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October 27th, 2005


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02:30 am - "everywhere outside new york city is bridgeport, connecticut"
My used book haul this week consists of "all the sincerity in hollywood. . ." which is a combination biography of (however light) and collection of writings from Fred Allen, my favorite radio satirist and all-around sharp wit. I think I wrote a bit about him a few months back. The title of this collection comes from a famous quote of Allen's, which was originally found in a letter warning a friend about the perils of Tinseltown. It was typed in all lower-case, as was Allen's wont for correspondence, and read thus:
all the sincerity in hollywood you can stuff
into a flea's navel and still have room left over
to conceal eight caraway seeds and an agent's heart.
There are other versions of this quote floating around, still attributed to Allen but paraphrased. None of them, then, are as perfectly worded as the original. (Really, I think it's "conceal" which really does it for me.)

Born in 1894 as John Florence Sullivan, the comedian started his entertainment career in vaudeville as "The World's Worst Juggler." Fortunately his comic patter was the focus of the act, and it was the patter which brought him attention. During a particularly frustrating run in one theatre, Fred had finally had it with the long-faced, dour orchestra leader who schlumped in the pit and never laughed at any of his jokes. "How much would you charge," Fred finally asked the man, "to haunt a house?"

Once entrenched in radio, Allen was best known for his long-running feud with Jack Benny. The mock feud started with an ad-lib rant on Fred's show ("...Benny is the only violinist who makes you feel the strings would sound better back on the cat's intestine") and ran from there. The insults and jabs flew in creative and amusing ways: Allen judged the listener-driven "I Can't Stand Jack Benny Because..." contest; Benny appears on Allen's last radio show as the owner of the bank foreclosing on Allen's furniture.

Fred's real feud was with radio executives and censors, who dissected his jokes and cut him off every time his show ran over. Allen's show frequently ran long, given the adlibs and audience response. "Our program has been cut off so many times," he groused on-air, "the last page of our script is a Band-Aid." The NBC brass even took him to task for an incident where an eagle got loose in the studio, causing chaos for an entire episode. The fact that the episode ran long wasn't the problem, it was the fact that the eagle took to relieving itself all over the set, including on some members of the audience, while perching on high. Allen, feeling he should not be blamed for an eagle's intestinal fortitude, shot this letter back to the chastising NBC executive:
...i thought i had seen about everything in radio but the eagle had a trick up his feathered colon that was new to me.

...an acolyte from your quarters brought news to us ... that the eagle was to be grounded ... it was quite obvious that mr. ramshaw, as the eagle is known around the falcon lounge at the audubon society rooms, resented your dictatorial order. when his cue came to fly, and he was still bound to captain knight's wrist, mr. ramshaw, deprived by nature of the organs essential in the voicing of an audible complaint, called upon his bowels to wreak upon us his rebuttal to your martinet ban.

toscanini, your house man, has foisted some movements on studio audiences in 8 h, the bulova company has praised its movement over your network but when radio city is being town down to make room for another mcguinness restaurant, in years to come, the movement that will be recalled by the older radio fans will be the eagle's movement on wednesday last ... i know you await with trepidation the announcement that i am going to interview sabu with his elephant some week.
In accepting a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting, Allen spoke of the problems that a comic writer has with the broadcasters and advertisers watching his every word. This particular speech was given in 1944 (hence the wartime references to housing shortages and whatnot) but sadly enough, these words still ring all too true even today.
...but--getting back to my award--I think that every comedian in radio deserves some sort of an award. And I will tell you why. The way of the transgressor may be hard but the transgressor's path is a petal-strewn lane compared to the road the comedian traverses weekly on his way to the microphone. All humor is a matter of opinion and everyone in radio with enough authority to operate a memo pad has an opinion that jeopardizes the comedian's humor. The network has a censor, the advertising agency has a producer and the sponsor has a bustling vice-president who supervises the company's radio attractions. Until the comedian assembles his script, the censor, the producer and the vice-president are incapable of action. They lie dormant, contemplating their desktops, in their executive lairs.

But the minute the comedian has assembled his weekly quota of jokes and turned in his script, these guardians of sponsor, network and listener interests become fraught with interest and catapult themselves into action. To give you an idea of how these frustrated characters function--let us say that the comedian has a paragraph in his script that reads "Jack Benny told me a great gag today. Jack said, 'The best way to keep a dead fish from smelling is to cut off its nose.'"

It seems like a very simple joke. Jack Benny says, "The best way to keep a dead fish from smelling is to cut off its nose." Well, the script is sent over to the network censor. He pounces on the joke. Jack Benny is on an opposition network. The comedian can't mention Jack's name. The rest of the joke the network censor doesn't mind but Jack Benny's name has to come out.

Next, the comedian's script is sent to the advertising agency. The Producer reads what is left of the joke and hits the ceiling. The anti-vivisectionists are strong in this country. You can't cut a fish's nose off. Every anti-vivisectionist in America will be up in arms. The Hearst papers will start another campaign. The comedian tries to explain that the fish in the joke is dead but it doesn't help. The advertising agency producer is adamant. He insists that the fish was alive when it was caught and, as the gag reads in the script, there is no definite proof that the fish has succumbed to rigor mortis. The producer says it is a dangerous cross-reference, the anti-vivisectionist radio listeners must be prodected and he deletes the reference to the cutting off of the fish's nostrils.

Now, the script goes to the sponsor's office. The vice-president in charge of radio is galvanized into action. Is the comedian crazy? A fish joke? The sponsor's brother sells WHAM, a Spam derivative. Why should the sponsor let the comedian plug the fish industry, his brother's biggest competitor? If he makes people fish conscious the comedian will put the sponsor's brother out of the meat business. The vice-president removes the word fish which is all that remains of the original joke.

On the night of the broadcast the comedian arrives at the microphone. Instead of the hilarious fish gag he tells a dull joke about the housing shortage being so bad he went into a restaurant and couldn't even get a cottage pudding. The next day, 200 people who are living in trailers and old packing cases in defense areas around the country write anonymous letters to the sponsor saying that because he has made light of the housing shortage, the comedian is an isolationist, a saboteur and pro-Nazi. The sponsor sends for the comedian and the next week people tuning into the program find that the comedian has disappeared and the sponsor now has a new musical show featuring Guy Lombardo or Spike Jones and his City Slickers.

That is why, after 13 years of radio, Jack Benny's hair is snow white. That is why Edgar Bergen is as bald as Kate Smith's elbow. That is why Bob Hope jumps all over the country playing army camps where the network censor, the advertising agency producer and the sponsor's vice-president can't get at him. And that is why, ladies and gentlemen, I think that every comedian who survives in radio is entitled to an award. I thank you!
Allen died of high blood pressure in 1956, worked to death and chagrined by the coming of television. "I don't trust furniture that talks," he wrote. It was a joke for his show's laconic New Englander, Titus Moody, but the sentiment is all too personal.

Fred has also been credited with coining the television/steak analogy, calling it a "medium that is neither rare nor well-done." Oddly enough, several sources online also credit him with coining "I'd rather have a full bottle in front of me than a full frontal lobotomy" but I have yet to see it confirmed in my book.

It was his disdain, then, that kept him from landing a truly great television gig. Instead, he was merely granted slapstick cameos and appearances on panel game shows, and that is a shame. The game show bit is especially ironic as it was the advent of the game show and the then-innovative Stop The Music program that forced his show off the air in 1949. Kind of like how reality TV may have killed one of your favorite programs in the early part of the decade. Allen's influence, however, can still be seen and felt today, from David Letterman (influenced, among other things, by Allen's "People You Didn't Expect To Meet" segments) to Garrison Keillor to SNL's Weekend Update (a integral part of Allen's Town Hall Tonight show was the parody newscast.)

All that's left, then, is his influence, some recordings which I strive to collect, and his words. Allen was constantly writing; from script revisions 9 hours a day to little comic notes and jots he'd carry around on little bits of notepaper. These eight words get their very own chapter in the book, and I think it's only apt, too. Grammatically nebulous (perhaps written for one of Allen's Alley dialect characters) but the perfect environmental statement.
should seen this place when god had it

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From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 27th, 2005 08:29 pm (UTC)

Keith

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I thrive on these kinds of posts from you. Thanks for making the web more interesting on a regular basis.

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