Wednesday 27 September 2023

More of the Wit of Fred Allen, Would-Be TV Star

Fred Allen wasn’t finished with radio in 1949 when his show for Ford went off the air. In 1950, there were guest appearances on other NBC shows—and even Jack Benny’s over on CBS. He stayed out of radio “to get a taste of oblivion. I shall be the only radio comic with a preview of oblivion when television really takes over,” he was quoted in a Louisville newspaper that January.

Allen still exercised his wit and opinions in the popular press that year. Here’s a column from UP from Feb. 18th.

Fred Allen Doesn’t Like Radio, Video or Anything Else
(United Press Hollywood Correspondent)
Fred Allen yesterday said he’s very happy to be temporarily retired because: Radio’s dying, television isn’t grown up yet and the movies never have made a funny man out of him.
The sourpuss comedian quit radio last year because of illness. He says he has little intention of working again, either.
“Television won’t kill radio. Radio’s doing a pretty good job of killing itself,” cracked Allen. “It’s half dead, but rigor mortis hasn’t set in.
“And I’m not sure I’ll want to get into television even when it’s perfected. People tire of you more quickly when they see you every week.
“Besides, it’s anti-social. It won’t ruin sex but it’s ruining small talk. It’s getting smaller and smaller. Instead of talking you sit and watch some second-rate television show that you wouldn’t go out of your home to see.” “Besides,” he groused, “it doesn’t pay him to work, anyway.
“With taxes what they are, there’s no incentive to do anything. The only thing that keeps a lot of performers going is their ego. Well, my ego is under control.
“Therefore I see only futility in any temporary adulation I would get on TV by the portion of the unwashed public that hasn’t seen me before.”
Allen trekked to California, “which is founded on one objective, sunny,” to star in the radio version of his latest movie, “It’s In the Bag,” on NBC’s Screen Directors’ Playhouse, last night.
“I’ve made five movies, the latest in 1945, all of them bad. Every few years somebody comes around and says nobody knows how to handle me in pictures so he wants to try. So I make a movie with him—and it’s bad.
“In Hollywood acting ability or talent doesn’t count. You have to be photogenic.”
Allen furthermore th1nk he’s doing the public a favor by staying jobless for a while.| ‘An actor is like a cinder in the public eye,” he went on. “People need relief from him. The public should be very grateful to me. Everybody else is boring the hell out of them in pictures and radio. The tax boys are getting a rest, too. They don’t have to bother counting all my money.
“Next year I’ll write a book. The year after that I’ll read it and the next year I’ll tear it up. That’ll take up three years.
“Meantime I’m out here getting movie stars to donate their swimming pool to New York to help the water shortage.”

He began his television career that fall as one of the hosts appearing on a rotational basis on The Colgate Comedy Hour (he was gone by December to Florida for health reasons). He also wrote two books, though he died before completing the one about his vaudeville/stage life before radio. As for taxes, he beat the state of Massachusetts over a $90 tax bill, proving before a judge he no longer lived in Boston.

Allen used some of the same lines when he returned to New York and spoke with Earl Wilson. The column showed up March 3rd or 10th, depending on the paper.

Fred Allen Busy Doing ‘Nothing’
It’s Tougher Than Working, ‘Retired’ Comedian Finds
NEW YORK—"In California," said Fred Allen, who's just back from there, "people don't know the meaning of the word ‘happen’ because nothing ever does.
"It's so crowded that all the oranges are on the ground because people are living in all the trees.
"They say Los Angeles is booming—just because the streets are full of people all the time.
"But those people in the streets are people moving from one house to another house. Naturally, when anybody moves into one of those California houses, he moves out of it and into another one right away."
Fred, you can see, had a good time in California. I met him at the Plaza Oak Room where his agent was trying to persuade him to go back to work.
Fred isn't very eager, however.
"You used to save your money for a rainy day. With taxes the way they are now, you save your money and when it rains all you've got to hold over your head is an income tax receipt."
I suggested that anybody with his talent must also be ambitious to have a vast audience every week.
"Nowadays," Fred replied, "You keep your nose to the grindstone and you wind up with your nostrils full of emery dust."
"So you have no plans?"
"I've got no more plans than a dead architect."
"Don't you like to be busy?"
"Why, I'm busier doing nothing than I was when I was working. In Hollywood I was on the Bob Hope show and on the way from the dressing room to the microphone, I did two benefits.
"Everybody in Los Angeles was trying to invent something. One guy was making his own Sanka. He put sleeping pills in his coffee.
"I saw trailers with television aerials on them. Guys that hadn't got homes yet had TV sets out in their yards. It got so cold while I was there, they put smudge pots under people.
"California is a state made famous by an adjective. Without that adjective ‘sunny,’ California would be another Nebraska.
"I like San Francisco. I don't know why they should build all those bridges. The people are so nice, no one would ever want to leave there."
"Don't you miss being on the air?" I asked.
"Those other guys are treadmill comedians, quantity comedians. They think they have to be on all day, and after they are, you can't remember a thing they say."
"Now that you've commented about California, what have you to say about New York?" I said.
"New York! The hotels have no water. The clerk gives you a bath towel and a divining rod."
Fred got up to go. "I have to see my dentist," he said. "Want to come along and have a tooth pulled on me?"

Wilson was one of few critics who liked Allen’s TV debut. Most the rest of the reviews I’ve seen, with the exception of Sid Shalit’s rave in the New York Daily News, rated it, as they say in baseball, “swing and a miss.” Wilson’s column of September 27, 1950 opened with:

NEW YORK—Fred Allen’s first TV show was for intelligent people—but I liked it anyway.
It had “class.” Fred discussed big NBC executives. He said one was so big he had a wastebasket to throw people in. He also said, “There is more to television than meets the nose.”
Backstage, Fred and guest Star Monte Wooley [sic] talked about the unbelievable amount of work that goes into a show. They had rehearsed for more than a wek. “Do you think you’ll do much television,” I asked Wooley.
Tossing his heard in the air, he snorted, “I shouldn’t think so.”

The Herald Tribune’s John Crosby pointed out Allen “seemed ill at ease in front of all those cameras.” I don’t think Allen lost that. Even on What’s My Line? he never really appeared comfortable. He once said he liked the panel show because it left him plenty of time to write. As he showed again and again, the place where he was most at ease was a place with words.


  1. Allen said they call television a medium because nothing on it is well done. In other words, he had no use for it--he once saw a vase with a bouquet on top of a TV set and said, "That's the first good thing I've seen on television." But was there a greater wit in radio in his time? I can't think of one.

  2. He also said "Imitation is the sincerest form of television."

  3. I'm just now reading a Billy Rose column from 1947, quoting Allen: "Once a radio show is over, it's as important as a butterfly's cough."