Something Light: "Comedy Tonight"
In its early developmental years, radio did not produce much laughter in American homes. In
fact, those developmental years, preceding the first commercial broadcasts in 1920, spanned
more than a century. In the early 1800's, Joseph Henry in America and Michael Faraday in
England had demonstrated that an electrical current in one wire could induce a current in a
second wire, even at some distance. In the late 1880's Heinrich Hertz in Germany
demonstrated that these electrical impulses travel at the speed of light. In 1895 Guglielmo
Marconi developed the first wireless telegraph and then established his Wireless Telegraph
and Signal Company, Ltd., with divisions around the world. Reginald Fessenden, an
American physicist, produced the first voice transmission in 1900, and in 1901 Marconi
succeeded in sending and receiving radio signals across the Atlantic. In 1906 American
inventor, Lee de Forest, devised the audion, a 3 element vacuum tube that could detect radio
signals, which ultimately paved the way for the mass production of radios after World War I.
In that same year Fessenden produced the world's first radio broadcast. Beamed on
Christmas Eve to ships in the Atlantic, the program devised the format that would dominate
radio in the 1920's: the role of an announcer, "quality" music, an amateur performance, a
reading in this occasion from the Bible and a goodly dose of self promotion.
Frederick D. Malkinson
The Chicago Literary Club
April 15, 2002
After all these years, however, radio was still largely seen as just a substitute for telegraphy
where wires could not be laid down. Initially its usefulness was limited to seagoing safety
concerns. In 1909, after the collision of the passenger ships "Florida" and "Republic" off
Nantucket, John Binns, wireless telegrapher aboard the "Republic," achieved the rescue of all
1500 passengers and crew members surviving the collision by directing the liner "Baltic" to
the crash scene. Ironically, in 1912, Binns declined the offer to serve as telegrapher abroad
the Titanic, leaving David Sarnoff, operating the radio station atop New York City's
Wanamaker building, to pick up Titanic's distress signal and, over a 72 hour period,
help direct rescue ships to the sinking liner.
After amateur radio broadcasters pioneered the airing of phonograph records, instrumental
music and guest interviews, the Canadian division of Marconi's company established the
world's first regularly operated broadcasting station, licensed as CFCF. In May, 1920,
"CFCF made its inaugural broadcast with a full orchestra. received by men on ships in the
St. Lawrence River. The station has been on the air ever since."
In 1920, Frank Conrad, an engineer at Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in
Pittsburgh, began sending transmissions of phonograph records and ball scores from a
transmitter in a barn he used as a research laboratory. The popularity of these broadcasts
shortly induced Westinghouse to formalize the station, which adopted the call letters KDKA.
Regular broadcasts began on November 2, 1920. KDKA scored a first that same month by
broadcasting the presidential election returns as Harding defeated Cox by the widest popular
vote margin recorded up to that time. Meanwhile, two additional stations in Detroit and San
Francisco had also begun operations.
In 1916, David Sarnoff had first proposed marketing a radio receiver, and in 1921, now as
general manager of the newly formed Radio Corporation of America, he demonstrated its
market potential by broadcasting the Dempsey - Carpentier boxing match, a sensational event
which reached 300, 000 listeners. In 1922 Sarnoff marketed the "Radiola" for seventy-five
dollars. Within three years the "Radiola" had achieved 60 million dollars in sales.
The peccadilloes of early broadcasting, programming and reception - the latter often plagued
by static, weird whistling sounds, and other strange noises - were overcome by the formation
of the National Broadcasting System in 1926. Thirty-six hundred miles of telephone wire
now linked nineteen stations from New York to Kansas City. "Overnight, radio was no
longer a hobby and broadcasting was no longer strictly a local concern. The networking of
radio was to have a profound effect on the culture of our nation."
In their early years, radio programs were largely devoted to news, music, information on
topics such as the home, business, and health issues, concerts - live or recorded - and
operatic performances. Commercial support for these programs was supplied by local
businesses and by larger regional or national companies for network broadcasts.
In the early 1920's comedy programs were essentially non-existent. Budgets were unavailable
for popular entertainers, and the leading vaudeville and Broadway musical comedy stars were
far too well paid to risk their careers and reputations over a "strange-sounding box." Also
Broadway and vaudeville producers opposed radio appearances by their stars since they
viewed these as a threat to box-office business. In 1926, however, some dissatisfaction with
radio was reflected in a poll in which set owners stated that there were too many music
programs. It was at this time that radio comedy seems to have begun when some members of
the local station orchestras began to tell jokes. Ev Jones, a member of the twelve-man band
at Cleveland's station WTAM, later wrote, "Most of the script' was ad-libbed. I would write
down a lot of jokes, and as we were playing a tune the announcer would look them over and
select the ones he liked. We would go into whatever gags he had selected at the end of a
number. We went through this procedure after every dance tune. There were no rehearsals.
no real script. The station announcers, then, became the first real radio comedians, although
the poor puns and old jokes they recited-straight out of Joe Miller's "Complete Jest Book" and
such magazines as "College Humor"-had long been worn thin in vaudeville. However, by the
mid--1920's radio announcers had often assumed the further responsibilities of station
manager and program director. The next step, then, was for these local station announcers to
start recruiting amateur comedians, among whom, naturally, there was no dearth of
volunteers. Few ever became well-known, but as the new emphasis on comedy began to take
hold, radio was able to entice a small number of comedians from vaudeville and night-club
acts. Vaudeville-like song and comedy patter teams, mixing popular music and amusing
chatter, were also introduced. One such team, Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, broadcasting over
New York Station WEAF, had already recorded some of their routines for Pathé Records. In
1927 their popular half-hour program premiered on the NBC network. This was the first
regular weekly comedy show on radio, sponsored by the Happiness Candy Company. These
"Happiness Boys," as they were called, drew hundreds of fan letters weekly through the rest
of the decade. Early on, they introduced dialect jokes, parody, and satire, all of which
became staples of the extremely popular comedy shows of the later 1930's and 1940's.
Meanwhile, with the introduction of motion pictures with sound in 1927, vaudeville
attendance had started to decline precipitously. From 2000 vaudeville theaters operating
around 1900, fewer than 100 survived by 1930. Vaudevillians, tired of riding the rails, of
ghastly hotel accommodations, of poor pay and fickle audiences now flocked to radio, which
provided long-term contracts, much loftier incomes, and a stable life style. At the outset
large budgets with attractive salaries started to lure star entertainers to radio. Advertising
agencies began to devise programs sold to both networks on a commission basis, the
forerunner of the CBS network having been inaugurated on September 18, 1927. Improved
programming and the general prosperity of the 1920's contributed to the burgeoning
popularity of radio, now enjoyed by one-third of all American families.
The transition of stage comedians to radio was not easy. Time-tested routines that had been
used for years had to be regularly replaced by brand new material broadcast to regular
listeners each week. Also, humor now had to appeal to a broadly mixed-and unseen-
audience. Ridicule of a social class, local jokes and a variety of other subject matter had to
be modified or abandoned. From the beginning, too, "lewd jokes and double entendres were
taboo." In addition, stage comedians had long depended in good part on gestures, make-up,
costumes and props, all of which, of course, were irrelevant to the "out there audience." Not
only did many of the performers have problems composing and reading scripts before a
microphone, but the silence of the radio studio without live audiences was frequently
unsettling. The resulting advent of professional scriptwriters and the use of live studio
audiences helped to mark the ultimate development of the highly popular comedy programs of
By the late 1920's, network programming and news events now reached urban and rural
populations alike. Radio had become "a powerful agency of cultural homogenization and
showed tremendous potential in the entertainment field, but it was clear that the medium
needed more original comedy shows."
In 1926, two radio comedy pioneers, Freeman Gosden of Richmond, Virginia, and Charles
Correll from Peoria began writing and broadcasting a program entitled "Sam n'Henry" over
station WGN in Chicago, aired for ten minutes on six evenings each week. "Sam n'Henry"
was radio's first situation comedy. Borrowing ideas from minstrel shows, the program was
based on two black characters. Switching a little later to WMAQ in Chicago, Gosden and
Correll reappeared with the inaugural broadcast of "Amos n'Andy" on March 19, 1929. An
immediate hit in the Chicago area, it prompted William Benton, handling the "Pepsodent"
account for the Lord and Thomas advertising agency, to arrange "Pepsodent's" sponsorship of
"Amos n'Andy" on NBC in August, 1929, and, "A year later the Pepsodent-sponsored
program was a national craze." After the onset of the depression years Gosden and Correll
used radio comedy to relieve social tensions, emphasize the work ethic and family values,
and boost morale. "For millions of families, listening to "Amos n'Andy" was a nightly
ritual," even a nightly addiction. "Hotel lobbies, movie theaters and shops piped the show in
from 7:00 - 7:15 in the evening so as not to lose customers. Telephones remained still,
toilets weren't used, taxis remained unhailed."
Although many criticisms were raised over the black characters portrayed-charges of
exploitation of blacks and portrayals of characters detrimental to the self-respect of the race-
"Amos n'Andy" probably served more positive social and psychological needs during the
Depression years than negative ones. All listeners could laugh at the humorous references to
the economic crisis, typified by "Amos n'Andy's" relentless search for the
corner around which prosperity was going to come. In 1943, Gosden and Correll switched to
a once a week half-hour variety show, sponsored by "Rinso" with its theme song of "Rinso
White" sung by the very young diva-to-be, Belle Silverman, a.k.a. Beverly Sills. The
program ultimately premiered on television, but later expired there in 1953, largely due to
continued and increased pressure from the NAACP. Interestingly, however, it remained on
radio until 1960, 32 years after its first program was broadcast.
The diverse characteristics of radio humor can be directly traced to this progenitor program
and the heritage of vaudeville. The various uses of language provided its mainstay. With
"Amos n'Andy" most of the humor came from puns, malapropisms, mangling of English and
the introduction of repeated phrases, such as "holy mackerel," which then became embedded
in listeners' daily conversations. Although castigated as racist, Gosden and Correll actually
provided an exaggerated version of white listeners as well, as they struggled to earn a living,
fight bureaucracy and face breadlines.
In 1932-33 a new wave of comedy programs, destined to be long-lasting, appeared: Burns
and Allen, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Ed Wynn all initiated their first broadcasts a year
after Eddie Cantor had gone on the air. These performers all developed similar program
formats: the straight man announcer or band leader, the portrayal of ethnic types, a leading
program actor-usually the comedian himself-to serve as the target of jokes and insults, and
musical and advertising interludes. Verbal slapstick, straight joke-telling and puns were
employed. "Puns (widely used and widely deprecated) celebrate the language's elasticity."
For example, out walking, Fred Allen asks a slightly off balance passerby, "Do you have
vertigo?" The answer, "No, only two blocks."
"Another characteristic of radio comedy was its penchant for humorously breaking
social conventions. To an audience of average listeners', earning average salaries', and
possessing an average' share of powerlessness within society, it was often refreshing to assail
in jokes the pretensions, wealth and influence of social (and political) leaders."
One of the staples of radio comedy was deflation of the male ego by women minority
characters or even the straight man. George Burns personified male logic and reason, but
somehow Gracie-illogical, irrational and basically pretty stupid-usually got the better of him,
demonstrating that male authority was highly fragile after all.
Malapropisms, widely employed by many comedians, perhaps reached a pinnacle on the
program "Easy Aces," as Jane Ace artfully devised such phrases as, "We're insufferable
friends," "Time wounds all heels" and "We're all cremated equal."
Insult humor was also widely employed. Of insult humor Susan Douglas writes, "The
rapidity of the repartee, and the speed of the cutting comeback, were key. Insults established
a pecking order and the one insulted must respond quickly and effectively or lose status
instantly." Since insults are often a family affair, insult humor tended to create a bond or
family feeling between the program cast and their listeners.
The most successful and long-running battle of insult humor, of course, was the
famous "feud" between Jack Benny and Fred Allen, which started in 1936 when Allen hosted
a 10-year old boy wonder violinist, Stewart Canin, who played Rimsky-Korsakof's "Flight of
the Bumble Bee." After he finished, Allen commented, "If Mr. Benny heard this tyke's
rendition of "The Bee" he should hang his head in symphonic shame and (return the
horsehairs of his bow) to the tail of the stallion from which they (were) taken." The "feud,"
was irresistible to listeners and was soon labeled "The Battle of the Century." The insults
revolved around age, appearance, pretension about talents, integrity, capacity for lying and
other characteristics. Allen and Benny, of course, were actually good friends but the feud
went on for over a decade. Allen's talent for ad-libbing usually ran circles around Benny
when they appeared together, but on one occasion one ad lib elicited Benny's off-the-cuff
comment that Allen would never make such a remark if only Benny's writers were present.
This garnered him one of the more famous lines of his career.
As summarized by Susan Douglas, "Radio comedy was revolutionary and
conservative, insubordinate and obedient, attacking conventional authority yet buttressing it at
the same time. Its befuddled, hapless men invited listeners' sympathies and their
ridicule, bolstering the self-esteem of those in the audience who (during the Depression and
War years) recognized all too well what it was like to be confused and intimidated in the face
of power. Sure, radio cheered people up during the Depression. But it did so because it
gave men an imagined preserve where they could project their own sense of failure onto
others, hear acknowledgments that successful masculinity was a hard mantle to keep on, yet
also hear that benighted men, through their wits alone, were still going to land on top, if only
for a few minutes."
It is impossible to review here the careers and programs of the many radio comedians
who flourished during the 1930's and 1940's. Instead, I have chosen to present a biography
of just one of them, a pre-eminent satirist who pioneered "a peculiar mix of verbal comedy
and wit that had never been heard before."
John Florence Sullivan was born on the border of Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts,
on May 31, 1894. Because of his female middle name, bestowed in memory of his
grandfather's first name, Sullivan later acknowledged a goodly amount of physical abuse
suffered in the tough neighborhoods in which he grew up. His father was a bookbinder by
trade, but drank much more regularly than he worked. Sullivan' s mother died when he was
three, but her sister, Aunt Lizzie, made a home for him, his father, and his younger brother
in the Allston-Brighton section of Boston. When Sullivan turned fourteen he entered the
Boston High School of Commerce and his father obtained his first job for him at the Boston
Public Library. As Sullivan put it later, "The great advantage of a Commerce education was
that it wouldn't interfere with any plan you might have for the future."
As Sullivan moved up in his administrative responsibilities in the library, he began to read
books on the history of comic performance and started to attend vaudeville shows, which
prompted him to take up juggling and memorize jokes for accompanying patter. In 1911 he
graduated from Commerce High School and accepted an invitation that year to join the
Library employees' amateur show. His juggling routine was a momentous success. When a
female co-worker said to him afterwards, "You're crazy to keep working at the Library. You
ought to go on the stage," it was all the advice he needed to embark on his future career.
While holding odd jobs here and there, Sullivan started performing for local amateur nights,
perfecting his jokes but making little progress with his juggling skills. He also began
managing various amateur groups and shortly began to receive intermittent bookings for
vaudeville performances, appearing on stage from Nova Scotia to Connecticut. Like other
vaudevillians he adopted various stage names (Benjamin Franklin, Paul Huckle, and others)
as time went on. This practice was widely adopted to avoid bookers' threats of blacklisting
or cancellation for allegedly poor performances in what was then a highly competitive
business. George Burns, for example, used as many as nine pseudonyms during his many
years in vaudeville.
Sullivan soon found that his juggling talents could never compete with those of the
master jugglers currently on the circuit. He began to rely more and more on jokes,
anecdotes, and off-the-cuff comments, now billing himself as "The World's Worst Juggler."
In 1914, at the age of twenty, he obtained his first booking in vaudeville's Mecca,
New York City. After performing on the Loew theater circuit, he was offered a tour of
Australia in 1916. This was a popular venue for American entertainers; W.C. Fields had
already toured that country on three separate occasions. Sullivan found Australia provincial
and primitive but, for the first time in years, the long distances between circuit stops afforded
him much time to spend reading. His main interests now were the books of British and
American humorists, and the English humor magazines. He received many good reviews
and, as Robert Taylor has written, "he had arrived in Australia a juggler; he left Australia a
Back in the United States in 1917, and with new material ready for a big time act,
Sullivan needed a name change again to escape bookings at the old seventy-five dollar weekly
salary. Booked into the Fox theater by agent Edgar Allen, a mistake over the phone
entangled Freddy James, Sullivan's current pseudonym, with the agent's last name and he was
billed, once and for all as it turned out, as Fred Allen. Although he accepted this name
change readily enough, in later years he had few kind words to say about agents in general.
He described one as "having a heart the size of a caraway seed." Known for the 16-hour
days he spent writing his own material, he accused another agent of, "taking 10% of
everything I have except my blinding headaches."
From 1918-1922 Allen performed regularly in both small time and main stream
theaters, appearing occasionally with such stars as Lillian Russell and Ruth St. Denis. His
first contract for a Broadway show came with "Frank Fay's Fables." Fay, the future star of
Mary Chase's comedy of the imaginary six-foot rabbit entitled "Harvey," unfortunately lacked
critical financial backing for his production. An absolutely incurable egoist, he adamantly
refused all outside investment offers that would deprive him of a majority interest in the
show. After weeks of poorly paid and, finally, unpaid rehearsals, Fay's funds ran out and
the show closed before opening. Bitterly disappointed by Fay's self-serving desire for
complete control of the "Fables," Allen later wrote, "The last time I saw Frank Fay, he was
walking down Lover's Lane holding his own hand."
In 1921 Allen did succeed in making his first appearance in a Broadway show, albeit a road
production entitled "Snapshots." The 19-year old musical director of this show, also
appearing in his first Broadway musical, later wrote about "Snapshots," "The performer I
remember was a thin young man with an odd nasal voice and a sad face with prominent
pouches under his eyes. He played the banjo and sat on the edge of the stage with his legs
dangling into the orchestra pit. He was a superb dead pan comic." The young writer,
destined to be Broadway's most successful composer, was Richard Rodgers.
In 1922 Allen was cast in "The Passing Show of 1922," the ninth of a series of revues
which first introduced to the Broadway stage John Charles Thomas, Joan Crawford, Fred and
Adele Astaire, and Marilyn Miller, as well as early songs by Sigmund Romberg, Jerome
Kern and George Gershwin. The show ran for over a year, playing in New York and
Chicago. It was in Chicago that Allen met one of the production's dancers, Portland Hoffa,
who became his wife four years later. From 1926 to 1932 Allen appeared, largely as a
monologist, in several Broadway revues. Between Broadway contracts, however, he
continued his vaudeville appearances, with Portland joining his act in bit parts. In the
Broadway productions of "The Little Show" and "Three's A Crowd" Allen co-starred with
Clifton Webb, Libby Holman and Groucho Marx. In the latter show Allen's topical satires
reflected the onset of the Depression years with such lines as, "Times are so hard that the
bootleggers in Chicago have laid off two hundred policemen."
In 1932, after the close of "Three's a Crowd," Allen finally concluded that,
"Vaudeville was expiring." He then faced two alternatives: although he had had his first
exploratory offer for a radio series, he was also considering authorship, stimulated by his
years of writing for, or mending, vaudeville acts other than his own. He began to write a
humorous and popular column for "Variety," assembling a crazy quilt of random observations
such as the one concerning "the glass blower stricken with hiccoughs who produced three
hundred percolator tops before he could stop." He also contributed magazine articles to
"Judge" and "College Humor," wrote short subject and two-reeler film scripts for Paramount's
Long Island studio and continued to write scenes and dialogue for some Broadway
productions. Undoubtedly, he was the only comedian of his era who also had a piece
published in "The New Yorker" magazine, an article entitled "Don't Trust Midgets."
Although Allen enjoyed writing, requests or assignments were irregular. Radio still
held the promise of steady work, no travel, and burgeoning income, considerations which
finally prompted him to inaugurate his radio career on October 23, 1932, a career marked by
seventeen years of broadcasting in prime time for both the CBS and NBC networks. During
that time he headed up seven different shows for five major sponsors and was always in the
top ten ratings.
Although Allen went on to write the bulk of his own material, ultimately producing
seven hundred scripts, he had the help of several writers over the years, including Arnold
Auerbach, who later devised such Broadway shows as "Call Me Mister" and "Inside U.S.A.,"
and Herman Wouk, the future author of "The Caine Mutiny" which won the Pulitzer prize for
fiction in 1952.
As Robert Taylor has written, "Allen's approach to humor emphasized the resources of
language: simile, metaphor, puns, paradoxes, rhetorical devices, reversals of expectation
(and) linguistic transformations. He used exaggeration, comparison anecdote and contrary
images." Of exaggeration Allen once said that a man he knew had such severe
claustrophobia, he refused to enter the state of Rhode Island. On another occasion he
commented that Portland's high-pitched voice "sounded like two slate pencils mating." An
elderly character on one program reminisced that he remembered the early days of New York
City's aquarium when it was (just) one room filled with bait. Allen also claimed that Old
Orchard, the then quiet and deserted seaside resort in Maine that he escaped to in
summertime, was so dull that one day the tide went out and never came back. Of reversals
of expectation Allen once presented a "news" item stating, "The second section of the train
bearing the Illinois legislature to New Orleans was stopped by bandits last night. After
relieving the bandits of their watches and jewelry, the excursionists proceeded on their
journey with (much) increased enthusiasm." Allen also enjoyed concocting definitions: a
moth became "a closet butterfly," a worm a "nudist caterpillar." A celebrity was "a person
who works hard all his life to become well known, then wears glasses to avoid being
Allen's radio show, like many others, "employed a format that combined a male-
female host team with an ensemble of supporting characters, music guest stars, comic
dialogue, and comedy sketches." His ad-libs and off-the-cuff remarks were legion. On one
real life occasion, having just saved a boy from an automobile injury, he promptly asked,
"What's the matter, kid? Don't you want to grow up and have troubles?" During one of his
earlier vaudeville appearances a very pregnant cat somehow entered the theater and shortly
began giving birth to several kittens in plain view of the audience. Allen promptly protested
that he had come there to deliver a monologue, not a catalogue.
On many occasions Allen's comments got him into difficulties with sponsors and
networks or from threatened lawsuits. During one broadcast from Philadelphia, Allen and
Jack Haley were reminiscing about the local fleabag hotels they had had to stay in during
their early vaudeville days. Allen remarked that the walls in one of the tiny rooms he stayed
in were so close together the mice in it were hunchbacked. He claimed that the room was so
small the calendar on the wall showed only half a day. The criticism of the city's hotels and
the fear of losing an upcoming Republican national convention prompted strong protests from
the press and the Chamber of Commerce. Allen deftly countered these with tongue-in-cheek
mea culpas, now claiming that Philadelphia's hotel rooms were so spacious that herds of elk
roamed the closets, and that the Benjamin Franklin hotel guaranteed that guests could imitate
its namesake and fly a kite in any room.
Over the years, one of the features of Allen's programs was the reading of a current
news bulletin followed either by a vignette which spoofed it or a patently ludicrous attempt to
explain its meaning to the average listener. In 1938, Hahn and Strassmann in Germany made
the epochal discovery of nuclear fission, demonstrating that a neutron beam aimed at a
uranium target would split uranium atoms into two equal parts. Allen took a mythical trip to
interview one of the researchers and asked the obvious question, "Why did you want to split
the atom in the first place?" "Well," came the laconic reply, "you never know when someone
will come in (here) and ask for half an atom."
By the late 1930's the various comedians' evening programs were by far the most
popular on radio, and three-quarters of all listeners regularly tuned in to Fred Allen's
broadcasts. Perhaps the best remembered of all of his program features was "Allen's Alley,"
which premiered on Sunday, December 6, 1942. "The Alley was less a real neighborhood
than a gallery of regional, ethnic and class-based types." "Allen would knock on the doors of
houses in the Alley and ask questions on a specific topic. The humor emanated from the
exaggerated personalities of the characters and their unpredictable answers to the questions
asked." Of the earlier shifting cast of characters portrayed, the most popular was the
pompous poet, Falstaff Openshaw, who regularly recited his latest couplets or, occasionally,
longer poems. Played by Alan Reed, who wrote his own dialogue, Falstaff was occasionally
used to tweak various icons, including that most famous one of all, Mother. His irreverent
portrayal, which progressed over several programs, cast her in a role that almost certainly no
other comedian of that time would have undertaken--amusing because it was outlandish,
unexpected, and a total reversal of her usual glowing attributes. It began slyly with the
depiction of a somewhat sleazy character: "Those aren't spots on the sugar, Mother, you're
putting your dice in your tea." A little later events took a more serious turn with, "There's
no meter on the patrol, Mother, you don't have to pay for your ride." Finally, perhaps with
a nod also to the infamous gang figure of Ma Barker, Falstaff mournfully proclaimed, "We
haven't seen Mother since early last fall, when they put up her picture on the post-office
Because of increasing illness from progressive hypertension, Allen remained off the
air from June, 1944, to October, 1945. Paradoxically he was featured on "Time" magazine's
cover in April, 1945, and he also received a Peabody Award for "comedy unexcelled over a
period of 12 years." The timing of these events during his year of broadcast hiatus led Allen
to state ruefully, "Next year, if I keep away from Hollywood, I will probably win the
From October, 1945, until 1949, the last year of Allen's broadcasts, the fixed cast of
Allen's Alley characters became the best-remembered feature of his programs. Minerva
Pious, an expert dialectician, played the housewife, Pansy Nussbaum, whose Bronx accented
dialogue overflowed with malapropisms and other humorous speech patterns. Long before
the advent of candidate Joseph Lieberman, it was Mrs. Nussbaum who claimed that
"Abraham Lin-Cohen" had been our first Jewish president. Another regular character was
Ajax Cassidy, a temperamental Irishman played by Peter Donald. An Irish-American
himself, Allen especially enjoyed Donaldson's impersonation and so did most listeners.
Cassidy, however, was portrayed as a heavy drinker. When ill he would always wash his
pills down with whiskey, but invariably fell behind on the medications. Some listener protest
against this characterization was lodged by the Ancient Order of Hiberians. The shrewd rural
New England hayseed, Titus Moody, was played by Parker Fennelly, who said at the outset,
"If I ain't a rube, I'll do tell one gets here." Moody was an implacable foe of technological
progress. Asked what he thought of radio, he replied dismissively, "I don't hold (much) with
furniture that talks." Modern farm methods did not appeal to him either. "Machines do all
the work. Bout all a man can do with his hands on a farm today is scratch himself."
"Among the public figures made humble by Allen's commentary, pompous and
incompetent senators ranked first." The last permanent Alley character was Senator
Beauregard Claghorn, played by the program announcer, Kenny Delmar. The character of
Claghorn, a boisterous Southerner senator who insisted on the superiority of everything
Southern, became an overnight national sensation. A fierce Yankee baiter and defender of
Southern pride, Claghorn once bragged that his family came from so far south, they were
treading water in the Gulf Stream. And, from that far vantage point he derided residents of
Alabama as Yankees. Claghorn drank only from Dixie cups, danced only at the Cotton Club
and refused to enter either the Lincoln Tunnel or Yankee Stadium. In fact he refused to
attend a baseball game at all unless a southpaw was pitching. Claghorn was particularly
proud of his degree-winning thesis which established that Horace Greeley was cross-eyed:
"Greeley said Go west, young man' when he was looking at a compass pointing south."
Over the years Allen also undertook a movie career, which was mediocre at best. As
Gerald Nachman wrote, Allen's "literate jokes don't amuse the camera and his relaxed radio
timing is stilted. Worse, he never seemed able to portray any character except himself."
Distraught by poor box office receptions and critical reviews of his six films, Allen was also
unhappy during his long stays in Hollywood, writing later, "The people here seem to live in a
little world that shuts off the rest of the universe and everyone appears to be faking life."
When he finally abandoned Hollywood and his movie career, his parting remark was,
"California is a great place to live-if you happen to be an orange." Interestingly, of all the
major radio comedians of the 1930's and 1940's, only Bob Hope was as successful in movies
as he was on radio.
Suddenly, in 1948, the swift descent of classic radio began with the advent of
television. From 1948 to 1952 the number of television sets in the United States increased
from 172,000 to 17 million. Network executives were now putting radio profits into
television, and advertising agencies rapidly switched accounts to the new medium.
"Allen never made the transition to television because his wit was too verbal and
cerebral." Basically Allen distrusted television, saying, "They call it a medium because
nothing on it is ever well done." The immediate cause for the demise of his radio broadcasts
was the advent of the giveaway shows and the scheduling of one of those programs, "Stop the
Music," opposite the Allen time slot in 1948. He noted bitterly that, "If the giveaway
programs prevail, radio's few remaining listeners will get into the spirit of the thing and give
away their radios." In just a few months Allen's ratings dropped from 28.7 to 11.2, while
the quiz show's ratings jumped from 0 to 20. The last Allen program was aired on June 26,
1949, nearly 18 years after his first broadcast. However, it is doubtful that the program
would have survived television since, as in movies, Allen did not photograph well, still could
not submerge himself in characterization, and found that television was far less receptive to
satire than radio. As Alan Havig has written, Allen's basic problem with television was that,
"(his) verbal slapstick rested on techniques of language that took advantage of radio's audible
opportunities, as opposed to such devices as the garish costume, distorted facial expression,
or pratfalls on which video comics capitalize(d)." One of these early video comics was
Milton Berle. In agreement with this assessment of early television comedians, Bob Hope
once said that, "Five minutes away from Berle is like a month in the country." Looking back
to this time a few years later, Allen wrote, "Television was conducting itself provocatively,
trying to get radio to pucker up for the kiss of death." But, he added, "Even without the
coming of television, radio seemed doomed. The audience and the medium were both getting
tired. The same programs, the same comedians, the same commercials-even the sameness
was starting to look the same."
Tired from years of up to 16-hour workdays on weekly scripts, Allen entered semi-
retirement. While he initially made numerous guest appearances on television and
collaborated on writing scripts for Tellulah Bankhead's "The Big Show"-"radio's last throw of
the dice"-, he suffered a heart attack in 1952. After recovering and joining a short-lived quiz
show panel, "Judge for Yourself," in 1953, Allen's last television appearances were part of
the celebrity panel for "What's My Line?," a program be defended as witty and entertaining,
and which, ironically, was co-produced by Mark Goodson, who earlier had produced Allen's
radio program nemesis, "Stop the Music."
During these years of the early 1950's, Allen also wrote his memoir, "Treadmill to
Oblivion," which-at the time-became the best-selling book on radio that had ever been
written. A Boston critic paid him an Allen-like compliment writing, "It's a shame that
television has no place for Allen. He has been reduced to writing books."
On April 17, 1956, Allen visited his doctor, who told him he was "in pretty good
shape," although he had had hypertension for many years. Late that night, while taking his
usual evening walk and strolling along 57th street, opposite Carnegie Hall, he suddenly
collapsed and apparently died instantaneously.
In a letter to the New York Times Herman Wouk wrote of his former mentor,
"Without a doubt his great contribution to life in America came in the marvelous eighteen-
year run of weekly satiric invention. (He) was an original personality creating new forms of
intelligent entertainment. He had a deep reticent love of life and of people which is the
source of every true satirist's energy, his generosity to the needy, his extraordinary loyalty to
his associates showed the warmth of heart that made his satire sound and important." Wouk's
glowing tribute is an eloquent rebuttal to Allen's late-life bittersweet lament for radio
comedy, that, "When a radio comedian's program is finally finished it slinks down Memory
Lane into the limbo of yesteryear's happy hours. All the comedian has to show for his years
of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter."
Gerald Nachman has written, "most traces are gone of the radio world that one
hundred million Americans once took for granted, before it vanished into thin air, whence it
came." But, it's interesting that as the 1950's wore on there was some limited revival of radio
comedy. Less censorship, more ad-libbing and the elimination of many taboos spurred its
small-scale revival. Successful practitioners of this reborn genre were Stan Freeberg, with
his parodies of popular songs and musicians and, for over 20 years, Bob Elliott and Ray
Goulding ("Bob and Ray") with their satirical skits and multiple impersonations which
reflected Fred Allen's comic legacy. In more recent times Garrison Keillor with his "A
Prairie Home Companion" program, aired on National Public Radio, revived the variety show
and story listening format with Keillor's mythical and engaging Lake Wobegon. And now
we've come full circle, since a new twist is the use of humor to mock the longing for old-
time radio. Finally, though, to put it all in perspective, I'll sign off here with Fred Allen's
parting, nostalgic comment, "That's why I liked radio. We had fun."