- Historic Sites
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
When the delicatessen conference adjourned around 3:00 A.M., Allen usually walked to his apartment on West Fiftyeighth Street and got to bed by 4:00 A.M. He slept late on Thursdays, but in the afternoon he would visit with the next show’s guest star, discuss their proposed banter, then return home and begin writing the first draft of that segment of the program, working as far into the night as necessary to finish it. Friday he worked on his correspondence, and that evening he and his wife would go to dinner at a favorite Italian or Chinese restaurant or see a Broadway show, a movie, or a prizefight. It was their only night for recreation.
On Saturdays Allen emptied his pocket files of clippings and sorted them, deciding which five or six to convert into items for the show’s “newsreel,” which later was dubbed “The March of Trivia,” a parody of Time magazine’s “March of Time” broadcast. On Sundays he went to early morning mass at St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church, the “Actors’ Chapel,” on West Forty-ninth Street, where he was married (and from which he was buried). Then he walked home and settled down in his small office—he called it his “cell”—to write the rest of the show, including his opening monologue and his chat with Portland. Auerbach recalled watching him sit in a “straight-backed chair at the rickety card table, bespectacled, frowning, intent, wearing an old-fashioned green eyeshade, elastic bands around his sleeves, a bulge of tobacco wadded into his cheek, toiling hour after silent hour, scrawling tiny, almost illegible hen tracks with a stubby pencil across neat piles of paper.”
Usually Allen worked until 4:00 or 5:00 A.M. on Monday, then left a copy of the script with the night doorman of his apartment house so a Western Union messenger could pick it up around 8:00 A.M. and take it to be mimeographed and readied for a rehearsal with the show’s cast, which assembled at the studio at 1:00 P.M. on Monday. After rehearsal, timing, cutting, and a thorough rewriting by Allen, the final script was sent to the NBC Continuity Acceptance Department on Tuesday to be pruned of potentially slanderous or lascivious material. Copies were also sent to the sponsor and the sponsor’s advertising agency, which also took a whack at it. Allen had to be available all day Tuesday to argue about changes- he would “climb up the wall and scream and yell” over them, Pat Weaver recalled—and to make alterations in the script when he lost the battles.
On Wednesdays rehearsals for that night’s broadcast began at 10:00 A.M. Often the script was seven or eight minutes too long, and cuts had to be made. Allen would readily cut his own lines in order to give the other performers more of the laughs. “I don’t care whether people say, ‘Fred Allen was good last night.’ All I want them to say is, ‘The Fred Allen hour was good last night,’” he told one interviewer. The final script was trimmed to fifty-three minutes in order to allow for seven minutes of accumulated laughter and applause and commercials. The minute the second broadcast was over, Allen and his associates set off for the delicatessen, and the whole process began again. The spectacular bags under Allen’s eyes—once described by his friend S. J. Perelman as “pouches rivaling that of a kangaroo”—were well earned.
Like most professional humorists, Allen dismissed academic studies of humor. “All I know about humor is that I don’t know anything. Sure, you’re always reading that ‘there are only seven or eleven basic jokes,’ but I’ve never found anybody who could tell me what they are. At a guess, two of them probably deal with comparison and exaggeration, because these are at the bottom of a lot of our humor. Another one is probably incongruity,” he told an interviewer. But what makes things funny? “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a guesswork business.”
By the 1940s Allen was earning $20,000 a week, but he had to pay the salaries of all the other performers on his program, the assistant writers, the sound technicians, secretaries, and other support personnel. He still netted about $160,000 annually, but in contrast with his public image as a misanthrope, Allen was an incredibly soft touch and gave away some fifty thousand dollars a year to a roster of relatives, old acquaintances, and ex-vaudevillians who were on his “payroll,” as well as an army of panhandlers who sought weekly handouts from him. He tended to shrug off inquiries about his generosity. “I’ve been poor myself,” he’d say, or, “Why, I can remember, when I was a baby … if I wanted something to eat, I had to creep out and fight a bird for it.”