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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
CLAGHORN: Me! So long, Son! So long, that is!
The next door on which Allen knocked was that of Titus Moody, a taciturn New England rube whose invariable greeting was “Howdy, bub.” Moody was played by Parker Fennelly, a pioneer character actor on radio whom Allen considered its “finest simulator of New England types.” Until the mid-1970s Fennelly was still playing such a part as the corporate symbol of Pepperidge Farm bakeries, looking over his halfglasses and advising television viewers that “Pepperidge Farm remembers” how to make old-fashioned cookies and cakes.
Titus Moody was designed to appeal to Allen’s fellow New Englanders and all his rural listeners. Moody’s comments were full of references to farm life, and his jokes were laced with Bunyanesque exaggerations. His farm, for instance, was so poor that grasshoppers wouldn’t stop there. Moody talked of feeding his sheep “ironized” yeast so they would grow steel wool. Through Moody, Allen voiced a classic reservation about the electronic media. Asked if he liked radio, Moody replied, “I don’t hold with furniture that talks.”
Next Allen came to the residence of Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum, played with a rich Yiddish accent by Minerva Pious, a member of Allen’s company for more than fifteen years. Allen invented wild malapropisms for Mrs. Nussbaum. After he greeted her with a friendly “Ah, Mrs. Nussbaum,” she might reply, “You are expecting maybe Ingrown Bergman?” or “You are expecting maybe Emperor Shapirohito?” Allen was proud that Pious’s performance never became the “routine, offensive burlesque” but instead conveyed a character who “was a human being, warm, honest, understanding and—‘you should pardon the expression’—very funny.”
Mrs. Nussbaum had the dreams and suffered the woes of the country’s urban dwellers. Her ne’er-do-well husband, Pierre (who was never heard on the show), once swiped the money she was saving for a piano and bet it all on the horses. His luck wasn’t too hot.
MRS. NUSSBAUM: If it is raining borscht outside, Pierre will be standing with a fork. He will also be missing the potato. Last week at the race track he is losing everything. For three nights, every night, Pierre is having the same dream. On a plate he is seeing salami, baloney and liverwurst. By Pierre this is a hunch. He is betting everything. Coming last, a dead heat, is Salami, Baloney and Liverwurst.
ALLEN: What horse won?
MRS. NUSSBAUM: A longshot by name Cold Cuts.
Ironically, the one permanent resident of the Alley who did arouse the ire of an ethnic group came from Allen’s own—the Irish. It was Ajax Cassidy, played by Peter Donald and created, Allen later wrote, “for the Irish who had a sense of humor.” The Cassidy character became a “thorn in the pride of a small fulminating Celtic minority,” Allen said, but Ajax stayed in the Alley as long as Allen remained on the air.
Like the rural hick character embodied by Moody, a comic Irishman was a venerable part of the American humor tradition. Cassidy, as portrayed by Donald, always greeted Allen with a cheery “We-e-ell, how do ye do?” and spoke in a rapid Irish brogue.
ALLEN: Ajax, I heard you were sick.
CASSIDY: I was at death’s door. …
ALLEN: You were bad, eh?
CASSIDY: The doctor gave me a big bottle of … pills.
CASSIDY: After every meal the doctor said to swallow one pill and drink a small glass of whiskey. …
ALLEN: How is the treatment coming along?
CASSIDY: I’m a little behind with the pills.