Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Censoring Comedy

Fred Allen spent his radio career being hounded by censors for the most ridiculous reasons over some pretty innocuous things. It got to the point where the network cut off about 20 seconds of his show because he was making a joke about a non-existent NBC executive. Allen won the P.R. battle in that case, but his show was soon a thing of the past, its ratings purloined by a noisy giveaway show on another network.

Allen had a kindred spirit in columnist John Crosby, and poured out his troubles to him. Crosby published some of network’s strange edicts against Allen’s gags, and that inspired him to do an eight-part series on radio censorship.

As we’ve transcribed the first column, let’s give you six more. We’ll reserve the final one for another post; Crosby allowed the network to respond. Below are Crosby’s columns of July 30 and 31, 1946.

Just a couple of remarks:

In the first column, there’s a reference to Mrs. Nussbaum. There’s no question some people found her to be a distasteful stereotype; Groucho Marx once wrote his displeasure with her ethnic sentence structure (Benny Rubin had the same complaint about Mr. Kitzel on the Jack Benny show). Allen admitted he got complaints from Irish people about Ajax Cassidy being a drunken rowdy. Allen was of Irish origin.

And I’ve never agreed with Allen’s contention shows should run long if they felt like it. He never seems to have considered the reverse. Imagine Allen’s reaction if he rehearsed and timed a half-hour show, then the previous programme ran five minutes into his time. He’d be livid. His advertiser who put him on the air bought a half hour. He gets a half hour. That’s it. If the script doesn’t fit, you cut it. A good joke can always be used another time.
Censorship on the Air
Fred Allen’s fourteen-year battle with radio censorship, some of which was reported in this column yesterday, was made particularly difficult for him by the fact that the man assigned to reviewing his scripts had little sense of humor and frankly admitted he didn’t understand Allen’s peculiar brand of humor at all. This censor, whom I’ve been calling Pincus, which isn’t his name, invoked each of N.B.C.’s censorship rules with the zeal of the Civil Liberties Union defending the Bill of Rights.
You can’t, for instance, offend individuals in a comedy show, which would be a reasonable rule if sensibly administered. However,
Pincus extended this ban to include virtually every one living or dead and sometimes even imaginary people. Allen, for instance, once gagged about an imaginary society matron named Mrs. Biddle Pratt. Pincus wouldn’t allow it until Allen had combed all the Blue Books and Social Registers in the country to make sure there wasn’t a real Mrs. Biddle Pratt. He did and there wasn’t. Then there was a gag about Senator Guff of Idaho. Even a search of past and present Congressional directories failed to reveal the names of any Senator Guffs of Idaho, Pincus was not fully assured. He approved the line with considerable misgivings because, after all, there might some day be a Senator Guff of Idaho.
However, Allen was forbidden to use the harmless line “Brenda never looked lovelier” at the time of the Brenda Frazier wedding without the permission of the Frazier family, which could not be obtained. Another time, Allen tacked a cockney accent on a character identified as the first mate of the Queen Mary. This had to be changed because Pincus said the first mate of the Queen Mary was quite a cultured person in his own world and might not like a cockney accent affixed on him.
All networks are, of course, extremely careful to avoid offending any racial or religious group. No one can possibly quarrel with this but their caution is sometimes taken to outlandish lengths. You might be interested to know that Allen had a terrible time winning approval for the current Minerva Pious character, Mrs. Nussbaum. N.B.C. was fearful that Jewish-dialect comedy might offend all Jews. Wearily, Allen and his representatives pointed out that Jewish-dialect comedy had been in vaudeville and burlesque for thirty years without offending any one.
Since N.B.C. is a national network, it must be careful about hurting the feelings of towns or regions, which are sometimes even more sensitive than individuals. Allen once wrote a sketch concerning a town called North Wrinkle, a name he thought up all by himself. N.B.C. objected on the grounds that there might somewhere be a North Wrinkle whose inhabitants might not like Mr. Allen’s humor. A radio executive was unloosed on this problem and after considerable research, turned up with a deadpan report which I print below as an example of the radio mind at work:
“The most comprehensive list of towns in the United States is the United States Postal Guide. No North Wrinkle is listed there. The United States Post Office knows of no such town. However, they state that there is a possibility that there is such a community without a post office, but that there is no way in which they can check further unless we suggest a given state in which case they could make a more intensive search. I believe that it is safe to use North Wrinkle.” Allen not only couldn’t poke fun at individuals, he also had to be careful not to step on their professions, their beliefs, and sometimes even their hobbies and amusements. Portland Hoffa once was given a line about wasting an afternoon at the rodeo. N.B.C. objected to the implication that an afternoon at the rodeo was wasted and the line had to be changed. Another time, Allen gagged that a girl could have found a better husband at the cemetery. Pincus thought this might hurt the feelings of people who own and operate cemeteries. Allen got the line cleared only after pointing out that cemeteries have been topics for comedy since the time of Aristophanes.
Anything that might conceivably hurt the feelings of an advertiser or even a potential advertiser is, of course, scrutinized with extraordinary care. The incredible Pincus, for instance, objected to the line: “The zoo keeper told mama the mongoose was seeing aspirin.” Pincus was under the impression aspirin was a trade name. The line was cleared after Pincus was told that aspirin was not the exclusive property of the Bayer people.
Allen once wrote a sketch in which a woman character named the Widow Kane said she had forgotten to turn the gas off in her Kansas home before coming to New York.
“Good heavens,” said Allen. “Attention, Soup Ladle, Kansas. Go to Widow Kane’s home. Turn off the gas.” A few moments later the program was interrupted by a mock news flash. Soup Ladle, Kansas, has been blown off the map. N.B.C. deleted the entire sequence because the gas companies objected to calling attention to the explosive properties of their product.

Censorship on the Air
Pincus, which is a name I arbitrarily selected to designate the man who once censored Fred Allen’s scripts for the National Broadcasting Company, was a man of little if any humor but he was a stickler for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In one script, Allen remarked that Schopenhauer was a sustaining program that year under the name of Pick and Pat. That, said the distressed Pincus, simply wasn’t so. Schopenhauer, said Pincus, died in 1860 and was never on any radio program. Allen finally succeeded in convincing Pincus that it was a joke, son, and the line was cleared.
The veteran comedian was not so lucky in convincing the radio censors that radio itself is a suitable topic for comedy. Of all radio’s sacred cows, radio itself is the most sacred, and, while Allen has repeatedly lampooned the industry that pays him $20,000 a week, he has also lost many a battle to the censors. In 1938, for instance, after Orson Welles scared the daylights out of half the Eastern seaboard with his invasion from Mars, Allen wrote an introduction to his program which poked a little fun, not at Welles, but at the people who ran all over New Jersey looking for the Martian invaders.
Sound Effects Imaginary
“This is a comedy program,” wrote Allen. “Any sound effects or dialogue you hear during the hour will be purely imaginary. If you hear a phone ringing (and he demonstrated) don’t answer it. If you hear a knock on the door (another demonstration), don’t rush to open the door. Just sit back and relax. Nothing is going to happen.”
N.B.C. not only blue-penciled the entire introduction but flatly refused to allow Allen to make any allusion to the Welles incident, which had frightened the entire broadcasting industry. Allen carried his appeal up the chain of command at N.B.C. all the way to Lenox Lohr, then president of the network. The appeal was rejected. N.B.C. didn’t want to hear any more about the invasion, particularly over the air.
Probably the funniest battle Allen ever lost involved a sketch about the movies. One line in the sketch read: “Motion pictures are your best entertainment.” No greater uproar could have been caused if a Mahometan had called the faithful to prayer in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Even a hint that there is any other form of entertainment, especially a better one, than radio is blasphemy in broadcasting circles.
Caused A Small War
The line caused a small war at N.B.C. Allen and his representatives argued the point from the executive to executive right up to Mr. Lohr and got nowhere. The broadcasters refused to concede that it was a joke, they didn’t think it was funny. The line was thrown out and, to my knowledge, no such sacrilegious sentiment has ever been expressed at N.B.C.
Naturally, over a period of fourteen years, this stifling censorship has aroused considerable bitterness in Allen, one of radio’s great wits. This is only too apparent in his shows. In the last few years, there have been repeated and biting references to N.B.C. vice-presidents. (“The man with the mould on him is a vice-president.”) The network has never issued any flat ultimatum to Allen to stop this but N.B.C. executives have pleaded unsuccessfully with him for years to lay off the vice-presidents for the sake of N.B.C.’s dignity.
Allen continues to make fun of the N.B.C. vice-presidents, and no wonder. Another of Allen’s pet peeves is the automatic cut-off at N.B.C. White other networks will allow a big show to run a minute or two past its time and will make it up to the next show, N.B.C.’s cut-off is operated by an automatic clock which stops the show exactly on the hour or half hour. Even those chimes are mechanically operated.
Once, to work off a little steam at both N.B.C. executive staff and at that automatic chime, Allen inserted a line in his script in which a stooge remarked: “I must balance my chime report. Lenox will be furious.” Even Allen had no hope of getting such a crack at the N.B.C. president on the air and, of course, it was cut out. The comedian finds some consolation in the fact that he has outlived, or at least outlasted, three N.B.C. presidents and he may outlast the present one.
Among the more recent excisions from an Allen script was a reference to an imaginary summer resort called Gromyko’s Grotto. N.B.C. deleted the line on the grounds it might offend the Russians.
“My God,” said Allen wearily, “everything else has offended the Russians. We’re the only thing left. We might as well offend them, too.”
The columns for August 1, 2, 5 and 6 are below. You can blow them up to read them. One involves censorship and banning of songs on the radio, another deals with the infamous Mae West appearance on the Edgar Bergen show in the late ‘30s. To me, West fans would hardly be offended by anything she’d say—they know what her reputation is—and kid listeners wouldn’t get it anyway. But it caused such a flap that West stuck to movies and then stage appearances during the war.

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