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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
On Wednesday, December 30,1936, Allen fired the first shot in what would become one of the classic battles of comedy: his feud with Jack Benny. That evening Allen’s program featured a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” played on the violin by a ten-year-old prodigy named Stewart Canin. Allen knew that Benny, whose violin playing was often the subject of gags, frequently listened to his prógram, so as he later remembered, “I said that if Mr. Benny had heard this tyke’s rendition of 'The Bee,’ he should hang his head in symphonic shame and pluck the horsehairs out of his bow and return them to the tail of the stallion from which they had been taken.”
Benny, a friend of Allen’s since their vaudeville days, knew a good cue when he heard one and also knew that a “battle” helped boost ratings. So week after week the two comedians exchanged insults on their respective programs, although it was six to eight months before they bothered to telephone each other to discuss the feud. Benny denounced Allen as “that certain New England boiled comedian,” and Allen made sport of the exaggerated vanity that was part of Benny’s comic persona. When the comedians’ first face-to-face encounter took place on Benny’s program of March 14, 1937, it drew what was then one of the largest listening audiences in radio history, second only to one of President Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
The feud remained a fixture of the Benny and Allen comic routines for the next decade, much to the public’s delight. In March 1942 Allen’s program was shifted to Sunday night, giving him an opportunity to ad-lib his response to Benny’s insults almost immediately after Benny’s program had ended—the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy show ran in between—and giving many Americans a Sunday-night ritual to observe: Benny to Bergen to Allen. Benny was an adept adlibber, but he tacitly conceded Allen’s superiority in the art during one of their joint appearances by shouting, “If I had my writers here, you wouldn’t talk to me like that and get away with it!”
The exchange of insults with Benny gave Allen opportunities for “verbal slapstick,” as the radio historian Arthur Frank Wertheim put it. “Allen threw words around like custard pies. …” The comedian and author Steve Allen (who is not related) felt that Allen “had a poet’s regard for the peculiarities of sound and expression and he seemed never so happy as when he could roll off his tongue some glittering allegory, metaphor or simile. He was actually more intrigued by this sort of thing than he was by the plain and simple joke.”
He also enjoyed making up names, and as a student of Dickens he tried to outdo the master in inventing bizarre ones. Once, however, while on vacation, Allen was approached by a mild-looking man who wanted to know why his name had been used on Allen’s show. His name: Sinbad Brittle. “After Sinbad Brittle accosted me in Biddeford, Maine,” Allen wrote later, “you can tell me your name is Ossip Knothole. I will believe you.”
Allen’s programs were produced by a process he called “a recipe for a nervous breakdown. … Our weekly schedule was a treadmill made up of seven revolving days.” Every day he read nine newspapers and scanned magazines and books in search of subjects for topical humor. Even when he was out of town, he had the periodicals sent to him by specialdelivery airmail. He tore out or clipped promising items and stuffed the bits of paper in his pockets. “As the day wore on my pockets seemed to be herringbone goiters and I looked as though I was a walking wastebasket.”
Since the radio networks forbade the use of recorded programs until the late 1940s, and Allen refused to move his show to Hollywood, during the thirties he had to give two performances of his Wednesday night program, one at 9:00 P.M. for the East Coast and Midwest audience and another at midnight for his West Coast listeners. Within minutes of the end of the second broadcast at 1:00 A.M., Allen, the director, and his two chief writers, Herman Wouk and Arnold Auerbach (later the author of successful Broadway revues), would meet in a “runt-sized delicatessen” on Sixth Avenue to begin planning the next show. Allen’s staff, later expanded to four, worked up ideas with him. One might provide the plot for a comic sketch; another might supply the factual information on which to base an interview with a celebrity or one of the “People You Didn’t Expect to Meet"; together they might suggest outlines for colloquies with Portland Hoffa or Kenny Baker, a tenor who was the show’s regular singer and a performer in the sketches. Once Allen had these basic ingredients, he took the rest of the week to prepare the show, writing much of the script himself.