On This Day in 1940: Burns and Allen Are Regretfully Un(G)able

Reflexivity in art is like a comb-over—a self-conscious cover-up that only draws attention to itself. Like the follicle-challenged pate, a reflexive work of art betrays a failure of growth, the inability of an existing but sickly lingering form to rejuvenate itself. It is generally believed to be a post-modernism affliction; but American radio comedy suggests that it was an airborne disease.

It is hardly surprising, considering that commercial radio went out of its way to sidestep modernism. Elitism paired with experimentation simply spelled bad business for broadcasting. One way of ignoring the modernist movement was stagnancy, a retreat into Victorianisms comforting to bourgeois audiences, sponsors, and network executives alike. Another means of circumventing modernism, ideally suited to comedy, was to acknowledge, tongue-in-cheek, the limitations of the broadcast medium, to dwell on everything radio artists were unable to do.

In short, working in radio required a choice between old hat and obvious comb-over; anything to keep artists from letting their hair down. Take George Burns and Gracie Allen, for instance, who, on this day in 1940, gleefully overdosed on the postmodern formula.

On 16 September 1940, listeners to the Spam-sponsored George Burns and Gracie Allen Show learned that George was in trouble with his sponsors, who were “at a board meeting discussing [his] option.” The new season was off to a shaky start. Intruding on the show in the spirit of reflexivity, the program’s soundman offered his assistance, claiming to having once been a Shakespearean actor. After some quarreling with the powers behind the scenes—acted out in an on-the-phone monologue—a threatened George is forced to book a guest star to boost ratings.

The smaller the numbers, the bigger the star, industry wisdom dictated. Apparently, the numbers added up to a major headache, since George and Gracie were called upon to fetch just about the biggest male lead in Hollywood—none other than Clark Gable. Gable was currently starring opposite Spencer Tracy, , and Hedy Lamarr in the box-office smash Boom Town, which got plenty of on-air promotion from the comedy couple that night. That Gable was virtually a radio no-show—a fact mentioned by Burns and known to listeners—complicated matters considerably.

What made them still worse was the task of adapting the scenario of Boom Town, which, as George and Gracie drove home with a truckload of atrocious puns, would never get past the customs of radio’s overeager censors. They couldn’t convey the “hustle and bustle” of Boom Town, since a bustle was never to be mentioned on the air; and they couldn’t say that “sacks of TNT were lying in an angle” because they had to leave out the . . . “sacks angle.”

I guess you get the picture—but George and Gracie sure didn’t. Nor did they get Gable. They hired a sound-alike instead; but even he didn’t manage to go Gable. He did some mediocre impersonations of Lionel Barrymore and Ronald Colman instead, while Gable was assigned a non-speaking part in a hospital sketch that went nowhere. So, at their reflexive worst, George and Gracie never got their show started that night, at least not until Gracie got them both out of this self-conscious mess by attempting to sing a tune.

Hey, if you ain’t got it, flaunt it!

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