Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Problem with Radio Comedy

Old time radio comedy shows are loved by many people today, but Fred Allen didn’t have much good to say about them. He knew what the problem was with them. The problem was everybody else.

John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune gave over his column of September 10, 1947 to Allen, who proceeded to find fault with the state of radio comedy everywhere, sparing only the little tubes and tuning dial on the radio set itself.

Reading the column, it’s hard to determine where the truth ended and the satire began. Allen had little time for censors or network executives. He wasn’t enamoured of the idea of guest stars, something his sponsor insisted upon. But was he honestly dismissive of his writer Nat Hiken or supporting players like Minerva Pious and Kenny Delmar?

This version of the story was lifted from the Ottawa Journal, so you’ll noticed the mixed American and British spelling, a peculiar trait of Canadian print media.

A Kind Word for the Comedian

The comedian is the whipping boy of the radio industry. He is the object of critics’ scorn and a target for freelance derision. The comedian's jokes are ridiculed by intellectual and cretin alike. Listeners in mansion and motel agree that the comedian is a no-talent lout whose sense of humor is non-existent. At women's clubs, on dank afternoons, polls are regularly taken. The results, invariably released for publication, tend to show that radio comedy is in a state of galloping disintegration. National magazines take turns in printing semi-erudite post-mortems on the radio funster and his wares. "Variety", the "National Geographic" of the honky tonk, annually runs its hackneyed headline "Which came first—The Egg or the Radio Comedian?"
Since radio first began, no convert has deserted the ranks of the scoffers to champion the cause of the radio comedian. No defender has attempted to kindle a mighty hotfoot that will cause humanity to yelp and raise its heel from the comedian's throat. The "voice in the wilderness" has not cried out in his behalf. Truly the radio comedian has been abandoned by all mankind.
Before he becomes extinct before he is naught but a petrified memory whose tracks are found by scientists retreating down the corridor to oblivion, I would like to say kind word for the radio comedian. His artistic life is a bedlam. Many hazards confront him on his way to the microphone each week. Multiple forces conspire to thwart him at every turn.
A list of aggravations would include . . .
THE WRITER: The average radio writer is an ulcer with a pencil. His rancid expression leads one to assume that his mother had an acid condition and the writer was weaned on sour milk. The weight of the writer's head causes his buggywhip backbone to bend forward, giving the impression that the writer is concealing a boomerang in the back of his coat. The writer instinctively dislikes the comedian who employs him. The writer is always about to write a smash play, sign with a picture company or assemble his own package show. The comedian is paying the writer a large salary which stop the writer from leaving radio to do big things. The writer is so busy bewailing his upholstered fate that he has scant time to work on the comedian's scripts. When the stale jokes he has contrived fall flat the writer blames the comedian. When the comedian's contract is finally cancelled, the writer packs his files and his benzedrine and goes to work to undermine another comedian. Most of the comedy the writer turns out for the comedian is not to be laughed at.
THE CENSOR: The censor is the house detective of the radio network. The censor is usually a man with no sense of humor who is so narrow-minded he thinks in strips. He comes to his job equipped with nothing but a blue pencil and the right-of-way. The censor can find dirt in an infant’s glance. The height of a censor’s ambition is to delete everything in a comedian’s script. The censor would like to hear the comedian at the microphone reading nothing but punctuation.
THE STOOGE: The stooge is the unhappiest character in radio. He knows that he is funnier than the comedian. His wife is forever reminding him. The stooge is always stalking the comedian demanding bigger billing more money or funnier lines. Utopia will strive when the stooge has his own program and the comedian is working for him.
THE SPONSOR: The comedian's sponsor is cannon happy. The sponsor was the first man to shoot a rice grain, out of a cannon. Every employee in the sponsor's factory has been shot out of a cannon. The sponsor himself has been shot but of a cannon. The sponsor's new breakfast food is called "Bang!" Bang not only sparkles, snaps and crackles, as it is being eaten, Bang explodes in babies' mouths. The sponsor wants these startling facts brought out in the commercials. The Bang commercials get longer and longer. The comedian doesn't dare complain. The comedian knows that the sponsor doesn't have to put him in a cannon to fire him.
THE STUDIO AUDIENCE: The studio audience is a mass of negative flotsam. Open the door of a radio studio at any hour of the day or night and a faceless group will flock inside to participate in quiz programs, community sings or to laugh and applaud as directed. Where they come from, where they go, nobody knows. Rumor hath it that most studio audiences are cannibals. They eat masters of ceremonies, they trap behind washing machines, electric stoves and other quiz bait. The studio audience is the bane of the comedian's existence. While he is trying to please the listeners at home he has to indulge in some low comedy to entertain his studio audience. The comedian knows that any joke an inch off the ground will be over the studio audience's head.
THE AGENCY EXECUTIVE: The agency executive is a man who has read "The Hucksters" and passed the Gardenia Test (The Gardenia Test is used by all reputable advertising agencies. The potential executive is seated at a desk. A gardenia is pinned to his lapel. If he has sufficient strength to rise to his feet bearing the weight of the gardenia, the applicant is dubbed executive, fitted for a swivel and welcomed into the agency fold.) The agency man must be able to drink cocktails at lunch and annoy the radio comedian at rehearsal by not laughing at his gags. The agency executive has his finger on the pulse of the nation, when he removes the finger from the pulse of the nation, the comedian has something to worry about.
THE GUEST STAR: The guest star is generally a temperamental Hollywood glamor girl. When the script is finished she insists that most of the jokes be rewritten. Her agent demands that the guest star's last three pictures, "Zombie in the Oven", "Chuck Wagon Clarisse" and "She Couldn't Say Maybe", be mentioned in the dialogue. When the program is over; the comedian hears one laugh. It is the guest star as she takes her cheque.
THE CRITIC: The radio critic is allergic to the comedian. When the comedian's gags are funny the critic prints them to save writing a column. When the comedian's gags are bad the critic prints them to show how lousy they are. This also saves the critic the trouble of writing a column. The comedian, like the other piece of bread in a three-decker sandwich, is always in the middle.
THE SURVEY: The radio survey determines the comedian's popularity. In the United States there are sixty million radio sets in operation. Nobody knows now many people listen to each set. On the basis of a few hundred phone calls, made each month, the survey arrives at a mythical figure which supposedly is the approximate number of alleged listeners tuning in the comedian's program. The comedian has his ups and downs on the survey. The lowest rating the comedian ever had was minus ten. This meant that not only nobody was listening to the program but ten people who were going to buy radios didn’t because the comedian was on the air.
FAN MAIL, FRIENDS, etc: Fan mail and friends are sources of annoyance. Each week the comedian receives hundreds of postcards and letters. His fans want photographs, autographs, tickets for his program, copies of old scripts, money and advice. The comedian is bounded to appear at every benefit from the biggest affair at Madison-Square Garden down to a testimonial dinner being given in a decompression chamber for some sandhog. The comedian's friends are always dropping in to remind him that Jack Benny and Bob Hope had great programs earlier in the week, and that Lum 'n Abner have just passed him on the Hooper. After a few years in radio the comedian shudders at the approach of two people— the mailman and a friend.
THE INCOME TAX: When the comedian comes to the end of his fiscal year, he finds that he has to pay out from 60 to 80 per cent of his income in taxes. The rest of his money he has paid to his agent for commission, mailed to indigent relatives for their support and loaned to old actors who knew him when. After working like the proverbial mongrel all on the comedian finds that he has no money, he has made a million enemies and be has had use of the welkin.
EPILOGUE: The next time you join a crowd and radio comedian's name comes up—don't join the great majority—say a kind word. The memory of your kind word is probably all the comedian will have when his career is ended.

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