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Forgotten Laughter: The Fred Allen Story
The dour radio comedian regarded his work as totally ephemeral, but a new generation of comics has built upon his foundations
February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
Satire, according to the playwright George S. Kaufman, “is what closes Saturday night,” but for seventeen years Fred Allen used his satiric brand of humor to create some of the nation’s most popular radio comedy.
“The other comedians … swoon at Allen,” said a onetime editor of Variety, the show business newspaper. In part the admiration of his colleagues was due to their knowledge that Allen, unlike many of his competitors, did not rely on a steady supply of gags from a stable of writers. Allen was his own chief writer, laboring twelve to fourteen hours a day in longhand, six days a week, to produce his scripts. He had only a few assistants, among them the future novelist Herman Wouk, the author of The Caine Mutiny. By contrast, Bob Hope once employed thirteen gag writers, while Johnny Carson now has eight people regularly working on his material. “I am probably the only writer in the world who has written more than he can lift,” Allen told a friend in 1944. He had the scripts for his weekly show—thirty-nine of them a year—bound in black and stacked on more than ten feet of bookshelves, right next to a one-volume copy of the collected works of William Shakespeare, which took up just three and a half inches. He did so as “a corrective,” he said, “just in case I start thinking a ton of cobblestones is worth as much as a few diamonds.”
In vaudeville, the nation’s first popular mass entertainment, performers could hone their material for months and use it for years. But for radio they needed something new every time they went on the air. Allen was the hardest-working of radio’s funnymen, the only star of the new medium who tried to feed its voracious maw almost single-handedly, week after week, year after year.
Ultimately, perhaps inevitably, Allen suffered creative burnout, but his influence on other comics, by either virtue of his remarkably generous assistance or direct example, remains pervasive. Red Skelton has said that Allen wrote the famous “Guzzler’s Gin” routine that has been a mainstay of his act for decades. Younger performers, consciously or unconsciously, mimic Allen’s creations. In his “Town Hall Tonight” program of the mid-1930s, Allen featured “news bulletins” about the goings-on in his small, mythical community—a direct ancestor of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. The Allen program also had skits performed by the Mighty Allen Art Players, a feature later adopted by Johnny Carson, and interviews with “People You Didn’t Expect to Meet,” such as a goldfish doctor or a female blacksmith, an idea that now works well for David Letterman.
Only once during Allen’s long radio career did his program top the ratings, but his audience was considered the most heterogeneous and the most intelligent. “Of course, he has listeners at all levels,” an advertising executive said in 1945, “but you would be surprised how many professors, publishers, surgeons, bishops, mathematicians are Fred Allen fans.”
Although he wrote two delightful volumes of autobiography in his last years, Allen died a disappointed and bitter man on St. Patrick’s Day 1956. “Whether he knows it or not, the comedian is on a treadmill to oblivion,” he wrote toward the end of his life. “When a radio comedian’s program is finally finished it slinks down Memory Lane into the limbo of yesteryear’s happy hours. All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.”
Allen was born on May 31, 1894, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and christened John Florence Sullivan. He was the son of James Henry Sullivan, a poorly paid bookbinder with a fondness for strong drink, and Cecilia Herlihy Sullivan. (Although he retained the name Sullivan legally, he adopted Fred Allen as his stage name.)
Allen’s mother died when he was not quite three years old, a year after giving birth to his younger brother, Robert. Allen’s disconsolate father took his small sons to live with his spinster sister-in-law, Elizabeth Herlihy, Allen’s “Aunt Lizzie.” She became his de facto parent when his father remarried and moved out twelve years later. Aunt Lizzie enrolled Allen in the Boston High School of Commerce, a trade school for poor children that was a pet project of Mayor John F. Fitzgerald, the future grandfather of John F. Kennedy.
His father got Allen a job in the Boston Public Library as a stockboy, responsible for fetching and returning books. In his spare time Allen, then fourteen, became an omnivorous reader. He stumbled upon a book about comedy and in time was to read everything he could find on the subject. As an adult he amassed a collection of four thousand humor books and a huge file of jokes and witty sayings. It was a stockpile that proved invaluable when he came to write his radio shows.