Old time radio blog.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fred Allen Rules But Benny Is The Man

If you like droll stand-up comedy similar to Seinfeld, and the fake news on SNL and The Daily Show, you might like The Fred Allen Show. Allen -- like George Burns and faux arch nemesis Jack Benny -- was a former vaudevillian, a homely Irishman with a snide delivery. He was also saddled with an annoyingly-voiced wife named Portland Hoffa (oh how I cherish Tallulah Bankhead trashing this cow on The Big Show!) who was apparently supposed to be his Gracie Allen, though nowhere as adorable. No matter, because Allen had a knack for skewering the politicians and the other newsmakers of his day as sharply as Billy Wilder and Ben Hecht combined. The satire is leavened with amateur acts in some of the earlier shows from the 30's, and by his boy singer, Kenny Baker. One classic episode, King for A Day, accelerates the so-called animosity between Allen and Benny. Not all of the available episodes are laugh riots, but he's worth collecting and studying.

If you like flawless comic timing, which was later aped by the likes of Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and even Dick Cavett, you will love The Jack Benny Program. Benny starred in one of the longest running (30+ years) and most consistently funny series in radio history. I don't know how he sustained it but he did. The shows weren't very topical -- expected references to WWII and its stateside deprivations during the forties are the most blatant -- so that may be a clue. He was kind of like Seinfeld, a dry wit with a colorful supporting cast that largely made fun of his supposed stinginess and lack of violin-playing talent. Guest stars aplenty: Barbara Stanwyck, Bing Crosby, George Burns, Judy Garland, Ronald Colman, et al showed up to play off of the man. He was a favorite of the troops -- in and out of wartime. Loretta Lynn named one of her sons after him. This guy was The Man back then.

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