Thursday, 3 November 2011

Mr Allen and Mr Television

Fred Allen never had a very high opinion of several things—network executives, game shows and television. Allen’s best known observation about TV, and I’m paraphrasing, is that “television is called a medium because it’s never well done, or rarely is.”

Allen explained why he felt that way in the July 4, 1949 edition of Life Magazine (click on the link to read it). Certainly TV was in a nascent stage then, but his complaints aren’t much different than criticism of it today. Television, like radio, was too banal for Allen who felt it couldn’t be otherwise because of the huge amount of fresh material the networks needed every week. One doesn’t need to guess hard at what Allen would have thought of today’s “reality” programming.

Humour unfortunately degraded to bitterness, it seems, in some of Allen’s commentary. And it certainly did in this article. While everyone on network radio used to take swipes at Milton Berle’s theft of material, they were of the gentle kind, where even Uncle Milty could laugh along (and enjoy the attention showered on him). But Allen wasn’t kidding in Life. “Look at Milton Berle,” he said. “He’s already scraping the bottom of the barrel. He’s using up those old routines he stole from Ed Wynn and Olsen and Johnson.”

You don’t have to guess hard about what Berle thought about Allen’s interview. He talked to the Associated Press about it only days later.

AP Movies Writer
HOLLYWOOD, July 8.—Here’s Milton Berle’s answer to an attack by Fred Allen:
“Allen still has the first penny ever thrown at him.”
“Mr. Television” was ired by the Boston comic’s words in Life magazine. Allen remarked “Berle is something America has to go through.”
Commenting on Berle’s top TV rating, Allen added: “You can go so long when you get your laughs by running out in front of an audience wearing a pair of lady’s drawers.”
BERLE ADDED another quip: “Allen has money with Julius Caesar’s face printed on it.” More seriously, he replied:
“Mr. Allen is a very wealthy and successful comedian. I think he makes himself look bad by knocking another member of the profession. What is he trying to prove?”
Berle has been attacked by other comedians, including Ed Wynn, who claimed Berle stole his life’s work.
“That’s very interesting,” said Berle. “Last year Ed followed me at the Carnival Night Club in New York after I had played 46 weeks there (at about $10,000 a week). I was there every night and went backstage to help Ed in any way I could.
“Now he says I stole his material. I ask you—do I work like Wynn?”
ALL THE ATTACKS stem from jealousy, he declared.
“Anyone who gets on top becomes a target, whether it be FDR or Sinatra. You should have heard the things they said about Bob Hope when he first came out here.
“And Joe DiMaggio. He was a bum when he was hurt. Then he goes back and slugs four homers in three games—so he’s a hero again. Was he any different before?”
I told the comic about visiting Bob Hope’s new office and seeing the vault where the Hope gags are filed. “Let Berle try to get in here,” Hope remarked.
“I’ll bet I got a bigger gag file than Hope,” Berle answered.
“Back in New York I’ve 850,000 gags indexed and cross-indexed.”
I suggested Berle would be getting more competition in the Video field, from Jack Benny and others planning to get into it.
“Jack tells me he isn’t going to start it yet,” he answered. “But we would welcome the competition. Television needs more competition.”
Asked for any advice to his colleagues, he replied: “Television takes brains, brawn and a background of having flopped in Steubenville. It’s like putting on Broadway show every week—without a try-out in New Haven.”
BERLE REPORTS BACK to his TV show Sept. 20 and his radio program Sept. 23. Although he says he should be taking a rest from the 78-show yearly grind, he is making a movie here.
“It’s called “Always Leave Them Laughing,” and that’s what he did. A studio messenger reported with new pages of script and asked, “Are you Milton Berle?”
“If I’m not, I’ve sure been having a lot of fun with his wife,” was the answer.

It’s somewhat ironic Berle talks about Jack Benny, because Benny proves Allen’s point. Audiences tired of Berle’s antics after only a few years and the King of Television was reduced to hosting ‘Jackpot Bowling.’ Benny, meanwhile, carried on entertaining audiences on their screens with a modified version of his well-honed radio show into the mid 1960s.

Berle doesn’t seem to grasp that Allen’s criticism wasn’t due to envy. Allen had no reason to be envious of Milton Berle. Allen was commenting on the quality of Berle’s material, and Allen obviously wasn’t envious of that, either.

But Allen misses a point as well. What’s really wrong with old Olsen and Johnson routines? If they’re entertaining someone, isn’t that good enough? And if that’s true, can’t the same argument be made for television programming today, no matter how egregiously inane it might be?


  1. The double irony of Alien's dislike of television and games shows was his last public appearance was on a TV game show, albeit ”What's My Line" had an air of sophistication that other game shows lacked or never strove for. Fred did a great episode of his show in 1948 with Jack Benny, saying he saw the handwriting on the wall and was getting into the game show business and then having a disguised Benny (and soon to be pantless Benny) as the first contestant.

    Dick Cavett told a story of meeting Allen outside the theater where WML was broadcast and being the only person bothering to talk to him (earning a bittersweet "My fan club awaits" line from Fred). Even in the slower-paced 1950s, it didn't,to take long for people to forget the stars of radio if they couldn't make the transition to television.

  2. I think you have to differentiate giveaways (like 'Stop the Music') and guessing games like 'What's My Line' or the earlier 'Information Please.' I don't recall Allen lashing out at them.

    I've always wondered how Allen justified his complaint in 'Treadmill to Oblivion' that early radio variety shows (Wynn and Cantor, I think) did routines designed solely for the studio audience, and not people at home, when he did the same thing with Benny and 'King For a Day.' Granted, you can pretty well guess what was going on even if you couldn't see it.

  3. I'm not certain how genuinely negative the sniping is here. It sounds more serious than the Benny/Allen feud, but the content is essentially similar. This could easily be an intentional feud along those same lines.