The Decline And Fall Of Radio Comedy—
Into The Fifties

Broadcast comedy did not die in the late 1940s and 1950s. It simply ceased to be relevant to American society. With the advent of television and its success in postwar society, listeners became viewers, audio fell victim to video, and the function of radio humor was preempted by its televised competition. During this period there were many reasons offered in explanation for the decline of comedy on the air. Some said there was a paucity of new talent, others suggested that the jokes were repetitive and boring. It was TV, however, that was the most significant undermining element.

Ironically, the chief catalyst in this development was a comedian whose radio career had been less than spectacular. Milton Berle never had a successful radio series. In the period from 1936-1948, he had appeared on such forgettable programs as Gillette's Community Sing, Stop Me If You've Heard This One, Let Yourself Go, and the quiz show, Kiss and Make Up. His biggest break in radio, The Milton Berle Show was a personality-driven situation comedy that appeared in the 1947-1948 season. But, it was hindered by Berle's comedic delivery. His strength was a physical comedy style involving bodily antics, often with a group of stooges demonstrating their zany eccentricities. This style appealed more to the studio audience than to listeners sitting blindly before a radio receiver. To compound the matter, Berle was forever making asides to his live audience and apparently deviating from the script with spontaneous quips and gestures.

As a television comic, however, the clowning and mugging that were pointless on radio became strong assets. Berle entered television with his Texaco Star Theater on September 21, 1948, and within a few weeks he was the most popular entertainer in the nation. His program of October 19 gained a Hooper rating of 63.2 in metropolitan New York City. This translated to a 92.4 percent share of the television audience, the highest rating ever achieved by a radio or TV program. What was most important, however, was that Berle's phenomenal popularity stirred other comedians into considering the new medium.

Eddie Cantor had long been sympathetic to television. In the 1930s, he warmly lent his support to the emerging medium, suggesting to readers of radio fan magazines that television would "stage such entertainment as the world has never dreamed of" and, "Television is a reality. Those who doubt it is here are like the fellows who stood in the streets a few years ago when gasoline engines went by and said—'do you think they're real?’"

Yet, like most successful radio comedians, Cantor was leery of TV once its potential had been revealed by Milton Berle. He seemed as much fearful as critical when he told an interviewer in early 1949, "What I have seen on my television set, with the exception of one or two shows, has been the worst kind of junk. It seems that the producers of this trivia have only one thing on their minds—is it cheap! "

Cantor was not alone in his distaste for TV. Jim Jordan was reluctant to join the new medium, telling Variety, "We pioneered in radio, but we aren't as ambitious as we were 25 years ago, so we'd rather sit back for a while and let the young blood do the groundwork.' Jack Benny seemed more irrational when he wrote in 1946, "Hold off television. Science be damned! Long live radio!" He retained this circumspect attitude for many years for, although he made his television debut in January 1949, Benny did not quit his radio career until 1955. Groucho Marx also belittled the new entertainment form, focusing his ridicule on the technological quality of TV. As he wryly explained it in 1949, he had, at best, an ambiguous feeling toward television.

Despite all this, with bloodshot eyes, I watch this ogre night after night, bored but nevertheless fascinated by its potentialities. How long can I survive on radio against this new monster? When will I become a public charge? Long before midnight this quivering and erratic entertainment signs off, and in a semi-stupor I grope my way to my bedroom where the butler feeds me a double Seconol, places ice packs on my eyes, and until I fall asleep chants over and over the immortal words of George M. Cohan, "Don't worry, kid, the only thing that will keep the average American at home is a dame." Thus, reassured I fall into a deep slumber broken by a violent nightmare, excessive sweating and an unconscious desire to jump out of the window.

Similar consternation came from Bob Hope and Al Jolson. Edgar Bergen, however, took a different line of attack. He assailed the degenerating state of comedy writing, claiming that the switch to TV was as much the fault of bad radio comedy as it was fascination with the new medium. He argued that radio wore out talent, sapped the energy, and drained the imagination. "We don't expect our major novelists to turn out a new book every single year," he complained, "but we expect radio comedians and their writers to turn out a frothy half-hour, smart as new paint, every single week."

In one of the more inventive displays of waning confidence in broadcasting, Fred Allen's poetic stooge, Humphrey Titter, recited the following rhyme on The Fred Allen Show on November 28, 1948:

Farewell to you, old radio jokes, I can stand you no longa.
California weather, and Airwick, Azusa and Cucamonga.
Who's on first? Jolson's age. How big is Durante's nose?
Cantor with his five daughters. How sloppy are Crosby's clothes?
Allen's Alley. The "mean widdle kid." Sinatra looking so boney.
Fibber McGee and his closet. Tell me, which twin has the Toni?
Coming, Mother. Listen, Gracie.
At long last I've made my decision.
So, farewell to you, old radio jokes,
I'm turning to television.

Not all of the leading comedians were apprehensive about television. George Burns and George Jessel felt that while TV would create its own artistic dimensions, that a good comedy act from vaudeville or radio could be readily adjusted to its new demands. Ed Wynn, the first big-name star to produce a kinescoped television series on the West Coast, enthusiastically supported television. In the summer of 1949, he publicly chided his colleagues who were afraid to enter it. According to Wynn, most of the great comedians were hiding their fear of TV behind criticism of the quality of the kinescope process and other technical issues. "I have fear, too," he added, "fear whether the public will accept me on television. But I don't fear TV itself. "

Although network officials clearly recognized that, in the words of CBS vice president Hubbell Robinson, Jr., "No one in his right mind can seriously doubt that television is going to be a dominant factor in American life," American radio produced some of its most impressive comedy programs in these twilight years. In the late 1940s, comediennes emerged with more importance than ever before. In Eve Arden (Our Miss Brooks), Lucille Ball (My Favorite Husband), and Marie Wilson (My Friend Irma), CBS belatedly began to feature women as the central characters in situation comedy. Until that time there had been few significant female humorists in radio. Former vaudevillians like Gracie Allen and Fanny Brice, as well as younger talents like Judy Canova, Cass Daley, and Joan Davis, enjoyed popularity. Yet, relative to the number of male comics in broadcasting, the role of the comedienne had been limited. In tapping this source of talent, network radio ushered in a new generation of female comics who would easily and successfully make the transition to television.

Radio also produced several new male comedians in this disintegrative period. Among the fresh and distinctive talents unveiled by the networks were Morey Amsterdam, Art Carney, Alan Young, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas, and Jackie Gleason. Whether as supporting comics, or as stars of their own programs, except for Bob and Ray, none of these comedians achieved sustained popularity in radio. Instead, their skill would be more fully realized in motion pictures and some of the most successful sitcoms in TV history.

When it appeared as a national program, The Bob and Ray Show presented listeners a style of comedy not heard regularly since the demise of Stoopnagle and Budd in the 1930s. They were improvisational comedians whose zany parodies and satires exhibited flawless timing and pace, cleverly hiding the fact that much of their routines was ad-libbed. The two men met at WHDH in Boston in 1946, and emerged on NBC in 1951. Bob and Ray presented a variety of comedy skits on their show, but they were especially effective in lampooning radio programming.

They spoofed soap operas with their own series, Mary Backstage, Noble Wife; children's programs in Jack Headstrong, the All-American American; and detective shows in Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons. In the character, Wally Ballou, they presented an image of a bumbling, inept radio newscaster, forever butting into the interview and often cutting short the interviewee. In Steve Bosco they presented an inebriated sportscaster whose "scoops" were usually eight days late—he had all the details except the score. More specifically, their character Arthur Sturdley was a parody of Arthur Godfrey, and was played as a fierce bore, among whose claims to fame was a collection of Hawaiian shirts with a clean change of ukulele to go with each.

In a medium that was losing its battle with television—and this meant the curtailment of elaborate comedy programs and the emergence of a new function for radio—Bob and Ray suited the new role of radio. Unlike comedy-variety or situation comedy, their snappy patter style was concise and easily encapsulated into short time periods. An audience that turned to radio for music and news could appreciate the pace and precision of their humor. At an earlier date, without an orchestra, stooges, or guest stars, their type of comedy would have been incongruous with popular tastes. But in the mechanical and austere style of programming in the late 1950s and 1960s, The Bob and Ray Show was perfectly adjusted.

The networks did not surrender easily to TV. In the 1940s they hoped to halt the erosion of programming by bringing celebrities to situation comedy, and by creating new comedy series. Gertrude Berg was brought back to CBS in The Goldbergs in 1949, Ronald and Benita Colman in The Halls of Ivy in 1950, and Cary Grant and Betsy Drake in Mr. and Mrs. Blandings in 1951 represented an attempt to present man-and-wife teams on radio. Some of the more memorable new programs included Hogan's Daughter (in 1949 with Shirley Booth), December Bride (in 1952 with Spring Byington), My Little Margie (in 1952 with Gale Storm), I Love Lucy (in 1952 with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), and The Steve Allen Show (in 1950). All enjoyed varying degrees of popularity, but radio's days as a creative aspect of American comedy were drawing to a close.

The collapse of radio humor was most dramatically demonstrated in the fate of Fred Allen. Long the sardonic conscience of his craft, Allen's wit had a touch of intellectuality and critical sarcasm that was unique among broadcasting comics. This probably explains why he enjoyed large audiences in his many years on radio, yet never reached the massive ratings that Benny or Cantor with their more generalized comedy were able to garner. Allen disliked the threat that television posed to his profession. He once summarized his animosity by remarking, "Television is a triumph of equipment over people, and the minds that control it are so small that you could put them in the navel of a flea and still have enough room beside them for a network vice-president's heart."

He was likewise disgusted with the quality of humor as it was produced in postwar radio. He attacked the commercialized nature of broadcasting where Hooper ratings were more important to the networks than the quality of its programming He wryly joked, “Next time you see a radio comedian with his hair gray before his time, his cheeks sunken, his step halt, please understand that he isn't dying.... He has been caught with his Hooper down, that's all.”

Allen made his feelings abundantly clear when on January 30, 1949, he appeared as the narrator of the NBC public affairs program, Living-1949. The show presented a history of American humor, and in its final minutes questioned Allen about the present state of radio comedy. He portrayed radio as the point "where humor has reached its lowest ebb," and accused it of having lost all spontaneity since "the king of the airwaves, the comedian, is rarely more than a mouthpiece for his writers." Allen cited a recent routine between himself and Jack Benny as containing more than a grain of truth, for when Allen began to insult his "rival," Benny replied that Allen would not dare belittle him if his gag writers were present. "Radio's so-called wit," according to Allen, "tends to be the product of tired gag writers and hectic gag sessions."

This bitter assessment was prompted not only by Allen's analysis of comedy, but also by a combination of ill health, chronic rancor with the network censors, and destructive competition with the phenomenally popular giveaway program Stop the Music! which was aired on ABC opposite Allen. While he could manage high blood-pressure and wary NBC censorship, the prizes and money offered on the giveaway show ultimately ended his career.

In an energetic, fast-paced hour, Stop the Music! telephoned people at random throughout the United States and offered prizes and cash worth over $30,000. Within months of its premier in March 1948, it had captured the imagination of post-Depression and postwar Americans and had lured millions of listeners away from Allen on NBC and The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show on CBS. With television already siphoning off listeners, The Fred Allen Show collapsed in the Hooper ratings. Where in January 1948, the program was coasting near the top with a 28.7 rating, by March 1949, it had plummeted to 7.9. Allen parodied Stop the Music!, he ridiculed it, and he even offered to pay $5,000 to anyone missing a call from the giveaway program because he was listening to The Fred Allen Show. By the end of the 1948-1949 radio season Allen was a beaten man.

Feeling that broadcasting had reached the point of buying listeners with expensive premiums and frenetic quiz shows, he abandoned radio in 1949 a disillusioned, even bitter person. Allen’s attempts at television were poorly received, and when Allen appeared in the early 1950s as a panelist on the quiz show What's My Line? his career had sadly degenerated. He was still a panelist on that program when lie died of a heart attack in 1956 at the age of sixty.

The experience of Fred Allen in the declining years of radio programming was shared by other comics. In November 1952, Bob Hope was switched to a morning program airing daily from 9:30 to 9:45 A.M. By January 1953, moreover, the ratings on his evening program had dropped to 5.3. Eddie Cantor concluded his career on radio as a disk jockey in the early 1950s. The great topical wit, Henry Morgan, ended up in 1957 as the host of an insignificant quiz show, Sez Who? In 1957 the brilliant newcomer, satirist Stan Freberg, produced one of the most original comedy-variety programs in radio. It vanished after fifteen weeks, however, because he could find no sponsor. Among those comedians who remained loyal to radio into the mid-1950s, Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen generated ratings that were at best dismal shadows of the popularity they once commanded.

Radio comedy, which had been integral to mass entertainment for a quarter-century, had ceased to be important to an increasingly television-oriented society. As radio returned inexorably to its original format of music and talk programming, its function as the purveyor of popular humor evaporated.

Yet, broadcast comedy left a significant legacy. Comedians had revived commercial broadcasting in the early 1930s, and in the process made it one of the most effective antidotes to mass despair and the Depression. Later, to a nation preoccupied with individual struggle and international combat, radio comedy was a reassuring link with a happier world in which hostility was effectively offset through fantasy, where all gruff bosses were benign like Dagwood's Mr. Dithers or Rochester's Jack Benny, and where anxieties over global confrontations were placated, if only temporarily, by the antics of Eddie Cantor's irrepressible personality, or Molly McGee’s relaxed self-confidence.

While it was reassuring to millions that most of the successful comics in television in the 1950s had their roots deep in the history of radio, it was disappointing to some that the imaginative realm of humor created by radio was gone. Radio comedy had served its audiences faithfully as companion, advisor, model, and entertainer. Its passing into irrelevance by mid-century signaled the end of a distinct era in the history of American culture and civilization.

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