Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Treadmill to Oblivion

by Kevin Kusinitz

There was a time when Fred Allen was among the biggest names in radio comedy. His flat, nasal delivery could be gentle (as when spoofing small-town America) or bitter (network executives, Hollywood producers and overbearing sponsors were his biggest targets). And although he was clearly aiming at a more intellectual audience than most comedians of the day, it was said that he appealed to both college professors and truck drivers. So why is Fred Allen forgotten by all but the most rabid old-time radio buffs while the names of Jack Benny and Bob Hope live on?

I’ve got a couple of theories. First, he never made a successful transition to television, a medium he despised. Second, much of his humor is topical, thus making some punchlines obscure. Third, his type of topical humor, utterly unique in the 1940s, is de rigeur today.

Having collected old radio shows years ago, I’ve got a fourth, heretical theory: he – or, more to the point, his program -- just isn’t that funny anymore. I mean, I get the jokes, I appreciate his snarky humor, but time and again I wonder, Why aren’t I laughing? And why do I find Jack Benny far, far funnier? It took me years to realize that Benny’s humor – and that of his radio/TV regulars – was based on character. Fred Allen (like Bob Hope and, indeed, most comedians of the day) just told jokes, period. Sure, Fred aimed for a higher IQ, but that doesn’t mean he’s any funnier. For my money, his best material can be found in his essays, letters and excerpts from his two memoirs, Treadmill to Oblivion and Much Ado About Me, where his wit can flow freely, without the “necessary” conventions of comedy found in radio at the time. In other words, he was funnier just being himself than the jokes he wrote for himself. Certainly his ad-libs are better than what today’s comedy writers are paid top dollar to grind out.

As with TV, he never made it in movies, either, with the roles in his handful of features either guest shots or supporting characters. (With his baggy eyes, large cheeks and chipped teeth, he never exactly had a face for the camera, another strike against him). His sole leading role, as Fred Floogle in It’s in the Bag!, made in 1945 at the height of his radio success, was his last chance at stardom other than movies. The story’s simple enough: Fred Floogle, flea-circus owner, comes into his uncle’s $12-million inheritance. Unfortunately, most of the money has ripped-off by the uncle’s lawyers; all Floogle has coming to him is a pool table and five chairs. It’s only after he sells the chairs to an antiques dealer that he discovers one of them has $300,000 hidden inside. Floogle has to track the chairs down to their new owners to get the money.

It’s in the Bag! starts off promisingly, with Fred Allen (as himself) addressing the audience, making sardonic comments about the cast and crew throughout the credits. One of the names, though, gives one pause: Alma Reville, aka Mrs. Alfred Hitchock. What’s the writer of Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt and The Paradine Case doing writing a comedy? Good question, and one of I haven’t figured out. Allen must have realized the final cut needed a bit more humor – especially since the movie is filled with murders either attempted or successful (thanks, Alma!) so he adds voice-overs to several scenes while the actors continue to speak their dialogue. (This must explain Morrie Ryskind’s credit for his “special contribution.”) He even does this during the comedy scenes when the dialogue turns sluggish. The results range from disconcerting to confusing to, ultimately, aggravating. More than once you feel like shouting, Shut up! I’m trying to watch the movie!

The producers must have been nervous about Allen’s potential box-office, since he’s surrounded by a bunch of guest stars from radio. In what was clearly a favor to his friend, Jack Benny plays his stereotypical cheap self, but with material far more heavy-handed than his own writers ever provided. (Look, his apartment has a hatcheck girl and cigarette machine!) Minerva Pious is Pansy Nussbaum, a regular from Allen’s show. (Her dialogue is all but obliterated by Allen’s voice-over. I bet she loved that). Jerry Colonna, on the other hand, scores as a psychiatrist, while Don Ameche and Rudy Vallee’s witty, understated performances contrast with Allen’s often-sledgehammer delivery.

Great character actors abound. Sidney Toler (sounding an awful lot like his Charlie Chan alter ego) as a cop. John Carradine as one of the evil lawyers. Byron Foulger as a theatre manager, Robert Benchley as an exterminator, Ben Weldon as a bookie and, best of all, William Bendix as a gangster. Old pros, all. It’s in the Bag! a veritable time capsule of the entertainment world of its day, with one of the biggest names of all in the lead. Yet, in the end, it’s as much of a chore as it is a comedy. Too much plot, too little story and, if it’s possible, too many jokes. It was probably ahead of its time then; perhaps it still is.

No matter what people thought of It’s in the Bag!, they still loved Fred’s radio series, at least for another four years, when it was cancelled by NBC. He had already taken a year off a decade or so earlier for hypertension, and did so again. Upon his return, all he could get was a semi-regular gig on Tallulah Bankhead’s radio series, The Big Show. A TV version of his radio series using marionettes in place of real actors failed. Trying to play to his strengths, he floated the idea of spending 30 or 60 minutes a week simply chatting with guests, but, in those pre-Tonight Show days, was greeted by network executives with a big Hunh? At one point, he was reduced to hosting a talent show, for God’s sakes, called Judge For Yourself. You get an idea of what he thought about it when plugging it on the Today show. “As you know,” he tells host Dave Garroway, “there is nothing new under the sun, and we’re out to prove it.”

His best TV gig was his stint as a panelist on What’s my Line? during the last two years of his life. Various episodes floating around on the web and video show Fred at his best: relaxed and witty while never feeling the pressure to actually playing to win. He still looks healthy in the first year or so. By mid-1955, though, he’s suddenly looking older: his face is thinner, the skin hanging off him, and he’s wearing glasses. His delivery is slower. Narrating a radio documentary of W. C. Fields for NBC’s Monitor series finds him barely connected to the material he’s obviously reading off someone else’s script. He died of a heart attack on March 17, 1956, while on a stroll through his beloved Manhattan, three months shy of his 62nd birthday. The Monitor episode aired not long afterwards.

Like Ted Healy before him, Fred Allen blazed a comedic trail later traversed by comedians unlikely ever to have listened to or even heard of him – David Letterman, Bill Maher, the cast of Saturday Night Live – all of them and more do Fred Allen, only with more empty sarcasm than genuine wit. Johnny Carson, notorious for stealing from his betters, took Fred’s “Mighty Allen Art Players” segment for his own “Mighty Carson Art Players.” Allen’s influence reached as far as the UK, too, where his show was heard via shortwave. One group of comedians in particular was especially taken by his frequent use of the word “goon.” So much so, in fact, that Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe named their own series The Goon Show. (Their short-lived TV series, Telegoons, used marionettes as Fred’s did.) Mel Brooks must have remembered It’s in the Bag! from his youth. Although Fred Allen is credited with screen treatment, the story itself goes back to a Russian novel, The Twelve Chairs, which Mel Brooks filmed in 1970. Two gags featured in It’s in the Bag! – the voice of the late uncle speaking to his nephew via a 78 rpm record and the cast marching toward the camera at the finale – are repeated in the outtakes on the Young Frankenstein video.

No doubt Fred Allen would have appreciated the tributes. He would have appreciated not voicing puppets or playing host to amateur singers, too.

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Blogger Ivan G. said...

You do realize, of course, that there are two versions of It's in the Bag!--one with Allen's commentary, and one without. Allen's commentary may obliterate Minerva Pious' dialogue but if you've seen the "without" version you're not missing much.

I enjoyed reading this, even though I don't always agree. Particularly when you criticize Allen by saying he's forgotten today because his humor is "topical"--I have found that in listening to Allen's old shows I learn a great deal more about the history and culture of that era and dismissing it as "topical" is just plain laziness.

Still, it's like I always say--Fred Allen is an acquired boiled peanuts.

6:50 AM  
Anonymous Kevin Kusinitz said...

My "topical" reference itself was probably lazy. Certainly Bob Hope was the king of topical and nobody forgot him (it helps that he lived to be 100 or so). You're right -- Fred Allen is an acquired taste. I respect him immensely and enjoy his writings, but I always find myself trying to like him more than I actually do.

Thanks for leaving a comment! Hope to have another piece on here again soon.

7:36 AM  
Blogger FleaCircusDirector said...

Anyone who starred in a flea circus film gets a thumbs up from me. A great bio of Mr Allen.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

Aaron: Thanks for the nice tribute to Fred Allen. Back in the 1970s, I came across his two books in the public library and went around telling people about Fred Allen. No one under 40 had any idea who I was talking about.

I have taught my daughter one of his lines as a tribute. Whenever a promo comes on for the tv show "Medium", I ask her: "Why is it called 'Medium'?" She replies: "Because it's not well done."

Joe Thompson ;0)

6:30 PM  
Blogger Rob Bates said...

Hi, I haven't seen "It's in the Bag" in years, but remember really enjoying it. And I remember reading an interview with Martin Scorcece, I believe in the NYT magazine, where he blurts out his admiration for it. So I'm in good company.

I agree that listening to some Fred Allen can be rough going, though I think the sketch portions in the second half of his show are often very funny, and hold up much better than either the monologue or Allen's Alley (all mostly creaky puns.)

And yes, Fred's been forgotten, but you can argue that Jack Benny's been mostly forgotten too.

6:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm relieved to discover that there are two versions of "It's In The Bag." I have this on tape, and really love the movie--partly for the great cameos of radio stars. (You forgot to mention Walter Tetley, who plays an elevator operator.) But I'd never heard Fred's voiceovers, so as I read your post I was beginning to wonder if one of us was crazy!

By the way, the "Television is called a medium because nothing on it is ever well done" gag, commonly attributed to Fred, might have been written by Goodman Ace. Fred said this quip on The Big Show, written by Goody, and Goodman states the same quip (without quotes, and not attributing it to anybody) in a letter to Groucho Marx. Not definitive proof, but suggestive. Certainly it's an attitude Goodman and Fred would have shared.


11:28 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

I've heard that gag attributed to Goodman Ace elsewhere.. I'll need to find out where I read that. The last place I actually heard it used was the "Don't Touch That Dial" episode of Ralph Bakshi's Mighty Mouse, The New Adventures: "Now I know why they call TV a medium! Nothing on it is rare or well done!"

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard the gag recently on a recording featuring Fred. I think it was the first episode of The Big Show in 1950, which was radio's big (but ultimately failed) FU to TV.

6:03 AM  

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