If Fred Allen was ever a happy, optimistic person, he never let that side of his personality show in interviews. Something was always wrong. And, generally, Allen was right about what was wrong.
He constantly found fault with the radio industry—networks, sponsors, ratings, even studio audiences. The title of his book Treadmill to Oblivion leaves you with the feeling that a morose Allen believed all his entertaining was, in the long term, really for naught.
Here’s Allen speaking to a friendly columnist at PM in an interview published on October 4, 1946. At the time he, arguably, may have been at the peak of his radio career, thanks to his Allen’s Alley segment. His comments about formats are interesting. He mentions programmes copying the Jack Benny format at one time (one of his sponsors had demanded the same thing of him in the ‘30s) and then copying Fibber McGee and Molly. The funny thing is Benny himself was pretty much doing the Fibber format by the end of his radio career, necessitated by the departure of Phil Harris and the reticence of Mary Livingstone to appear. Instead of a gang around a microphone, Benny ended up talking individually with what was left of his cast, just as Fibber and Molly chatted with stooges who individually came and went into their living room during the course of the half hour.
Wandering in Allen's Alley
By SEYMOUR PECK
Fred Allen, busy getting his own show ready for its bow this Sunday, took time out to be a guest on Information Please the night before last. Right afterwards he gave us a fast, 20-minute interview before hurrying back to the job of sweating out a program for Sunday.
As Allen settled himself on a folding chair at the engineer's booth of the studio, we said it was good of him to see us, since we knew how little time he allowed right now for anything but work. "It's all right," Allen said in his customarily dry way. "I'm just stopping by on my way to the grave." Two men sitting in the booth laughed. Allen did not smile at all. "Just passing through," he went on. "Another year should do it."
Allen recently called radio work "drudgery." Was it true he might quit radio at the end of this season to return to the stage? Allen said it was possible. "I've been sick," he explained. "I've had high blood pressure for several years. It doesn't improve as I get older. I'm half as old as a century plant. And I don't want to drop dead just to make the Joke of the Night in the New York Post. I consider that a dubious distinction. So whenever the doctor says enough . . ." Why did Allen look on radio as drudgery?
"You can't relax," he replied. "You just can't if you're going to maintain a standard week after week. For years I did an hour show every week. That's like doing one act of a play. But a playwright can take three months to do just one act. In radio you have to turn it out and it has to be good if you're going to be fair with people.
"Some of the comedians in radio come from the theater—Benny, Hope, myself. Our standards are a little different from those of the comedian who starts in radio. His standards are based on what he finds out talking to fat women at nine o'clock in the morning. The comedian who starts in radio also has a different concept of the mental level of audiences.
"I suppose you can't blame him. Radio is a medium that runs 18 hours a day. How can you even mention standards?"
TV-Too Many Imitations
"Ninety per cent of the people in radio are living on the other 10 per cent," he went on. "The minute you get something new everyone starts to imitate it. The first structures are built and the rest copy those structures. Jack Benny's show has been widely imitated. Right now everyone's using the Fibber McGee format.
"And what is it all for? A net-work wants to sell time. An agency wants to sell a show. A sponsor wants to sell a laxative. The actor, where is he? He is always in jeopardy because of a mythical rating that comes out every 30 days claiming to report mass reaction to a program. There are a million people in Indianapolis, this rating out-fit talks to four guys on the street. The four guys don't think you're funny. You're fired."
A man came into the engineer's booth and began to talk into a mike. "One, two, three, four," he said. "One, two three, four." Allen listened to him. "If you can count to 10," Allen said, "you can be a referee in a prize fight. If you can only count to four, there's a place for you in radio."
This Sunday night Allen will introduce a new character, Ajax Cassidy, to Allen's Alley. Ajax will be played by Peter Donald. Minerva Pious will be back as Mrs. Nussbaum and Kenny Delmar as Senator Claghorn.
Ajax Cassidy, "philosopher with no philosophy," is coming into Allen's Alley to replace Falstaff Openshaw. Alan Reed, who was Falstaff, is in Hollywood making movies.
"Everybody's in California," Allen said. "Radio really operates from there. This Radio City has become a mausoleum. They build a great building and then, with true radio efficiency, send everything to California."
Allen got up to leave. His wife, Portland Hoffa, was waiting for him. Had he and Mrs. Allen had a good Summer in Maine, we asked?
"Yes," Allen said, "though it rained quite a lot. Strange, he added, "NBC forgot to take care of the weather."