Wednesday 24 October 2012

Fred Allen 1, NBC 0

The next time Jay Leno or David Letterman make fun of their TV corporate homes, they might want to thank Fred Allen.

It seems astonishing that a network would pull a comedy broadcast off the air because it joked about an imaginary person at the network. But that’s what NBC did to Fred Allen in 1947. And then it made the situation even worse by doing it again and again. Finally, someone at the network saw it was foolhardy to believe a corporation could win a battle of public opinion against comedians loved by millions of their customers, the radio listeners. So it backed down and, to this day, comedians have been (for the most part) left alone to take jibes at the broadcasters that pay them big money.

In Allen’s time, shows on NBC were broadcast live. When a broadcast reached the :29:20 or :59:20 mark of the hour, the network announcer would come on and say “This is NBC, the National Broadcasting Company” and then play the network’s three-note chimes. If the programme was still going, too bad. It was faded out for the network identification. Allen hated it. He felt he should go as long as he wanted (no one seems to have asked Allen if he favoured the show before his being able to cut into his time). Allen’s show of April 13, 1947 was faded out. He decided to be sarcastic about it on the air the following week. Someone at NBC listening didn’t like that. Let’s open the scrapbook of newspaper clippings and see what happened.

Fred Allen Cut Off Air By NBC
NEW YORK, April 21.—(U.P.)—Fred Allen was cut off the air for more than a half a minute last night by the National Broadcasting Company to eliminate a jest about a mythical network official.
Allen was explaining to Portland Hoffa, his wife, why their program had been cut off the previous week. It had run overtime.
“There’s a little . . .” was as far as he got last night.
Cut by the network was the following dialogue:
“. . . man in the company we work for. He’s a vice president in charge of program ends. When our program runs over time he marks down how much time is saved.”
“What does he do with it?” Portland asked.
“He adds it all up,” Allen replied, “—10 seconds here, 20 seconds there—and when the vice president has saved up enough seconds, minutes and hours to make two weeks he uses the two weeks of our time for his vacation.”
The network said it had asked Allen to change the script before he went on the air, but that he had not complied. The gibe violated a network ruling prohibiting the broadcast of unkind remarks about anyone in radio or the network, NBC said.
When the program went back on the air after a 40-second break, Allen’s first joke laid a mild egg with the studio audience.
Apparently unaware that the control room had blotted out his earlier sequence, he cracked: “If they wanted to cut something, they should have cut that.”

Allen told the Associated Press in reaction:“It’s like walking into a pool room and plunking down your 60 cents for an hour’s play, and then you find the owner has hidden the cue on you.”

NBC evidently didn’t anticipate the storm this would cause. The story you just read made it to front pages of newspapers. Editoralists, never shy at taking shots at radio, wrote opinion columns bashing NBC over what one called “A tempest in a Tenderleaf tea pot,” after Allen’s sponsor. The sponsor weighed in, too.

NBC Billed For Lost Time
NEW YORK, April 21—(AP)—The National Broadcasting Company is going to be billed for the time Fred Allen was cut off the air in his Sunday night comedy program.
A representative of J. Walter Thompson, advertising agency for Allen’s sponsor, said Monday:
“We buy and pay for half an hour’s time from NBC for this program. And that's what we expect to get, Allen was cut off the air for about 35 seconds. So NBC is going to get a bill for the time we didn't get. And, oddly enough, on that Sunday night spot, it’s a nice little chunk of dough.”
NBC, in saying they cut the comedian off the air because he refused to make certain changes in his script, estimated the time at 25 seconds.
A spokesman for NBC said tonight the broadcasting company had “no comment, no comment at all” to make about the incident which prompted Allen to drop his usual comedy role long enough to say that the whole affair was the result of “sheer stupidity.”
The veteran radio comedian ascribed the cut-off to a new NBC rule “that says you can’t kid radio on the air.”
Allen’s script told of a “vice president in charge of program ends” who noted the time saved when programs ran overtime—such as Allen’s program did the preceding Sunday.
ALLEN WENT ON to say—but the radio audience did not hear it—that “when the vice president saves up enough seconds, minutes and hours to make two weeks, he uses the two weeks of our time for his vacation.”
Today radio station WOR, the Mutual Broadcasting Company’s outlet in New York City, invited Allen to deliver the lines over its station.
The comedian, however, was “spending the day quietly in bed—a custom he has followed on Mondays for years,” Allen's agent said.
George Carson Putnam, the WOR broadcaster who extended the invitation to Allen, related the incident on his program and quoted the part of Allen’s script which was not broadcast.
Putnam concluded by saying:
“Allen is still allergic to vice presidents. In fact, you might call them Allen’s allergy.”
Later, the American Civil Liberties union said it had protested to Niles Trammell, NBC president.
A statement by the union said “an issue of free speech” might be involved in the incident, and added that Clifford Forster, acting director of the union, had sent a letter of protest to Trammell.
“The material censored, as reported,” from Allen’s script, the statement said, “would not seem to violate either good taste, any state or federal law or any code of ethics ever promulgated by the National Association of Broadcasters.”
The union said it had asked to be referred “to any station or network rule under which the cut was made,” and said it would take no further action in the affair until a reply had been received from the NBC president.

Allen’s brothers in the radio comedy field were outraged. Allen garnered tremendous respect from them all for his satiric wit and ability to instantly pull beautifully-framed analogies out of his head on the air. They did something. So did NBC. And the network made the situation worse.

Briefly Silenced Radio Comics Carry On as NBC Keeps Mum
HOLLYWOOD, April 23 (AP)—Red Skelton, who chattered into a dead microphone for 12 seconds last night because he brought up the taboo Fred Allen matter, suggested today that NBC should learn to take a kidding, and added:
“And there are always other networks.”
He and Bob Hope were cut off the air by NBC engineers for brief periods when they referred to the now celebrated knob-twisting Sunday which silenced Allen on the air for 25 seconds while he panned a mythical vice-president of the network.
NBC, which has 14 vice-presidents—none of them, as Allen inferred, in charge of saving the moments programs run overtime—maintained a dignified silence.
Said Skelton, who was cut off the air in March when he left the word “diaper” in one of his jokes:
“The network must be able to take a kidding, just as the sponsors do. As long as the jokes are not off-color, there can be no objection. We have always endeavoured to steer clear of the off-color type. I feel that Allen and Hope were both right.”
His remark about “other networks” came in reply to a question of what he intended to do.
His script last night contained the line: “Be careful, we might ad lib something that will hurt the dignity of some NBC vice-president. Did you hear them cut Fred Allen off Sunday?”
That was when the engineer turned the knob. Red went on to say, for the benefit of his studio audience only: “You know what NBC means, don’t you? Nothing but cuts, nothing but confusion, nobody certain.”
He had the last word, anyway, because when they put him back on the air he commented “well, we have now joined the parade of stars.”
Network officials were silent beyond the brief statement that the censored material was “objectionable to NBC.” Edna Skelton, Red’s writer and former wife, said the deleted material in the script had been disapproved by the network but that “Red was determined to use it, anyway.”
Hope, who was off only about seven seconds, was sympathetic toward the censors, who not only listen for shady jokes but try to forestall, if possible, such slips as Bing Crosby’s use of “hell” on Jack Benny's broadcast recently.
Said Bob:
“It’s a tough racket, and they’ve always had my sympathy. But I’d hate to be the head censor this morning. He’s probably got a cauliflower head.”
Hope had referred to Las Vegas, Nevada’s wide-open gambling spot, as the only place in the world where you can get tanned and faded at the same time.” Then he added, “Of course, Fred Allen can be faded. . .”
“That,” he quipped today,” was when I faded.”
He said he ad libbed the remark and acknowledged that the program censor had advised him:
“I don’t think they’d like to hear anything about the Allen matter.”
Much of the conjecture today revolved around how, if at all, Benny would handle things next Sunday. He’s never kidded vice-presidents, but has spent years in a friendly feud with Allen. Benny declined to disclose his plans, but commented:
“I don’t see what the fuss is about. From the joke I read in the papers, I can’t see any objection.”
George Burns, mulling over the script for his broadcast tomorrow night with his wife, Grade Allen, remarked:
“We’ll give ‘em the business, too. We’ll probably be faded, but we’re going ahead.”

Finally, NBC realised either it wasn’t going to win this one, or the whole thing was really something over nothing. It backed down.

One newspaper inserted a reference to an Associated Press story in its United Press version of the account. We’ll add in the lines from the A.P.

Fun's Over(?) NBC Bows To Comics
HOLLYWOOD, April 24.—(U.P.)—The four-day skirmish between the National Broadcasting Company and its radio comics was over today with the comedians planning an unopposed field day of jibes at the network.
But the fun was over. NBC turned its other cheek and invited the comics to say anything they wanted to about the network.
The controversy started Sunday night when the NBC cut Comedian Fred Allen off the air briefly during a wisecrack about a mythical network vice-president in charge of overtime, who gets his vacation by accumulating seconds from the ends of overtime broadcasts.
It ended when NBC last night lifted its order to “fade” any jokes directed at the network and appointed Allen and Comedians Bob Hope and Red Skelton, who also were cut off during NBC jokes, as honorary vice-presidents.
Allen turned down his vice-presidency, pleading “pressure of regular work” and poor health that “precluded strenuous outside activities.”
Allen was cut off for 25 seconds, and Hope and Skelton finished wisecracks about the network into dead air Tuesday night when the network clicked, the switch for about 15 seconds on each program.
Lifting of the NBC ban was regarded by the airlanes comics as a signal for open season on radio jokes.
Dennis Day was the first to have his fun last night without being shunted off .the air. His radio girl friend, Mildred, coming into the room, asked:
“What are you doing?”
“I’m listening to the radio,” Day replied.
“But I don’t hear anything,” she said.
“I know it,” Day answered. “I’m listening to the Fred Allen program.”
Burns and Allen and Jack Benny, who like Day had threatened to go through with anti-network gags despite the ban, trot out their jokes today and Sunday.
Half a dozen others got in their cracks last night.
Ed “Archie” Gardner, of Duffy’s Tavern, presented a show based on a political campaign by Archie.
“I think I’ll get Fred Allen to make my campaign speeches for me during the times he is cut off the air,” Archie said at one point. “And then again—I don’t think I will. I might want to be a vice-president.”
Henry Morgan said he had been to see a movie—“Smash up, the Story of a Woman.” He said it had given him an idea—he’d like to make “Cut-off, the Story of Fred Allen.”
Kay Kyser said the whole controversy was a build-up for his last night’s show, a new type quiz program, and wanted to thank Allen, Skelton and Hope for the big send-off.
“They were faded for their errors and that’s my new show—‘Comedy of Errors.’”
Information Please also got in a jibe on the rival Columbia Broadcasting System.
(But Jack Carson, who planned this gag over CBS, got orders to delete it 10 minutes before he went on the air:
Carson: “According to the papers, Fred Allen said a radio vice president saved up seconds till he had two weeks, then went on vacation.”
His company teammate Tugwell (Dave Willock): “Gee, Uncle Jack, we’re still on the air. How come we weren’t cut off?”
Carson: “Because this is the CBS, Columbia Broadcasting Company.”
(CBS gave no explanation for the deletion.)
The American Civil Liberties Union took a serious view of the matter. It protested that Allen’s constitutional rights were placed in jeopardy.
Neither comics nor network suffered from want of publicity during the squabble. It even made the front pages of foreign newspapers.

The flap being almost over, we’ll leave the final word on it to Leslie Townes Hope. There was a syndicated newspaper column under Bob’s byline. This appeared April 28. Bob (or his writer) gets in some final shots. “Mr. Hush” is a play on the “Miss Hush” contest on the audience participation show “Truth or Consequences.”

These days it’s no simple matter being a comedian. The radio networks insult so easily. You can’t even say “Vice president” on the air without being cut off.
Of course, in radio we call the process of cutting an actor off the air “fading” and the way the things are in radio today they fade you faster than the man with the green eye shade at Las Vegas.
The epidemic of cutting comedians off the air in the middle of jokes has started a new phenomenon in radio-sliced eggs. And it has brought forth a competitive spirit among comedians.
They fight to see who can be number one on the “cut parade.”
It’s also making it very tough on the listeners. They have to sit by their loud speakers with joke books so they can figure out the end of the gag.
And if this trend continues, the public’s listening habits will change. After supper the family will go into the living room, get comfortable, turn on the radio, and settle back for three hours of uninterrupted silence.
I hear the networks are initiating a new theme song—a special arrangement of “Silent Night.” I suppose the big star of the future be “Whispering” Jack Smith.
Of course, it all started with Fred Allen. He was discussing the way the network was run and he accidentally dropped a syllable which landed on a vice president’s toe.
Now you can’t even say “Fred Allen.” It's going to sound awfully silly to hear Portland come out and call “Oh Mister Hush.”
All the comedians are in this together. Last week on my show I had my little run-in with an antennae axemen.
I gave my small contribution of 12 seconds to the march of unused time.
But I take all this philosophically. After all, silence is golden. So Tuesday night tune in and hear the goose that lays the golden egg.

So what happened with Fred the following Sunday? What did he say? The newspapers don’t seem to have reported it. Instead, they wrote how Fred had checked into a hospital for a complete physical exam. Radio executives may have made things tough for him emotionally, but it was his physical problems that left him dead nine years later.


  1. Fast forward 30 years and ironically NBC was the network most open to making fun of itself, via its more successful line-up of late night shows than the other networks (though they apparently did draw the line over Michael O'Donoghue's planned "Final Days" skit on Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s that would have portrayed Fred Silverman at Hitler in his bunker at Bertesgarden). It would also be interesting if the lost goodwill between NBC and its comedians over the Fred Allen incident played any part in the mass exodus a year later to CBS (money talks louder than sentimentality, but if Skelton, Benny or Burns & Allen had any feelings of loyalty to the network, something like this may have help dissuade them of the notion they were anything more than hired hands).

  2. This sounds like the flap that Jay Leno and NBC are having right now.