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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
Allen felt that radio comedy probably was doomed even without the advent of TV. “The audience and the medium were both getting tired. The same programs, the same comedians, the same commercials—even the sameness was starting to look the same,” he wrote. But he also was bitter about the rise of television, which he considered nothing more than recycled vaudeville. He was particularly scornful of the popularity of Milton Berle, whose show was so successful that he was called “Mr. Television.” Allen correctly predicted that Berle’s TV reign would be brief. “You can go only so long when you get your laughs by running in front of the audience wearing a pair of lady’s drawers,” he told a Life interviewer. He himself made a few tentative stabs at television, but he was uncomfortable with the medium. He was nervous about appearing without a script in his hand and he didn’t like “all those technicians wandering back and forth in front of me while I’m trying to tell a joke,” he said.
In 1952 Allen had first a heart attack and later a cerebral spasm, and his career as a performer was virtually over. His final appearances on television were as a panelist on “What’s My Line?,” where his talents were largely wasted.
With time on his hands Allen turned to writing books. Treadmill to Oblivion, which appeared in 1954, was a memoir of his radio career, and he was working on Much Ado About Me about his vaudeville and Broadway days, when he died.
On the night of March 17, 1956, Allen, then sixty-one, was taking his dog on his customary stroll before bed when he was stricken with a heart attack a block from his apartment and collapsed on the street. Passersby carried him inside a nearby building, but he was dead within twenty minutes.
At the time of Allen’s death many critics and friends took issue with his belief that he and other radio comedians had toiled futilely on a “treadmill to oblivion.” Yet if the name of Fred Allen is mentioned today to anyone under forty who is neither a nostalgia buff nor an entertainment industry historian, the likely response is a blank stare. The movies in which Allen appeared are rarely seen; his early TV appearances were not filmed, as were those of Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, or Lucille Ball. And Allen was realistic about his radio career. At the end of one broadcast he had been heard to mutter, “Well, that one belongs to the sparrows.”
Certainly his radio programs were ephemeral, but for those who remember hearing them and for those who have built upon his comic inventions, the laughter they inspired is by no means forgotten. The day after Allen died, his friend and former employee Herman Wouk wrote to The New York Times: “In Fred Allen, the voice of sanity spoke out for all Americans to hear, during a trying period of our history, in the classic and penetrating tones of comic satire. Because he lived and wrote and acted here, this land will always be a saner place to live in. That fact is his true monument.”