Wednesday 4 December 2013

Making Fun of Radio

When did radio start parodying itself? Hard to say. Certainly animated cartoons in the early ‘30s spoofed a “typical broadcast day” and radio celebrities of the era. Jack Benny made fun of Fred Allen’s show a number of times, as well as Bob Hope’s and “Information Please.” Fred Allen and Henry Morgan were a little more vicious in their satirical assessments of certain programmes and formats.

Those, of course, were big network shows. But another, completely forgotten radio parody show was heard on a little one thousand watt daytimer out of Pasadena that generally specialised in community service programmes. It’s where Len Levinson broadcast “The Impossible Hour.”

Levinson was a writer on “The Great Gildersleeve.” By 1947, he was looking at branching out. We’ve blogged here before about his brief foray into the animated cartoon business. And he used a puny Pasadena radio station which signed on July 22, 1947 as a source of free publicity for his yet-to-be-released cartoon series.

Here’s a United Press story that appeared in newspapers that year.

New Radio Show is ‘More So’

HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 13 (UP)—The Impossible Hour, a new radio program, is proving how impossible the rest of the radio programs are. It does just what they do only more so.
Stop the Music gives away $20,000. But the Impossible Hour gives away a million—plus a pound of lamb chops.
Disc jockeys answer requests to play records. The Impossible Hour answers requests not to play records.
Soap operas pester to send you premiums. On this program, you send it the presents.
Commentators soberly analyse the problems that confront the country. The Impossible Hour tackles its greatest concern. It tells you what's going to happen to Dick Tracy.
This program also performs the public service every radio station strives toward. It advises housewives of three-minute music selections so they can time their eggs.
The Impossible Hour, which beat the critics to it by billing itself the worst in the world, flutters out every Saturday evening from a Pasadena station (KAGH) almost impossible to receive on the far side of Hollywood and Vine.
Movietowners hunch over their sets anyway straining to hear what Leonard Levinson, who used to write a lot of their radio shows, is cooking up for himself.
“I got tired of having other people louse up my dialogue,” he said. “I decided to louse it up myself.”
The Impossible emcee is dickering for a deal with a network.
“I want a bigger studio,” he said. “I want enough room to broadcast lying on the floor. A program's gotta sound relaxed.”
Any sponsor in the weeks will be welcome. Listeners are asked each week to send one in, like a boxtop.
“I can help someone with a booming, thriving business,” Levinson said. “I’ll cut down his sales and give him a breather.”
Without a sponsor, Levinson still has commercials. He throws in plugs for the “Jerky Journey” comic shorts he produces for Republic Pictures.
He said he had been swamped with requests not to play records.
“One week we were asked not to play 32 Vaughn Monroe records,” he said. “We didn't have time, so we had to not play 14 the next week.”
Levinson gave away a record and a knitting kit, then invited listeners last week to give him something. He's received 100 used razor blades and the left of a pair of rubbers.
The current impossible contest is to design new paper lamb chop panties. Levinson got tired of looking at the old ones. The prize: $1,000,000, in Chinese money (currently worth eight cents) and the chops.
“So far,” he said, “we have been flooded with 12 entries.”
In the lead is a lady from Weston, Mass., who must have high-powered ears. Her panties are fluted.
A “temporary vegetarian” in San Francisco had another idea. She wished to wrap the million dollars around the lamb-chop.

When Levinson’s show went on and off the air, I haven’t been able to discover. The station itself seems to have lasted only until 1950.

Levinson had the ear of UP’s Patricia Clary as she was back with another interview with him a year later. This time, Levinson was complaining about radio gags—specifically the ones produced in Los Angeles, written in Los Angeles, aired from Los Angeles and full of Los Angeles references. He complained—and I read the same thing in a local radio column years ago—that people didn’t get the references. He provides a list through Clary. Some of them are a little baffling. I don’t understand how people know what the Brown Derby is but not other L.A. landmarks. And if small-towners didn’t know Dizzy Gillespie, that’s their loss.

Hollywood's Local Jokes Full Flat in Hinterland

HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 31 (UP)— A producer has finally taken the trouble to find out that when a jokeman says “Madman Muntz” 75 per cent of the country doesn't know it's a joke.
This will come as a great shock to Hollywood. It's been razzing itself for years secure in the untested conviction that the peasants were rolling in the aisles.
Leonard L. Levinson made the test. The peasants were bored stiff.
Movietown radio studio audiences yak obediently at the mention of The Madman, Honest John, Forest Lawn, Howard Hughes, La Brea tar pits and Pershing square.
East of the county line, listeners wonder what all the fuss is about.
Levinson decided to change all that in the “idiomatic” comic shorts produced by his company, Impossible Pictures.
“I wanted jokes that were funny all over the country,” he said. When his survey results came in, he changed the dialogue to fit.
What Everybody Knows
Everybody, Levinson discovered, knows what you mean by corny, a radio commercial, jive, the Brown Derby, the candid mike radio show, Acres O'Riley and Heels Beals and “stop the music.”
“With $20,000 a week,” Levinson said, “you achieve instant fame.”
Small town fans, Levinson found, don't know Clare Boothe Luce from Elsie the cow. Neither have they heard of torch singers, re-bop band leader Dizzy Gillespie or gag men.
“Sixty per cent of the people,” Levinson advised us, “believe that radio comedians think up their lines as they go along.” They don't. Few outside Chicago, Indianapolis and Los Angeles know that a hot-rod is a hopped-up car, Levinson said. Teen-age columnist Betty Betz is a household word only in Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City. Southerners don't know about Mickey Finns.
Nobody recognizes a movie trailer by that name. Levinson, who burlesques one in an upcoming “Jerky Journey,” now calls it a “preview.” He had to forget about marble gambling machines, because he didn't know what to call them.
Many Different Names
“The survey showed,” he said, “that they were known as ballies in Chicago, flashers and plungers in Texas, pingames in Minneapolis and Nashville, tilters in Arkansas, one-balls and five-balls in Miami and du-wa-ditties in the rest of the south.”
Levinson's first impossible cartoon is “Romantic Rumbolia,” a travelogue about an imaginary island shaped like a set of emerald-green underwear, with the seat-flap flapping. Republic is releasing it in September.
Next in the series of “little known visits to lesser known countries” is “Bungle in the Jungle,” about six people sent to Africa as penalty for missing a question on a quizz program.
The most impossible thing about Impossible Pictures is Producer Levinson's car. He drives a 1929 Ford.

Levinson’s cartoon career never got terribly far—the late 1940s saw the movie market decreasing for cartoons—and it doesn’t appear he was much of a force in television. He turned to writing and was author of “The Complete Book of Pickles and Relishes.” When he died in Santa Monica, California at the age of 69 in 1974, he was known for his work in the old medium of radio, first with “Fibber McGee and Molly” and then “The Great Gildersleeve.” In fact, his brother told the Los Angeles Times in 1988 that Levinson was responsible for one of the most famous running gags in radio history. It seems his home on Sunset Boulevard had a stuffed closet, and . . . well, you know the rest.

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