It wasn’t just the “usual gang of crumbs” gathering at Duffy’s Tavern that evening. Otherwise, Archie would not have replaced the “Watch Your Hats and Coats” sign with one saying “Maintain Scrutiny of Thy Chapeaux and Hats.” Nor would Mrs. Duffy, who wasn’t exactly an authority on high classical authors, have been dusting off the Dostoyevsky, which Archie struggled to classify as animal, mineral, or vegetable. Such categorical impediments aside, there were tell-tale signs that Duffy’s was closer than ever to living up to what Archie always pronounced it to be: a place “where the elite meet to eat.”
To be sure, back in its heyday as the most valued source of news and entertainment, American radio was far from elitist; it was too popular—and too important as a commercial and propagandist medium—to risk being either offensively vulgar or alienatingly esoteric. Still, if it meant reputable or established, you couldn’t be more “elite” than Clifton Fadiman, the “mental brain from the radio.” Known to millions of listeners as host of the intellectual quiz program Information, Please, Fadiman was scheduled to pay a visit to the beloved neighborhood Tavern on this day, 1 June, in 1943. What’s more, he was to give a literary talk there.
If that impressed Archie any, he didn’t let on. How smart did you need to be to ask questions, especially questions submitted by the audience? In fact, Archie had written the Fadiman lecture himself. And why not, pray? Archie could talk poetry with the best of them. He knew all about the Bard from Stratford Avenue and, as he told Duffy’s regular Finnegan (Clifton Finnegan, that is), he was well versed in “cubic centimeter” and other such poetic matters.
Archie may not have been the proprietor of Duffy’s Tavern but he sure was its resident malaproprietor. And what could be greater lexical fun than getting it wrong just right? Not only do you get to enjoy a play on words, but you also get to indulge in the Schadenfreude of hearing someone lose it.
Nowadays, though, catching up with 1940s radio comedies like Duffy’s can be as scholarly a pursuit as the study of the literary greats, considering that some of the lines in Duffy’s Tavern are so topical, they require footnotes.
For instance, there is Duffy’s confusion as to the identity of guest Kip Fadiman. The unheard tavern owner, whose talks with manager Archie open each half-hour visits at Duffy’s Tavern, assumes that the famous quiz show host is the man who asks questions like “Madam, what is your problem?” on his program. “No, Duffy,” corrects Archie, “you’re thinking of Mark Antony.”
Archie, who has Shakespeare on his mind, is getting all confused. The guy he had in mind was John J. Anthony, a spurious, self-styled marriage counselor who enjoyed popular success on radio’s Goodwill Hour.
Then there is uppity Mrs. Piddleton’s confession that she was forced to take the subway because her limousine was hors de combat, or “out of action.” Archie, unfamiliar with the expression, suggests OPA as an American equivalent meaning “out of gas.” In light of all the propaganda that comedy writers were expected to build into their routines, this was a welcome moment of letting off steam. The OPA was the Office of Price Administration, whose wartime rationing forced dames like Mrs. Piddleton to leave their private conveyances behind and join the real folks underground.
Then and now, listening to programs like Duffy’s Tavern is a thoroughly respectable divertissement. Back then, you could revel in the fact that you had to be Archie’s intellectual superior to get the jokes made at his expense; today, it is the occasional effort you have to make to catch Archie’s drift that makes hanging out at Duffy’s a pleasure far from guilty.