Sunday, June 03, 2007

What is a New Year's Resolution?

Something that goes in one year and out the other! After much deliberation and deep thought.. nearly a full five minutes.. I've decided to declare It Pays to be Ignorant the "official" Third Banana old-time radio series. I've always loved the show, but upon closer inspection I've found it really encompasses the entire Third Banana experience, so to speak. Between Tom Howard, George Shelton, Lulu McConnell and Harry McNaughton, we have our UK contingent (McNaughton), comedienne (McConnell), and comedy team (Shelton and Howard). Between the four we have vaudeville experience (Howard, Shelton, McConnell), burlesque (Shelton and Howard), Broadway (all four), film (all four), and radio (duh). The comedy is low, loud and anarchistic, the medium and format obsolete (in the US), and the cast is like a Mount Rushmore of Third Bananas. I can't think of a more thoroughly Third Banana-ish anything, really. So there you have it. Our first "official" thingamabob.

Created in 1942 by WELI program director Bob Howell, the concept was tailored by Howell's co-worker (and eventual wife) Ruth Howard as a vehicle for her father Tom and his comedy partner George Shelton. IPTBI is primarily a parody of Information, Please and Dr. IQ, taking the "board of experts" from the former and the venerable "Pay that man five silver dollars!" tagline from the latter. Too frequently it's classified as an actual quiz program which it most certainly isn't. The guests invariably win a token amount for "stumping the experts" with such questions as "Who painted Whistler's Mother?", but otherwise it's simply a free-form comedy show. Contemporary critics panned it and predicted it would have a short run (it lasted for a decade). Even today it seems that It Pays to be Ignorant isn't overly liked among OTR aficionados. Despite being a consistent ratings winner, it isn't mentioned once in Arthur Frank Wertheim's otherwise authoritative Radio Comedy. Why the animosity? Unfortunately, IPTBI cannot be classified as an "acquired taste". Either you find wordplay, terrible puns, and general vaudeville patter funny or you don't, and if you don't find one episode of IPTBI funny, you might as well forget the rest. It's either wonderful, addictive fun or less preferable than a root canal. Decide for yourself. Archive.org has a nice set of 35 shows that you can download here... and just for fun, here's the show's catchy themesong. Below is a two page spread from the October 16th, 1937 Radio Guide featuring Tom Howard's novel (and frugal) nautical-themed basement. At the time, Shelton and Howard were the featured comics on NBC's Sealtest Sunday Night Party. Daughter Ruth can be seen in the lower right-hand corner of page one. Pipes from Tom Howard's collection are fairly common on Ebay.



ADDENDUMB: On April 1st, 1946, a British version of It Pays to be Ignorant, entitled Ignorance Is Bliss, premiered on the BBC Light Programme. The series was apparently a letter-for-letter copy, using the same scripts as the American show (right down to the catchphrases!), and with stand-ins for Howard, McNaughton, McConnell, and Shelton. Regrettably, from the sound of the clip found at the bottom of this page about the show, what it couldn't duplicate was the verve and spirit of spontaneity of the original. It's worth noting that Lulu McConnell's replacement is Gladys Hay, none other than Will Hay's daughter.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Rob Bates said...

I love the show, too which is something for a show that is based on jokes that were already dated when it aired sixty years ago. However, I have always wondered whether it was free-form or not. I mean, sometimes it seems they are ad-libbing, but otherwise, it seems mostly scripted. Obviously, their responses are mostly based on the question from the "dunce cap," but it seems that would be pretty easy to control. Anyway, thanks for this little salute. "When there aint no income sense, there aint no income tax."

9:27 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

"Free-form" in the sense that it's a plotless, rambling kind of program. Ruth Howard and Bob Howell apparently cobbled the scripts together from Howard and Shelton's joke files. The "Ignorance is Bliss" clip reveals exactly HOW obviously scripted the material could sound if the performers weren't up to it.

6:15 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

"Now we're back to Miss McConnell again."

Thanks for the links. I've enjoyed what I've heard of the series, and nice to have access to such a trove. I think part of the problem, then and now, is it wasn't easy to slot into a niche. It wasn't a real quiz show, but shows satirizing other radio shows outright as their sole reason for being were rare ("The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street" comes close). It wasn't a sitcom either, or really a variety show, since as much room as there was for old routines and so on, it still had a fixed format. I think it's also because the game show itself has a different reputation now. That is, at least "Quiz Kids" and "Information Please" were seen as intelligent, thought-provoking shows featuring precocious prodigies or erudite wites and intellectuals. So "It Pays to Be Ignorant" tweaks the highbrows by using its same format as an excuse for riotous "low" humor. The "low" versus high thing again. Really, it's both a creature of its times *and* ahead of it, really.

McNaughton, by the way, had previously *literally* been the third banana on Phil Baker's show. It was Phil, then Beetle, a mysterious heckling voice, and then McNaughton as his butler Bottle (although one could maybe switch the two). "It Pays" was sort of his return to the radio limelight, and led to his own starring sitcom, "It's Higgins, Sir!", a rather dreary project with him again as a British butler. If only they'd added Lulu McConnell as a housekeeper, it might have been worthwhile.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

I've been intending to get ahold of some of the Baker shows. All of my knowledge of Phil Baker at this point is completely secondhand, but his use of stooges sounds extremely innovative. Although John Dunning in "On the Air" suggests that Baker's use of a stooge was a byproduct of his mike-fright, I've read elsewhere that it was part of his vaudeville act.. and I'm inclined to believe the latter (and IIRC "The Stooge" w/ Martin and Lewis is based VERY loosely on his career).

9:29 PM  

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