Thursday, February 02, 2006

Wanna Buy a Duck?

It's 1934, Sunday, 6 PM. Millions of people across America are tuning into The Baker's Broadcast on the Blue Network. Its star: a 30 year old burlesque clown from Hungary named Jozef Pinter. He's better known as Joe Penner. Introduced by the announcer, Penner, a small moon-faced man with an infectious grin, trots across the stage to the microphone and says, with an hilarously sloppy lisp,

"Wanna buy a duck?"

The studio audience convulses in laughter as do millions of listeners. Who is this strange man and why does he want to sell us a duck?? It's so improbable! So absurd! Penner soaked up the laughter like a sponge. Only a few years before, he had been a struggling burlesque comic. Today, he was one of the nation's highest-rated radio comedians, earning $7000 a week, his catchphrases and silly laugh a national craze. Never before had the nation so totally embraced a performer in so short a time.

By 1935, Joe Penner was effectively washed up in radio comedy. By 1941, he was dead.

Penner was the real success story of American radio's coming-of-age. Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, and Jack Pearl had all been successful on the stage for years before entering radio. Wynn and Cantor were practically American institutions before ever having stepped before a microphone. Even Jack Pearl had been a Zeigfeld headliner. In 1931, Joe Penner was little more than a moderately successful burlesque and vaudeville comic. The future looked dim for Joe; vaudeville was dying fast and burlesque had seen better days. And then a miracle happened; Penner switched out one word in one of his catchphrases. Instead of asking his straightman "Wanna buy a hippopotamamanous?" or "Wanna buy an ash barrel?" as per usual, he asked "Wanna buy a duck?". And the crowd went berserk! Maybe it was the funny way Penner said "duck", like a punch-drunk yokel. Maybe audiences in 1931 understood something we don't today about the innate humor of waterfowl. Whatever it was, in 1933, it propelled Joe Penner out of the small-time and onto the top-rated Rudy Vallee Hour where he became a literal overnight sensation. He was given his own series, The Baker's Broadcast, sponsored by Fleischmann's Yeast, and by early 1934 it was the fourth most popular show on the air, pulling in better ratings than Amos N' Andy. Joe Penner was voted Radio's Outstanding Comedian by Radio Stars magazine. Toys and games were manufactured featuring his likeness.

But the decay began to set in early. For some reason, it never seemed to dawn on anyone that Penner was, well.. average. Not that he wasn't ever funny, mind you, but he wasn't especially good, either. He certainly wasn't on a par with Wynn and Cantor and Pearl and Amos N' Andy. Penner had slipped under the radar. In these early and insecure days of radio when a comic's unique vocal gimmick or catchphrase acted as a valuable identifying hook for audiences at home, Joe was a comic whose act consisted almost entirely of hooks! By 1934, it must have been apparent to everyone but the sponsor that Penner was running his existing catchphrases into the ground. The solution? More catchphrases! Better catchphrases!

"Don't be silly! Don't be silly!"

"Don't ever dooo-oo-oo-o that!"

"Oh, you nah-hah-sty man!"

"To be sure, to be sure!"

"Oh, wo-ho-ho is me!"

Penner grew increasingly neurotic. He knew he had to start introducing variety into his act but the sponsor didn't agree. The catchphrases, or "gag lines" as they were called, were a national craze. Why tinker with success? And even then there was another more fundamental problem; was he talented enough to transcend vaudeville style clowning? Penner must have had his doubts. He suddenly quit The Baker's Broadcast in June, 1935, and went AWOL from media for more than a full year, perhaps for fear of killing his career through overexposure but just as likely because of his fragile nerves. Recognizing Jack Benny's successful new blend of character comedy, gags, and situational humor as the new trend in radio comedy, Penner hired away Benny's head writer Harry Conn with the hope that Conn could help him re-establish his style. The new Joe Penner Show debuted on October 4th, 1936 on the CBS network and featured Penner in a sitcom format as the black sheep of the "Park Avenue Penners". But Penner had been away from the airwaves for too long and the novelty-hungry public had moved on. More ominously, the new format proved that Penner was purely one-dimensional and incapable of handling engaging character comedy. The ratings for his new show began slipping almost immediately. It folded in 1938.

By that time Penner was in Hollywood, appearing in lackluster B-comedies for RKO (already having been used and tossed aside by Paramount after a brief string of college musicals). While they had their moments, such films as I'm From the City (1938) were pure bottom-of-the-bill filler. By 1940, Joe Penner was in the unenviable position of being a celebrity has-been at the age of 35. Two new radio series had failed miserably. Any hopes that he might be able to revive his career were dashed when, on January 10th, 1941, he died of a heart attack in his sleep.

And now that you're all in the mood for high hilarity, I'm gonna break new ground here and make available the complete contents of the rare Joe Penner Joy Book! Don't never say I ain't never did nothin' fer ya! So popular was Joe in 1934 that Dell devoted this 35 page souvenir magazine to him. Inside, you'll learn as much about Joe Penner as his press agent wanted you to know. Read all about his childhood, his struggles in vaudeville, his phenomenal rise to superstardom, and find out exactly how he comes up with all those zany gag-lines! Plus: songs, gag, cartoons, and more, more, MORE! Click here to go to the file-sharing service where I've stored the 11.9 MB folder containing the contents. NOTE: right-click on "Your Download is Ready. Click Here to Download" and choose "save as". If you click on the link directly, the file will take more than a day to download! Follow the instructions and it'll take less than a couple of minutes with DSL. Enjoy!

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Blogger NYCOPYGUY said...

Interesting that Egghead, Tex Avery's cartoon character based on Joe Penner, debuted in 1937, 2 years after Penner's radio career dried up. I always just assumed that Penner was currently popular at the time those cartoons were made.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Ivan G. said...

In an interview with comedy writer Parke Levy in Jordan R. Young's The Laugh Crafters, Levy attributes Penner's show-biz plummet to the fact that Joe wanted to be more like Jack Benny but could never really transcend the reality that he was, in Levy's words, "a kid's comic." But I agree with you--I've seen a few of Penner's RKO pictures (like Go Chase Yourself) and the man's appeal eludes me. He's the first thing I think of when I hear the term "comic grotesque."

8:38 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

According to interviews, Egghead was apparently also based on Ben Blue but Cliff Nazarro's voice work sounds like pure Penner to me (Nazarro is wonderful as Barney Google in "Hillbilly Blitzkrieg", BTW). I'm going to venture a guess that Avery's decision to create what is essentially an animated Joe Penner was spurred on by the fact that the real Penner had drifted to the periphery of public consciousness; still immediately recognizable to audiences but not likely to be in a position to sue. The same goes for the Fleischers' Betty Boop/Helen Kane, Hanna-Barbera's Yogi Bear/Art Carney, and Snagglepuss/Bert Lahr (among many others). The inspiration for the character has to be safely out of the way in order for the imitation/tribute to take root. It's still a cheap, uncreative way to "create" cartoon characters.

As for Joe Penner as a kids' comic, the concept was apparently alien to audiences in the 1930s. Wynn, Pearl, and Penner certainly sound innocuous enough to be children's performers today but at the height of their fame, while they were applauded for being "safe and wholesome" listening for the entire family, adults were the real target audience. Look at their sponsors: Wynn had Texaco, Penner had Fleischmann's Yeast, Pearl had Lucky Strike, Cantor had Chase and Sanborn, etc.. The real kids shows featured friendly, slow-speaking hosts and were sponsored by cereal and candy companies. As hard as it may be to believe, grown men were doubling over in hysterics over Penner's silly "duck" line. And the flip side of the coin is that decidedly adult and often risque comedians like Wheeler and Woolsey (pre-1934) and the Marx Brothers had huge followings among children! Go figure.. At any rate "comic grotesque" is right!

9:59 PM  
Blogger Ivan G. said...

Speaking of cartoon characters being patterned after comedians, it took me years to realize that the inspiration for the voice of Peter Potamus (the one and only Daws Butler) came from Joe E. Brown. Don't know why I didn't think of it before, but it was like a road-to-Damascus thing.

5:52 AM  
Anonymous KG said...

Not having heard much radio, and seen only a few of the films from late in his career, I always thought he'd of done alright in the wake of Abbott and Costello. With the right script, he was capable of Costello-like moments. Even "Go Chase Yourself" has quite a few.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

There are bits of "I'm From the City" that are kind of cute, too, but the only place I can imagine Penner ending up in the long run is Jules White's comedy mill at Columbia, cranking out duplicates of whatever Hugh Herbert was appearing in. He wasn't untalented, but I firmly believe that his early 30s fame was a fluke.

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't see any mention of Penner's work in the film version of the great Rodgers and Hart musical The Boys from Syracuse. I haven't seen it, but the two Dromios would seem to be tailor made for a comic second banana of even mediocre ability. Well-cast, Penner would find himself playing off the polished Allan Jones and a young, talented Martha Raye. If he couldn't pull that one off, he really was missing something essential. Anyone seen this?

2:04 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Depends upon who you talk to. I haven't seen it, but it has been described variously as very funny and an abomination. Geoff Collins has seen it and likes it very much. I'll try to get him to give us his impressions of it.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

I've seen Boys From Syracuse, and it was a good film. Not a great one, but definitely fun. Penner is quite good in it, too. He made a good partner to Martha Raye (another Paramount castoff). I count myself as a fan of Penner. I think comedians like Penner, El Brendel, and Robert Woolsey get a bum rap. They're all funny in their own way. I wouldn't call them the most imaginative comedians in the world, and I see the chinks (can I say that?) in their armor, but surely there was a good reason for their popularity. If this generation can make comedy super stars out of Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, and (add name here) then these valiant troupers ceetainly deserved their brief brushes with fame. Penner was a nut act,and as nut acts go, his was pretty likable. Nut acts are often mistaken for "kid comics". Hell, I know more adult Stooge fans than kids. Penner's films are always fun, even if they are filler. He would have been a good addition to any two reeler factory, in fact better than in his features. Let's choose our arguments, fellas, and attack the third bananas who've actually earned attack, like:

Jack Pearl: One demential, and annoying after 5 minutes.

Roscoe Ates: D...d...d..d..dull.

Skeets Gallagher: Huh??? Did I miss something?

I could go on, but I'm late for a hunting trip with the Vice President. I'm wearing neon.

If he shoots me I promise to drink some water for the news cameras so the water will spray out of the holes in my body.

6:15 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

POOEY!!! I dig Pearl, although he suffered from some terminal tunnel vision. I firmly believe that he could have been a hell of a lot more than Munchausen. I agree fully about Gallagher and Ates, though. As for Penner, I would never, ever suggest he was untalented, but as far as nut acts go, Joe Cook cleans his clock.

Personally, I'm alarmed that I haven't heard one Dick Cheney-as-Elmer Fudd joke yet! What is happening to this country??

7:24 AM  
Blogger craig h said...

I know I'm waaaaay late to this comment party, but needed to weigh in, since discussions involving Penner are extremely rare. I'd have to agree with Nick in that "Boys From Syracuse" was a good film, and (I have to add) one which provided Joe Penner with a a rare opportunity. Interestingly enough, it was the only one of his ten films for which he was not top billed. RKO and Paramount had him playing a bad version of his radio self (in half of his films, he played a character named Joe, and in "Life of the Party" and "Collegiate," he played one named Joe Penner!), but in "Boys", he was able to play a different character (albiet with some Penner-esque qualities), and did a fine job. Full disclosure: I am a Penner fan and collector (and, more recently, blogger), but am not blind to the limits of his radio schtick. Too bad he passed away before he could fully make the transition from radio stooge to character comedian. Would welcome any Penner thoughts on my "wanna buy a duck" blog.

7:16 PM  
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7:51 PM  

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