’d still be listening to Alma Gluck records, watching The Des O’Connor Show and laughing at Earl Butz jokes.

But some people just don’t recognise when something is past its best-before date. And that was the complaint of eye-rolling radio critic John Crosby in a column of May 5, 1948.

Crosby’s column was kind a two-parter. The first dealt with the latest comeback by Phil Baker. Baker had been a top vaudeville comedian in the 1920s, whose routine involved getting heckled by a stooge he planted in the audience. He was among the top comics who jumped into radio within about 18 months of each other. Baker beat Doc Rockwell, Harry Richman, Walter O’Keefe, Julius Tannen and Phil Cook in an audition for a variety show for Armour that began in March 1933 and, at $3,700 per broadcast, was the most expensive programme originating from Chicago at the time. The ‘30s rolled on, but Baker fell out of the top echelon of radio stars. He reinvigorated his career at the end of 1941 when he took over from Bob Hawk as the host of a game show on CBS.

The second part of the column involved a Crosby favourite, the jaded Henry Morgan, who vocalised his distaste for a lot of the things Crosby didn’t like about network radio. Comedians, beginning with Jack Benny, made fun of their sponsors. Morgan went further. He was on the scale between utter disdain and contempt. Benny was joking. Morgan seemed deadly serious. Not coincidentally, Morgan didn’t keep sponsors very long. One of them was Standard Laboratories, for a brief period between January 29 and June 24, 1948 (the contract was for 52 weeks). Variety gave the debut a “here’s the problem with it” review, believing Morgan’s satire was not always polished and he only had enough good material to last 15 minutes instead of a full half hour. Crosby found some different problems.

Here’s the review.

Radio in Review
New Quiz, Old Morgan

There’s a new quiz show on the air, if any one is interested, called “Everybody Wins.” There is nothing else new about it except the candor of its title. Everybody has always won on these things but this show brings the matter out in the open. The chief distinction of “Everybody Wins” is that it restores Phil Baker to the microphone and, on the basis of his opening performance, that isn’t much of a distinction.
Baker seemed hostile not only to “Everybody Wins” but also to quiz shows in general and quiz contestants in particular. This feeling is by no means confined to Mr. Baker, but it’s a little surprising to find him sharing it since he’s been mixed up in this form of activity for quite a spell. For years he asked people to take it or leave it on the show of that name and finally left it himself, presumably because he could no longer stomach handing out $64 to the curious people who infested the place. Yet here he is back again passing out cash to people he gave every evidence of loathing. Some macabre compulsion, probably.
Because of his long layoff, he was also a little out of touch with the current fashions in jokes. There was one about Easter bonnets and an even more belated gag about Howard Hughes, two topics which have been laid aside temporarily by the more hep comedians.
About all else you need to know about this show is that listeners send in five questions. If a contestant gets them all right, the listener who sent in the questions gets $100. If the contestant gets them all wrong, the listener gets $100. Everybody wins all right. That’s enough on the subject.
Whenever you consider people with an apparent loathing for their profession you run squarely into Henry Morgan. One of Morgan devoted fans once told me he had bought an Eversharp Schick razor in spite of the scorn with which Henry treated it. He begged me not to tell Morgan about it, fearing he would lose the comedian’s respect. I believe he bought it at an obscure little drugstore in Harlem where he wasn’t known. Probably asked for it in whispers. I’m not altogether sure it’s the function of a comedian to put the product that pays the bill into this position. I don’t say he has to sell the product exactly but I don’t think he should try to prevent people from buying it.
On his new program, which is new only in that it’s at a different time and under different sponsorship, Mr. Morgan has to some degree curbed his dislike of consumer products. He still delivers commercials but he remains extraordinarily aloof from them. His detachment from the marvels of Rayve Cream Shampoo—even while he’s talking about them—is as marvelous and complete as that of Edgar Bergen from Charlie McCarthy.
Mr. Morgan, one of the most talented and least manageable comics on the air, has been a little spotty this year. I bring it up only because I’m fond of the boy and this hurts me worse than it does him. Morgan has gained ease and polish as a performer but the scripts are partly bright, partly terrible and partly just tired.
For quite a while now, for reasons not apparent to me, Mr. Morgan has been carrying on something called the “John J. Morgan Trouble Clinic,” a satire and quite a vicious little one on John J. Anthony. This would be a noble project if Mr. Anthony were still on the air. But he isn’t. (Or if he is, he’s out of my range.) There must be fresher idiocies to parody than that one.
Also, Mr. Morgan has developed quite a crush on Phil Silvers, who’s [sic] been present four times this season. Seems to me a man who’s been around that long should lose his status as guest star and take his turn at the bathroom like every one else. I have nothing in particular against Mr. Silvers, but his appearance four times indicates a lack of imagination somewhere.
To pass on to pleasanter aspects, Morgan’s weekly tilts with that tired, perennially distrustful Gerard (Arnold Stang) are a joy; Bernie Green’s orchestra, which behaves like a drunken player-piano, massacres popular music even more convincingly than Spike Jones. And, of course, there’s Morgan himself who, after two years, still manages to avoid the comedy cliches of all the other radio comedians. But he’d better be careful not to develop his own cliches.

1948 wasn’t the best year for Morgan. Besides Rayve dropping his show, his movie So This is New York didn’t do well at the box office and his TV show, being broadcast from Philadelphia because ABC had no facilities in New York yet, was abruptly cancelled because of television’s first technicians strike.

And Morgan also lost his announcer during this period. Charlie Irving sounds a lot like actor John Brown to me, but Morgan’s sponsor thought he sounded like someone else. From Weekly Variety of March 24, 1948:
Too Much Morgan
After two years with the Henry Morgan show, Charles Irving has been dropped as announcer because "he sounds too much like Henry Morgan."

Two replacements were hired. Bob Sheppard to read the commercials and (after exhaustive auditions) Doug Browning to do the opening and closing announcements and play stooge bits. Doug Browning was dropped after one broadcast, and Glen Riggs now has the assignment.
Decision to replace Irving was made by the client, Rayve shampoo, and the agency, Roche, Williams & Cleary, after an analysis by comedy consultant Ernest Walker indicated that Morgan "lacks identification" and that his and Irving's voices sound similar at times.
Incidentally, Morgan didn’t take Crosby’s advice. He dragged out another parody of Mr. Anthony on his broadcast of Oct. 1, 1948. You can hear it below. Cartoon fans should recognise the woman who plays Big Sister-in-Law in the soap opera sketch and the distressed woman in the John J. Anthony parody.

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