Wednesday, 28 October 2020

The Logic of TV's Gracie Allen

George Burns and Gracie Allen took their radio show to television, and made it even better.

It wasn’t just because of Burns’ decision to stand at the front of the stage and set up the situation by talking directly to the audience. I think it’s because Gracie came across as far more human when you actually see her carrying through with her odd ideas.

What was clever about Gracie is somewhere in her thought process, there’s a kernel of logic that prompts her motivation but it detours in some illogical direction.

(As a side note, I also like Harry Von Zell on the TV version. He wasn’t a great actor but he played off George and Gracie very well).

The series was nominated for nine Emmys over eight years and could have carried on longer if Gracie hadn’t retired in 1958. She was taking heart medication at the time, and a heart attack claimed her life in 1964.

The Associated Press published a feature story on the Burns and Allen show on April 24, 1954. Burns wrote a number of books; anyone who has read them will recognise some of the things mentioned in this extended column.

Gracie Not Really Crazy, Just Comic, Says George
HOLLYWOOD, April 24 (AP)—After 31 years in the business, George Burns and Gracie Allen are drawing their biggest audiences ever—and there it no sign of the show closing.
the husband-wife team comprises one of the most unique acts to the business. George is hailed as the best straight man going. Gracie has become the trade mark of the dumb female. But there is method in her madness.
"Gracie is not really crazy," analyzes George, speaking of his wife's TV character. "If she were, we couldn't get a day's work. "Gracie has a sort of illogical logic. To her, everybody else is a little nuts, and after listening to her, you think maybe she's right For instance, a cop will tell her he's tired because he has been pounding a beat all day. She'll say, 'That serves you right; you should get married and let pour wife do the cooking.'
"She will put the salt in the pepper shaker end vice versa, explaining that if she picks up the wrong one, she'll be right. Or she'll shorten the lamp cords in order to save electricity. That's the way her mind works.
"There must be women like that. She must strike a reminiscent chord with people or the show wouldn't be as popular as it is. As a matter of fact men often write or tell me their wives are just like Gracie. All I can say is that I'm wasting $5,000 a week paying writers to create such a character if those men have the same type of wife at home."
George, on the other hand, is very much like his TV self. He's an easy-talking fellow with a droll sense of humor that makes him a favorite companion of other Hollywood comedians. His best friend, Jack Benny, starts laughing whenever George opens his mouth. He has often called Burns the comedian's comedian.
What's more, George actually likes to sing to real life. "I'm always getting up at parties and singing a few old songs," he says. "I can never understand why everybody leaves the room."
The Burns and Allen show is filmed every Wednesday in an aged studio to the heart of Hollywood.
On the set just before lunch one day, the stars were playing a scene in the familiar Burns living room with Harry Von Zell and Larry Keating. It looked very much like a movie set except there were only two cameras and a smaller crew of workers.
They shot an involved comedy scene in one take and George strolled off to lunch at a small bar on Santa Monica blvd., a block and a half away.
As we walked, George told about their strenuous routine. He works on three shows at once—editing the last one, shooting the current one, and helping to write the next one. Writing is the tough spot, he says. He spends much of the weekend on the script, conferring with Director Frederick DeCordova on Sunday mornings. The show is rehearsed on Tuesday and shot the next day.
"We never shoot the script from beginning to end," he explained. "We have to do it in pieces and then put it all together. It's not too bad that way. We know the continuity because we have rehearsed it the day before."
Gracie's week is not much easier. She has her clothes to plan and a great deal of memorizing to do. "Her lines are hard, because she's often playing straight for herself," George added. "She'll have lines like 'I said this and then he said that,' etc. There's no one to feed her a cue. Also, her lines are so wacky they take a lot of memorizing."
Despite their heavy schedule, George and Gracie find tune to go out a couple of nights a week and entertain often at their Beverly Hills home. And George generally lunches and exchanges jokes at the comedian's round table at Hillcrest Country Club with such gagmen as Harpo and Groucho Marx, Benny, Lou Holtz, Phil Silvers and Danny Thomas. We arrived at the dimly-lit bar and George ordered a Gibson cocktail and a steak—"and bring a sharp knife."
He said they make 40 half-hour films a year, grinding out one each week. I asked him if he found the routine wearing.
"No, I thrive on it," he replied with a smile. "I think it's much easier to do a show every week than every other week or once a month. You get into the swing of things and. maintain a pace."
"Material? Sure, it's hard to get. But you have to keep turning them out. Something amazed me the other day. A comedian with another TV series told me he was laying off for a week because his writers didn't produce a script!
"Can you imagine that? Would you fail to put out a newspaper because the reporters didn't feel like writing?"
He added philosophically: "I say you can handle any job as long as you like your work, and I've always lived show business." His life certainly proves that. Born Nathan Birnbaum in New York 58 years ago, he started singing in saloons with other kids before he was 10. In succeeding years he became a trick roller skater, dancing teacher and vaudeville comedian. While playing in New Jersey he met a San Francisco girl who had flung and danced with her three sisters and in an Irish troupe.
That was Gracie. Since George was losing his partner, he invited Gracie to join his act. She accepted.
"I could see her natural flair for comedy from the start," he remembered. "We began with me as the comedian. But she got all the laughs with her straight lines! So I made myself the straight man and let her carry the comedy."
Three years after they formed the act they were married—Jan. 7, 1926 in Cleveland. They scored in vaudeville and transferred their zany comedy to radio. After a decade of success on the air lanes, their popularity began to slip.
"The radio show wasn't going very well," George says. "We were still doing the man-woman kind of comedy we had done in vaudeville. There was no indication in the act; we were married. Gracie was always making a play for the singer or the orchestra leader, and people began to resent it. They figured she was too old for that.
"So we tried a story line on the basis, that we were married. The entire nature of the act changed. We worked out natural situations that people seemed to like. The show picked up again."
The idea for the TV format came during a lunch with CBS bigwigs, including President William Paley.
"We'd like to have you and Gracie get into television," Paley remarked.
"It sounds fine," Burns replied, "but what kind of a show would we have?"
"Well, I've always read about what a great job you do with monologues at the Friars' Club and other places," said Paley. "I'd like to have the chance to see you do something like that."
So it was decided to have George play a sort of one-man offstage Greek chorus who knows what the TV characters are going to do and tells the audience about it in a wry manner. The device is considered by many professionals to be the best format in TV comedy. And it worked for George and Gracie.
As Burns was finishing up his steak , medium-well, I asked whether he thought the show could wear out its welcome by appearing every week.
"I don't think there's any danger in our case," he replied. "If we were actors appearing in a different role every week—yes. But we play ourselves. People get used to us and seem to like us."


  1. They were quite the act, and the talent they surrounded themselves with on the television showed just added for strength to it. Gracie's timing was perfect, and the facial reactions that Bea Benederet, Von Zell, and even George would make after Gracie's observations or ramblings were the perfect set up...the wind up..the pitch..Bam!!! right out of the park!.

  2. The best of Gracie's routines were usually tour de force efforts through the double-meanings and eccentricities of the English language, where Gracie's use of a word or term was perfectly legitimate, but just not the way the rest of the world used that work or term under the same conditions.

  3. Insult-wise, George took quite a hammering on the radio show. George is old. George is untalented. George is pathetically out of shape. George is cheap. It was pretty relentless. The TV had some of that, but overall backed off of it.

    1. I never thought about it, Terry. She praised his singing. She also never really seemed terribly malicious, not like the beating Jack Benny took on his show.

  4. "10"? George actually filmed 40 episodes of "THE BURNS AND ALLEN SHOW" during the 1953-'54 season. And the last eight were scheduled during July and August {with repeats filling the gaps during May and June, and August through September}. He believed in giving the audience new episodes during the summer- even if he had to film new introductions for the 12 repeats ["Mr. Burns, did an elephant REALLY sit on your car's fender?"/"Yes, and I'm sorry I didn't believe Gracie the first time she told me about it. I could have saved us a lot of trouble--- but I wouldn't have gotten such a funny show out of it."/"Huh?"/"Look, let me explain what started when the tow truck driver brought Gracie home-----"].

    1. Barry, thanks. It was an OCR error. I've fixed it.