Note: This is the first of a two-parter on radio writing in the 1930s. Part two is next week.
Conn certainly wasn’t a hack. And he can be credited with helping to mould the Benny show in the early ‘30s and start Jack off on a long and fruitful career on the airwaves. Conn simply took an old theatrical concept—the master of ceremonies kibitzing with other acts on the bill—and expanded on it. But words are nothing without the right actor. And Jack Benny got to the point where critics noticed his scripts weren’t all that great on paper, but were funny once they got out onto the air.
Radio Mirror decided to give writers of radio comedy shows some well-deserved credit in its November 1938 issue. Conn’s quoted in it; one wonders if he didn’t plant the idea for the story in the heads of the publication’s editors. The story builds up writers as if they’re solely responsible for a show’s success—until the last sentence, where the star gets credit, too. After all, this was a fan magazine. It wouldn’t have been wise to tear down the stars altogether. Perhaps the story simply proves that radio is a collaborative effort, with writers, actors, musicians and technicians working together to entertain the audience. And it only works when everyone jells.
LAUGHTER BY THE YARD
That's how radio's gagmen sell it! They spring to attention when a comedian cries "Quip Watson!"
By JERALD MANNING
IT takes four people to make gentle, lovable Gracie Allen crazy. It takes at least six people to make Jack Benny funny each Sunday. It takes two people to make Paul Whiteman, officially not a comedian, interestingly sophisticated. Sure, it takes all these people to make a comedian—but it is the comedian who takes the checks with national-deficit-like figures written on them.
Eddie Cantor knew what he was talking about when he once said that a comedian is only as good as his material. If you listen to Jack Benny, say, and remark:
"Gee, Benny wasn't so funny tonight," you don't mean that Jack suddenly stopped being a comedian. He still knows how to time a joke, how to read his lines. Jack wasn't funny because his material wasn't funny. And it isn't Jack who makes the lines funny or unfunny. It is the gag-men—the gentlemen behind the scenes who can make or break a comedian with the material they supply.
There isn't a comic in radio who can do without one or more gag-writers. Fred Allen comes closest to doing a solo job. But even he has help. The reasons are simple. Ed Wynn once calculated that the gags used in four half-hour programs would provide enough material for a full-length Broadway play. That's one good reason. The other is that several of radio's funnymen are swell actors but they're not funny all by themselves. They become comics only when somebody else has written something funny for them to say.
And this business of writing something funny for somebody else to say isn't particularly nice work even if you can get it. The strain is great. Two of the most important gag-writers—Dave Freedman and Al Boasberg—have died of heart trouble within the past two years. Freedman, beginning with Cantor, wrote for practically every one of the big-time comedians. Boasberg was working for Jack Benny when he died. Both were men on the young side of fifty.
What's in it for these creators of funny-men? Their pay ranges from about $70 to $1500 a week. Their creations are aired at the rate of $1500 to $15,000 a broadcast. Harry Conn reached the all-time high in salaries for "humor-writers"—he asks not to be called a gag-writer. When he left Benny in 1936 he had a contract with Jack which arranged for him to receive 25% of the comedian's salary. That's when Jack was making $7000 a broadcast.
After that, Conn did the unheard-of. He was hired by Joe Penner's sponsors at $1500 each week—exactly the same salary as the broadcast's star. That trick has never been duplicated.
The average weekly salary for a good gag-man is $500—less than one tenth the income of a good comedian. What's more, the radio scene has changed in the last few years. A gag-man is no longer just that.
In 1931, Ken Englund, now writing humor for the Chase and Sanborn show, sent Phil Baker two jokes. This one, written at the height of the depression, got him a job:
"Things are so bad in Hollywood now that King Kong has gone to work for an organ-grinder."
Remember it? Well, that is what is officially known as a "gag". But nowadays Englund can't make a substantial living from radio by creating jokes like that. He and all the other top-flight humor writers must be able to supply situation ideas, funny dramas and character creation.
Conn helped change all that. More than six years ago he wrote the first Benny show. He was contributing material to the new Burns and Allen program then and George recommended him to Jack. The first Benny broadcast wasn't so good. But the new ideas began to creep in with the successive ones. One important gem was the comedy newsreel. Fred Allen is still using it.
Then Harry really started something. He began to write other members of the program into the script. The entire show was unified and all of a sudden George Olsen and Ethel Shutta, musical stars of that series, became comedians. The idea was good—the character of Mary Livingstone was created, Frank Black learned how to get laughs and Don Bestor's spats made history.
Most of the important comedians are using the situation type of script now. But those two hardy perennials —Pick and Pat (they also masqueraded as Showboat's Molasses an' January)—still stick to the gags that mother and dad told each other when they were riding on a bicycle built' for two. Twenty-nine-year-old Mort Lewis wrote their material until a few months ago. At different times he has written jokes for Burns and Allen, Eugene and Willie Howard and Ben Bernie.
It is his contention that people like to hear old songs—so why shouldn't they like to hear old gags? He puts a new twist on them but they're still the old reliables. He keeps a file of several thousand jokes. Running alphabetically from Africa to Zulu, they are what he calls his "reserve."
The biggest share of Eddie Cantor's gag budget goes to Phil Rapp, who got into radio in 1931 and began selling humor to Beatrice Lillie and Burns and Allen. Also on the Cantor comedy pay-roll is a young man who sent the comedian jokes while studying at the University of Pennsylvania. Eddie financed him through school and now has him on his regular staff.
Usually, the three assistants work independently of each other. About three weeks before the program a meeting is held. All contributions are lumped together and George builds a radio program.
Jack Benny always has six or seven writers surrounding him and his program. The financial experts say that he gets $12,500 for each of his programs and that approximately $2,000 of that goes to his writers. Back in the old days when Jack first became public comedian number one, Harry Conn was the only one working on the scripts and he got 25% of Jack's salary. Now Eddie Beloin, Bill Morrow and their cohorts head the staff.
It is Conn's claim that when he was writing the show, Benny rarely bothered with the script until the first rehearsal. Nowadays, though, Jack works hard on them.
But the gentleman who really works on his scripts is Fred Allen. Every line that you hear him or his stooges say has been written by him. As soon as his Wednesday night program is over, Fred begins work on next week's show. He spends the entire week doing it—his only time off is one night a week when he takes Portland to a movie or a play.
Despite the fact that Allen works harder than any other comedian in radio and despite the fact that he writes every line, he still has two gagmen on his staff. It is the duty of Arnold Auerbach and Herman Wolke [sic] to supply ideas for skits and make suggestions if Fred gets stuck.
Allen, however, is the exception that proves the rule. Edgar Bergen, for instance, started out by writing his own double-talk. Now the task is too great and little Charlie is the wooden mouthpiece for the efforts of approximately three men.
One of the best examples of what a writer can do for you is Milton Berle. Up until his Community Sing Show two years ago, Milton had been a complete flop on the air. He had always been incomparable on the vaudeville stage but radio had already begun to outgrow that type of comedy.
BERLE, playing a theater in New York, was in the throes of negotiating his Sing contract. It was a Wednesday and VARIETY, show-business's newspaper, was out. On one of the pages there was an ad which read:
Positively Berle-proof gags—
Gags So Bad Even Milton Berle
Won't Steal Them"
And Brecher, who was working for his uncle, manager of a movie house, got a call from Berle. He began working for the comedian at $35 a week. Then Milton went on the air for Community Sing at $1500 a week and soon Brecher was getting $300 of it.
At first Brecher, just turned 23, shared the burden of writing the show with Berle. But gradually his ideas began to take the lead. Quickly, he erased Milt's old vaudeville-type comedy, and substituted situation and characterization a la Benny and Conn. Milton's salary began to rise and so did Irv's. The series ended with Berle never seeing the script that Brecher wrote until the first day of rehearsal. It also ended with Milt's salary at $2500 a week and Irv's at $700. The surest signs of their success were the movie contracts that both received: Berle as a screen comedian; Brecher as a dialogue writer for M-G-M. He writes most of the gags for the Good News program.
Brecher's method is one way of breaking into the gag-writing business. Another way was that used by Carroll Carroll. Carroll used to write for "Judge", the humor magazine. The agency which produces the Bing Crosby program noticed his work and now Mr. Carroll is responsible for that feeling of good fellowship and most of the laughs on Bing's show.
But don't get the idea that all you have to do to be a successful radio comedian is invest $1,000 or $1,500 a week in gag-writers, audition and get on the air. Granted that poor material makes a comedian very unfunny. Granted, too, that up to air time the gag-writers are the most important spoke in the wheel. But it's still the comedian who makes people laugh—with his talent and ability to get the most out of his materials.