Radio Legend Fred Allen Brings the Funny

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Fred Allen from behind the mic

Fred Allen turns to a different medium. Yes, it's still radio in this 1954 broadcast of a Book and Author Luncheon, but the former king of the comedy airwaves is here to plug his book, Treadmill to Oblivion. As the title indicates, Allen's acerbic wit is still much in evidence. He has been preceded by the author of a book on taste. Don't worry, he assures the audience. "My book has no taste whatsoever." He then talks about his youth in a small New England town. There is an almost surreal streak to Allen's humor. He describes how he was "drawn" to New York: he was standing by the train tracks with a bunch of nails in his pockets when a flatbed car carrying a huge magnet sped by and…. He then riffs on how to go about selling this book, imagining various special editions, including a snack edition; page 80 would be a slice of rye bread, page 81 a piece of ham….

Too much of a reserved New Englander to be really nasty, Allen saves most of his vitriol for the medium that pushed him off the air: television. He envisions a special edition aimed at "…television addicts who are reading a book for the first time." He takes aim at his Boston-based publishers for their timid attempts at publicity (a boy running up and down Beacon Street shouting the name of the book into people's keyholes) but finally admits, "a book becomes successful because people read it, like it, and tell other people." Despite being the essence of a show business personality, Allen comes across here as a level-headed, regular guy.

Fred Allen was born in 1894. He spent many years in vaudeville as a juggler and ventriloquist before that medium's collapse drove him into radio, where his instantly recognizable, flat, nasal voice caught the attention of sponsors. But Allen was far more than a one-note ex-vaudevillian. As Dennis Drabelle, writing in The American Scholar, notes: 

Allen’s wit was the funnel through which all manner of nonsense passed. He specialized in satirical takeoffs on the news, though not so much the headline stories as the human-interest fillers, mined from the nine newspapers he read daily and served up as “The March of Trivia.” To enact his riffs, he invented a parade of eccentrics played by a stock company. His lust for the highs and lows of the English language was another constant. … Sometimes he struck a note of homespun poetry, as when one of his characters described his own inamorata as “prettier than a peacock backin’ into a sunset.”

For almost two decades Allen's comedy show reigned at or near the top of the radio standings. Whereas his competition, notably Jack Benny with whom Allen conducted a mock feud, relied exclusively on teams of writers, Allen was famous for taking a much more hands-on approach to his scripts, eschewing the musty fodder of "joke files" or reliance on cheap laughs. Al Lewis, a writer who worked on the show, recalls for the Comedy-O-Rama website: 

"Fred was wonderful...I tried to write for him, but he always added better lines that would knock my socks off. Once a college girl was on, talking about how George Washington Carver had discovered a way to make ink out of a peanut, glue out of a peanut, and milk from a peanut. And Fred ad-libbed, "Milk from a peanut? He must have had a very low stool!" That was the greatest non-thinking rejoinder I ever heard. There I was sitting in a room struggling to put the black stuff on the white stuff, and he made it look easy."

But the Golden Age of Radio was a short one. Television posed a particular threat to Allen who, unlike Benny, could not make the transition to situation comedy. He was also in failing health, suffering from hypertension and heart disease. As Garrison Keillor relates in the New York Times:

He was beaten badly in the 1948-49 ratings by a dumb quiz show, ''Stop the Music'' - a bitter fate, losing to smiling nonentities like Bert Parks and the show's producer, Mark Goodson. Allen fought back with a parody, ''Cease the Melody,'' in which dimwitted contestants won 4,000 yards of dental floss and two floors of the Empire State Building by identifying the anthem ''America,'' and he took out an insurance policy to compensate his listeners in the event that ''Stop the Music'' telephoned any of them during his show. But he dropped from the Top Ten to No. 38 in just a few weeks, and left the air on June, 1949.

This prepared speech does not show Allen at his best. His now sixty-year-old brand of humor is perhaps best appreciated for what it is not. He does not talk down or pander. He cannot bring himself to be cruel. Yet this is not "gentle" comedy. Rather, it appeals to the intelligence without being intellectual, a neat trick, one not often seen duplicated since.

After this book, Allen worked on an autobiography, Much Ado About Me, which was published posthumously.

Fred Allen died in 1956. 

 

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 150152
Municipal archives id: LT2987