How Jack Benny’s Gagmen Lost Their Typewriter

As I realized anew last night, watching John Ford’s splendid Technicolor epic Drums Along the Mohawk, you don’t need historical footnotes or extensive background information to appreciate old-fashioned melodrama, even if such fictions claim to be based on verifiable facts. As an informed viewer, you’d probably be distracted and irked by careless inaccuracies or willful distortions, interacting with the film intellectually, rather than permitting yourself to become emotionally engaged—unless, of course, you are happily equipped with a remarkable ability to suspend disbelief. Surely I would never stoop to advocating ignorance, but such alleged bliss is no hindrance to the melodramatic experience. How different is the response to humor, especially when a bit of arcane trivia is called upon to serve as the centerpiece of a punch line.

Looking for a broadcasting event to highlight in my “On This Day” feature, I came across an episode of the Jack Benny Program, presented live from New York City on 5 October 1941. Like the Burns and Allen broadcast discussed previously, it is a rather self-conscious piece of comedy in which Jack returns to the air after his summer hiatus and finds himself unable to get back into his groove. Not even the script for that night’s broadcast is finished.

As Jack discovers, his head writers—two guys who spent a night at Roseland dancing together (and winning a cup for it)—have lost their typewriter by betting on . . . Lou Nova. Lou Nova? The name pops up again later in the program, as Benny’s valet Rochester calls in after finding himself in a tight squeeze with his bookie. Turns out, Lou Nova was a celebrated prizefighter with a supposedly “cosmic punch” who lost to heavyweight Joe Lewis a few days before the broadcast—29 September 1941. He had been a sure bet until then.

Although there are a few other topical allusions in this broadcast, including references to the Brooklyn Dodgers and comedy team of Olsen and Johnson (pictured above), Benny’s jokes are generally easier to get than the satirical remarks of rival Fred Allen, whose humor was decidedly more topical. 

Explaining a joke is rarely amusing—but rescuing otherwise useless trivia from obscurity is rewarding nonetheless. Now I won’t feel quite so ignorant if ever I come across another “cosmic punch” line.

On This Day in 1950: Ronald Colman Lectures on Bigotry and Schlitz Vows to Ship 600,000 Cans of Beer to Korea

I started writing this during a power outage; so, in commemoration of this event, I’ll try [and promptly failed] not to be quite so long-winded this time. I didn’t relish the experience of sitting alone in the dark without the comfort and convenience of electricity, especially since darkness is the very stuff of radio drama, the sound pictures that are stored on my computer or waiting to be snatched out of the world wide web. For a while I tried to fill the void with my own voice, reading out loud by candlelight, enacting the parts in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the book at hand. The flicker illuminating the pages began to irritate me; and when I caught a glimpse of the shiny surface of my laptop, I couldn’t resist to drain its precious battery power by popping in a CD and listening to one of my favorite situation comedies of old-time radio, Don Quinn’s witty and endearing Halls of Ivy. Besides, I had already decided to write about the 27 September 1950 broadcast of that show—an episode OTR enthusiast Jerry Haendiges argues to be “probably the best of the series.”

Among the smartest comedies of its day, the series had long escaped my notice, since “its day” was the early 1950s, a time when radio was already experiencing a decline in talent, audiences, and sponsorship. When setting up the research boundaries for my dissertation, I initially dismissed such late-comers, sound unheard, assuming them to be lacking in literary merit and production values, deficiencies owing to conservative—that is, money-starved—programming as a result of dwindling advertising accounts. The Peabody Award winning Halls of Ivy (1950-52) sure proved me wrong.

The program was greeted as a sign of radio’s maturity, not its senility and obsolescence. In the May 1952 issue of Theatre Arts critic Harriet Van Horne, who had previously lamented radio’s adolescent fare, recommended Halls of Ivy as a “literate” treat, arguing its writing to be “often much better than the dialogue you encounter in some Broadway shows.” Set in a liberal college, the series delicately addressed and eloquently expressed a number of social concerns, the fictional campus being a playground on which to act out matters of race, class, and gender. Sentimental without being saccharine, it was edifying without getting snooty about it. I mean, come on, the show was sponsored by the makers of Schlitz—the “beer that made Milwaukee famous.”

On this day in 1950, Halls of Ivy presented a study in prejudice. Penned by Don Quinn and Cameron Blake, the story for the evening involved a high-toned mother of a dead soldier who vows to make a $500,000 donation to Ivy College after finding a picture of her son in a newspaper announcing the award given to the student who painted his portrait. When college president Dr. Hall (Ronald Colman) hears about this proposed endowment, a “girdle” to bring the institution back into shape, he fears that “this girdle is the old-fashioned kind. You know, the kind with strings.” Sure enough, the benefactress stipulates that the money “must absolutely not be used to provide scholarships for . . . well, for certain races and creeds.”

The donation is refused. Adding to the irritation of the narrow-minded society lady who offered it, the Halls receive a visit from the student artist who captured the likeness of the son from whom she had been estranged. As it turns out, the painter is of a “certain race” himself. After this exposure—a confrontation with and a laying bare of her bigotry—the strings are removed and the money can change hands, a moral lesson delivered with such skill and grace that even the contrived ending does not come across as awkward or trite. Summing up the dramatized lecture, Dr. Hall remarks that “life itself is a little like a college. You don’t learn much by attending only one class.”

Not to be outdone my the fictional donation, Schlitz announced at the close of the program that, having been given the okay from the Eisenhower administration, it would ship 600,000 cans of beer to the American soldiers then fighting in Korea. It’s a rather tacky coda—but sponsors aren’t exactly classy when it comes to touting their wares.

Once the power was restored in my abode, I set out for another trip to Ivy College—because “you don’t learn much by attending only one class”—and watched a 1955 episode of the TV adaptation of Halls of Ivy, also starring Colman and his wife, Benita Hume (along with the wonderful Mary Wickes as their maid). Well, sometimes it is nice to let someone else do the picturing for you, particularly after having been forced to spend two hours in near darkness.

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!

On This Day in 1939: The Folks at 79 Wistful Vista Channel Wimpole Street

Heavenly days! Thanks to modern-day technology (and, I suppose, a surplus of leisure) I have unearthed a spiritual bond that, thus far, has escaped literary scholars and old-time radio enthusiasts alike. Now it can be told: on this day, 12 September, the broadcast antics of Fibber McGee and Molly strangely intersect with the romance of Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elisabeth Barrett. Yes, on this day, both couples eloped—the Wimpole Street escapees in 1846 and the whimsical everybodies from Wistful Vista in 1924.

The latter celebrated their lucky breakout on their 15th wedding anniversary by attempting to restage the happy event—an elopement without the fuss of being detected and chased by opposing elders. Yet despite the blessings of their high-toned neighbor, society lady Abigail Uppington—who assured them that the “affair” would “never be criticized,” even though the couple was “unchased”—the folly of it all resulted in a series of outrageous and none too enchanting complications. Well, the whole thing was Fibber’s idea to begin with . . .

One of the earliest and most successful situation comedies on US radio, Fibber McGee and Molly (1935-59) sounds still remarkably fresh today, thanks to the witty scripts by Don Quinn (whose Halls of Ivy is the ne plus ultra in radio sitcom sophistication) and the winning performances of its leads. And while it’s no collection of “Dramatic Monologues” or “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (“How do I love thee” and all that), the aural comedy-romance Quinn whipped up each week is no mere escapist fluff. “Tain’t funny, McGee”—Molly exclaimed often enough, suggesting more serious undertones not picked up by those merely hoping for an amusing half-hour.

After all, both the Brownings and the McGees inspired great thinkers. As Garrison Keillor recalls in WLT: A Radio Romance), the Norwegian philosopher Søren Blak argued the “boastful Fibber” to be a “paradigm of western man”; his “famous loaded closet” (which first opened to listeners some six months after the McGee’s 15th wedding anniversary), “represented civilization and all its flotsam and loose baggage, while the childlike voice of Molly, bringing the man back to reality,” seemed to be “the voice of culture in its deepest and most profound incarnation, that of the adored Mother, the Goddess of Goodness, the great Herself.”

Alas, the McGees have been all but buried under the “flotsam and loose baggage” of popular culture, erstwhile idols hidden beneath the rubble that is the empire of the air.  No, “tain’t funny, McGee!” And yet, however muffled their voices, the heartbeats of Wistful Vista’s winsome twosome still reverberate among those ruins (as you can hear).

“Oh heart!” Robert Browning mused on an off day (in his own “Love Among the Ruins”),

oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns
For whole century of folly, noise, and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.

So, happy anniversary, Molly and Fibber!