Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Radio's Failure is Television's Success

Many of the top stars of radio made the jump to television, so it seems a little odd that TV’s first big star—“Mr. Television,” they called him—was not one of them. It was Milton Berle.

Granted, Berle did on TV what he couldn’t do on radio. He took advantage of the visual aspect of the medium by wearing outrageous costumes and occasionally getting physically abused by his stooges. On radio, he was just a comic trying to get above the B-list. Billboard editorialised in 1947 that he was hamstrung on radio because he couldn’t resort to what made him a success in New York City nightclubs—using ad-libbed off-colour material when things started falling apart. But he wasn’t able to do it on television, either, and became a huge success.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying that Berle didn’t leap into the top ten-rated radio shows. There was talk in August 1946 that the Biow Agency was going to use him to replace Phil Baker as the host of “Take It Or Leave It” after his latest quiz show failure, a CBS sustainer called “Kiss and Make Up.” Instead, he was worked in to a typical variety show format which debuted March 11, 1947 for Philip Morris. Nat Hiken and Aaron Ruben were hired to write, Pert Kelton, Jack Albertson and Arnold Stang performed character parts (Stang without credit on some early shows) and Frank Gallop was cast as an announcer who felt it beneath his dignity to appear with Berle. Biow cancelled the show in April 1948, deciding Berle didn’t appeal to the target audience. Texaco then picked him up for a similar show that debuted on radio the following September. Oh, it appeared on TV as well. By November, the “Texaco Star Theater” set viewer records (an 80.7 rating) and the following month Berle’s overnight success was featured in a photo spread in Life Magazine. Mr. Television was born.

Well before making his mark on television, Berle had a reputation as “the thief of Bad Gags.” It would seem undeserving as far as the Philip Morris radio show was concerned, given the writers came up with Berle’s material. But Herald-Tribune syndicate critic John Crosby trotted it out in his review of the programme, published March 2, 1948. Crosby’s surprise with Berle as a woman is ironic considering what happened later on TV.

Mme. Berle’s Waxworks

Milton Berle, who by his own admission is one of the great kleptomaniacs of show business is stealing only from the very best sources lately.
This is a great advance over the old, undiscriminating Berle who used to steal material from just anybody—burlesque shows, taxi drivers, even radio comedians.
The new judicious Berle won’t lift anything until it has won critical approval, until it has established itself as worth of his attention. Recently Berle was mixed up in a sketch about a man who got a ticket for overtime parking, an offense which normally would cost him $2.
An overzealous friend persuaded him to fight the charge rather than pay the fine and—well, you must have heard the rest of it. Before Berle got out of this, the national guard had been called out to search for him and he was up to his ears in capital crimes.
I don’t know where the darn thing came from originally. Peter Stuyvesant, I’m told, first heard it from the Indians in the seventeenth century but even the Indians considered it fairly dated. Its most recent revival was in a movie.
Victor Moore played the part of a man who was persuaded by an overzealous lawyer to fight a $2 fine for spitting in the subway and wound up facing a murder charge. It’s a very comic idea; it is indisputably a classic among such routines; and it gives you some idea just what Berle is up to these days.
Just last week Berle played the part of a woman—yes, a woman—who enters a bar and announces she seldom touches the stuff and wants something light. Like a triple Martini. She has several triple Martinis, gets plastered and is pretty funny in the process.
The same thing was done with infinitely greater authority by Billy de Wolfe in a movie whose name I’ve forgotten. It hasn’t quite the patina of age on it as the “Pay the $2” gag, but it’s getting there.
I even recall the night—my eyes mist over with nostalgia at the memory—Berle revived that one about the man in a hurry who drove into a gas station for five gallons of gas and was overwhelmed with service which delayed him for hours.
It’s as old as the model T and I was fearful it had been forgotten. But Berle hasn’t forgotten. Berle never forgets.
The way I look at it, Berle is doing his best to preserve out most cherished comic traditions. He is the Smithsonian institution of comedy, the Eva la Gallienne of his own special field. Sooner or later the old and beloved routines of Ed Wynn, Fred Stone and Joe Cook will be preserved for posterity in Mme. Berle’s waxworks. These things shouldn’t be lightly forgotten.
In addition to Mr. Berle’s encyclopedic memory, the Berle show offers an announcer named Gallup who is monstrously rude to the star, a breezy character named Harrison with a raucous laugh who gets Berle into a succession of embarrassments, and Harrison’s wife who to my knowledge has said only one word since the program started, though she’s repeated it many times since.
The word is “yes,” pronounced “yee-uss.” It was pretty funny at first, but the humor has palled greatly.
In spite of the easily-traced lineage of its jokes, the Berle show is not at all bad comedy. While I disapprove of Mr. Berle’s methods in principle, I find that I laugh at them in practice, which makes me an accessory after the crime.
There was a time when Berle was viewed with suspicion not only by his fellow comics but by critics everywhere. However, somewhere in the last couple of years he has approached if not quite attained respectability. He is a very hard-working and skillful comedian whose success, I should say, is a triumph of sheer will power.
One last word on him. Some time ago Mr. Berle was persuaded by some inscrutable impulse to play the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” over WNEW in New York. He was going to play it straight, the announcer reported grimly, and, brother, he did.
He was the straightest Romeo in my memory; he attacked that balcony with such undeviating singleness of purpose I feared at any moment it would fall on him. The experience apparently went to his head, because he later incorporated the balcony scene into his own show, this time playing it for laughs.
Well, I don’t know. On the whole, I think Berle had best leave the preservation of this particular classic in other hands. He has enough to do as curator in his own distinctive department.

Crosby reviewed Berle a number of times over the course of his career and the only real pan came in this assessment at the start of the 1949-50 TV season, appearing in papers beginning September 26, 1949. He based it around the opinion polls almost a year earlier which picked Republican Tom Dewey to defeat Democrat Harry Truman for the White House. Of course, the poll was wrong. It should be noted Hiken wasn’t involved with the writing of the TV show. It shows. Berle goes for the obvious.

Second Favorite Comedian

Milton Berle is the nation’s second favourite comedian, according to George Gallup, the poll man. And Gallup ought to know. He’s a world recognized authority at picking second bests. Second favorite presidential candidate. Second favorite comedian. He’d be a great man to have around a race track. A fellow could make a fortune betting Gallup’s choices to place.
Anyhow, the nation’s second favorite comedian, a title that bears equal rank with the second-best dressed woman in the world and is one grade higher than a channel swimmer who misses by six miles, returned to the NBC television network last Tuesday at the usual time (8 p.m., e.d.t., as if you didn’t know). The beating of drums that preceded this magnificent re-entrance was louder than the gnashing of teeth in Brooklyn after that 1 to 0 ball game in St. Louis last week. The Radox television rating in Philadelphia was the highest ever recorded. The show cost $42,000, also a record for television.
It was lousy.
Berle’s opening appearance, to get specific about this, was big, as they say in the trade. He came on in top hat and tails, the influence of Hollywood, I presume, and warmed up an audience that appeared to be composed exclusively of Texaco dealers and their wives, with the old experience.
“I want to thank you from the bottom of my bankbook,” he said, bowing to the tumultuous applause. “It’s really a financial pleasure.” Then he read those telegrams, an act I dimly remember having heard on another Berle show. “You can have your Bob Hopes, your Red Skeltons, your Jack Bennys. We want you. (Signed) Woodlawn Cemetery.” “If you’re the worst comedian in the world, I’m the mayor of New York. (Signed) O’Dwyer.” The only part of the hour-long show that had anything like the old Berle flare [sic] came well at the opening of the program. Here Berle and Phil Silvers, a very funny man, teamed up in a bit of comic monkey-shines that defies any rational description. Among other things this bit was noteworthy because Silvers succeeded in breaking up Berle, an exceedingly difficult thing to do. In fact, he stole the act; virtually an impossible thing to do. Silvers must have been rehearsing all summer to accomplish this.
After that the show began to come apart. June Havoc, of the films, did a song and dance number. I find on my notes the single word “egg,” which, I believe, covers everything adequately. Then there transpired a skit on the South, a burlesque of the old school. Very old school. Silvers, Berle and Miss Havoc, enough talent to stock a $2 million movie, participated in it and still that word “egg” crops up again.
Then there was a skit involving Bob Smith and Howdy Doody. I can think of no reason for this one unless Berle owed Howdy Doody some money. Duke Ellington played the piano stylishly, but hardly well enough to save the show. Also I worked up a tepid enthusiasm for some muscular young men in leopard skins (or something) who hurled a young lady, also in leopard skins, from here to there in what I consider the best pitching on television since Rex Barney’s one hitter in Chicago.
These exhibitions always entrance me, because I see no purpose in them whatsoever. Still, I think performers deserve some commendation for developing so useless an art to such a high degree of skill.
If Mr. Berle—or Mr. Television, as Variety dubbed him last Spring, or the second favorite comedian, or the $42,000 comedian—is to deserve any of those titles or that salary, he’ll have to be better than this. Fact is, Berle was perhaps a little too good last year.
Also, I see evidence of some strenuous thinking in the production, especially in those sketches, and this, I feel, is a bad mistake.
Miltie is much funnier when the antics are entirely brainless. They ought to get rid of the intellectuals.
In case you’re interested, the man who placed first among comedians in that Gallup poll is Bob Hope, who thus won a distinction that would make me very nervous.
Mr. Hope, meet Mr. Dewey. You two have a lot in common.

Uncle Miltie signed a huge, long-term deal with NBC, only to see audiences quickly tire of his antics. By 1960, he was reduced to hosting a bowling show that had already been on the air for three years. But you’ve got to hand it to Milton Berle. He kept popping up on TV until he reached the age where he could be considered a Legend of Comedy. Even if the comedy wasn’t his own.

Here’s an episode of Berle’s Philip Morris show from September 16, 1947. It’s running a bit off-speed so you may not catch an actor using his natural voice as NBC’s Mr. Genzel. He’s probably better known to you as someone who tried to shoot a wascawwy wabbit. You’ll also hear Arnold Stang and Pert Kelton. And the commercial announcer at the end should be familiar to radio and Popeye cartoon lovers.

1 comment:

  1. In this age of fragmented, targeted programming, it's impossible to fathom how important Milton Berle was to TVs growth as a desirable home appliance. It was expected that television would entertain the family at one time, and TEXACO STAR THEATER was the ultimate family show. It was high-class and lowbrow; good music and dance hitched to the most obvious hokum. In short, it was vaudeville, twenty years after radio virtually killed vaudeville. Watching Uncle Miltie's show, youngsters would howl at all this new-to-them stuff, while elders would relive their own childhoods.

    In the medium's earliest days, TV salesmen - especially those handling RCA (NBC's then-parent), would offer a free home demo: the set of your choice all wired up for viewing for a few days. Guess when they'd stop by to pick it up? Tuesday night at 8. One retailer recalled, "The kids would hand on to the legs of the delivery man and everything. 'No, no, no!' So the old man would buy it. That was a great way of selling sets."