The question has arisen “Where did the word ‘tralfaz’ come from?” Those of you reading here on a regular basis likely know it was the original name of Astro the dog in Hanna-Barbera’s “The Jetsons,” and had been used several times before that in various Warner Bros. cartoons (Warren Foster wrote for both studios). And we tracked down a variation before that from the Burns and Allen radio show which we discussed here.
But there’s an even earlier reference, one that also comes from network radio.
Cliff Nazarro was a vaudevillian who eventually adopted a gimmick that brought him work. He came up with a double-talk act. Jack Benny loved it and started using Nazarro on his radio show.
Here’s Nazarro talking about his self-minted vocabulary in an article that appeared in the New York Sun of March 4, 1939.
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IT’S GIBBERISH BUT IT PAYS WELL
Double Talk of Cliff Nazarro Started as Hobby.
When a man wins a prize for perfect diction, that's not news. But when a chap wins the hilarious approval of millions of listeners for being utterly incoherent, that’s Cliff Nazarro.
Cliff, he of the glib tongue which pours forth a conglomeration of senseless syllables, is radio’s Doctor of Double Talk today. But until a year ago this smallish man in his early thirties had been successively a juvenile and musical comedy singer on Broadway, a vaudeville master of ceremonies and a radio crooner.
Nazarro is not the originator of doubletalk nor is his current stock in trade anything new. Doubletalk has been a well-known prank among vaudevillians for years. Cliff, however, certainly deserves the credit far using radio to make America doubletalk conscious.
A mere half-dosen words, original Nazarro creations, are the secret to his baffling double-talk on the Benny shows. After sin exhaustive search for words which sound almost but not quite legitimate, Cliff simmered the list down to the following: Pul-gin-dasiphin, rastrot, tralfaz, stafferzat, albal-jul-dundee and bersopher. Try them on your own larynx.
Although the words are obviously phony when spoken slowly, by the time Cliff rattles them off in his machine-gun-like delivery, they’re enough to confuse any microphone.
Started as a Hobby.
Doubletalk had been just a hobby—a gag with which to torment unsuspecting victims—to the five-foot-three-inch verbal dynamo during his career on the stage. He seldom used the bewildering banter professionally, although he had become quite adept at making head waiters and policemen think they'd better be fitted for ear trumpets before he outgrew juvenile roles.
When the bottom dropped out of vaudeville, Cliff was making a tour of the West as master of ceremonies of a Fanchon and Marco unit. Like another trouper named Jack Benny, Nazarro saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to try radio. Unlike his present boss, however, Cliff never guessed that his forte might be straight comedy. On the stags Cliff had sung sad songs, tempered with a line of patter and a comic piano routine. After landing a job as singer on a San Francisco radio station, Cliff pigeon-holed his doubletalk for a while and became serious about his new work. For several months he sang with Meredith Wilson's orchestra over a coast-to-coast NBC hookup, recorded occasionally and devoted all his time to music.
Then one day, while hanging around the studio after a show, he started ribbing a very serious piano tuner with his doubletalk. The ivory osteopath’s bewilderment struck bystanders so funny that the station manager soon heard of the incident.
Against his better judgment, Cliff was induced to take a fling at doubletalk on the air. Although he argued that it was a visual as well as audible trick, he wrote a skit involving a doubletalk payoff and presented it on a West Coast sustaining program. The listener response proved his misgivings to be foundless.
Warned Against Diction.
One old lady summed it all up beautifully when she wrote: "Dear sir, I enjoyed your skit tremendously and think you're a very clever comedian, but please do try to watch your pronunciation. I could scarcely understand a word you said."
After that he tossed a doubletalk routine into his local radio acts from time to time, and whenever be made personal appearances he’d use doubletalk to soften up tough audiences—with excellent results.
On one of these occasions—it was at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles—Jack Benny was in the audience He made a mental note to remember the dapper little guy who'd double-talked his way under the skin of the most brutal audience Jack ever remembered.
A year ago Jack ran into a situation that was tailor-made for Cliff. While casting his parody of "A Tank at Oxford," Benny discovered he needed some one to direct him to the college town. Cliff’s description of the road to Oxford, all done in doubletalk launched him in a new career.
Since that time, Nazarro has almost forgotten about singing—except for joy. In addition to frequent appearances on the Benny programs, he's garnered several motion picture parts for himself. His bit with Jack Benny in "Artists and Models Abroad" was so spontaneously funny that it had to be retaken five times. The first four takes were ruined by irrepressible laughter from stagehands and extras.
But Cliff is not one to rest on his laurels. He’s even now at work creating new uses for doubletalk, just to keep the demand ahead of the supply. A routine in which he sings in doubletalk is already being considered for a film spot. And his present experiment is playing a piano in doubletalk. In fact, he claims he’s already trained his dog to yelp in doubletalk so craftily that the neighbors’ mutts are all being treated by alienists.
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Unfortunately, gimmicks don’t tend to last. Nazarro’s double-talk routine ran its course and the Benny show went on to other things. Nazarro survived with small parts in films into World War Two. He died at the age of 57 in 1961.