Comedians vs. technology, Pt. II : The radio stars

At the same time movie “talkies” were revolutionizing the industry, radio was becoming a viable mass medium, and by the early 1930s, both had become irresistible to many comedians, with radio attracting those who had more of a verbal act. What could be easier than to stand in front of a microphone and perform a well-rehearsed routine for millions of listeners, without the hassles of traveling from city to city all year long as a vaudevillian? As it turned out, it wasn’t so easy.

The first true radio comedy star was Eddie Cantor, who was popular in vaudeville for his seemingly boundless energy. He would sing and hop and clap his hands, tell stories and jokes, while going through a catalogue of facial expressions (his nickname was Banjo Eyes), whatever it took to get a reaction from the audience.

Cantor became the star of The Chase and Sanborn Hour in 1931, making him the first radio comedian not only to perform weekly in front of a live audience, but the first to encourage the audience to respond audibly while the show was on the air. At the time, studio audiences were invited to attend

radio broadcasts in person, but they were instructed to remain silent for the duration of the programs, and to even suppress their laughter during comedy segments. Performers would face the audience, but with a thick sheet of glass, or “glass curtain,” hanging between them. The logic behind this remains elusive, but broadcasters at the time apparently felt the distracting sound of audience laughter during a broadcast would confuse, even unnerve, those listening at home. George Burns said, “Keeping an audience under glass was one thing, but asking them not to react made working in front of them really tough. We would do great material, and these people would sit there smiling loudly.”

During one broadcast in his first season, Cantor included a spontaneous burst of slapstick during a sketch, that had the audience laughing uncontrollably. He was expecting a stern reprimand from the sponsor afterward, but instead, received praise for enlivening the show with the audience’s participation. So, the glass curtain’s days were numbered, and it soon disappeared, but then another issue came to light.

In the early ‘30s, verbal comedians like Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, and Ed Wynn were all beginning their rookie seasons on radio. But some of them, like Cantor and Wynn, were still accustomed to going for laughs visually as well, for the benefit of the studio audiences. But they hadn’t considered how this would play on radio.

Wynn agreed to star as the Fire Chief for a new program sponsored by Texaco, as long as he could do so in front of a live audience that was permitted to laugh out loud during the broadcast, and  that he perform the show in costume– a fireman’s hat and coat, plus assorted accessories. He once explained,

“I can’t act funny unless I dress funny. I have to look the fool in order to play the fool.” But including visual bits of business created the risk of alienating radio listeners at home, who would often hear laughter without hearing any joke preceding it, thus shutting them out of some gags by catering primarily to the live audience in the auditorium. It took some time to break old habits. When Wynn was about to begin a new program in early 1937, he announced, as part of a New Year’s resolution, “I promise to remember I am performing for my listeners, not my studio audience.”

With millions of people across the country able to hear a comedian’s best material on a single night—material that may have taken months or years to perfect. But those same millions of listeners certainly didn’t want to hear the same material the following week. Quoting George Burns again, I guess the biggest adjustment we all had to make between vaudeville and radio was that in vaudeville seventeen minutes of good material could last for years, while on radio seventeen minutes of good material would last seventeen minutes.” A good number of talented vaudevillians soon found their creative wells running dry. Burns said, “I don’t think any of us realized how much material we would need…By the end of the third or fourth week we were out of new material. So we began hiring writers to work for us full-time.”

Thus, the creature known as the modern-day “comedy writer” was born.

Only Fred Allen and Ed Wynn were known to write most if not all of their weekly scripts themselves, and even they had assistants to look up old jokes that could be updated or adapted for the programs, because the workload of having new material ready each week was so great.

Even as radio’s popularity grew throughout the ‘30s, comedians were also considering the future of television. Some took part in early experimental broadcasts, and in 1936, Eddie Cantor announced his intentions to begin memorizing his lines for radio, rather than relying on reading his scripts in front of the microphone each week, in order to prepare himself for live TV.

In the years following the end of World War II, as television became more of a reality than a concept, a horde of radio comedians came to TV, in 1950 and ’51.  They realized how they had to learn new things such as how to stay in camera range. And, even more importantly, TV was live, so lines couldn’t simply be read off a sheet of paper–they’d have to be memorized. There were no chances for second takes, unlike in movies.

The Burns and Allen Show originally aired live from New York every other week for the first two seasons, beginning in 1950. Gracie struggled with memorizing a half-hour script. She said, “All I could think about was ‘What’s the next line?’ I haven’t memorized anything for twenty years…There may come a time when I forget, and I shudder at what I’ll do then.” Two years later, the show became a weekly series filmed in Los Angeles. Filming scenes out of sequence didn’t help Gracie’s memorization struggles, either.

Fred Allen, for one, was not happy with television, either as a performer or viewer. He didn’t like Milton Berle’s landmark show, He said, “Berle isn’t doing anything for television. He’s photographing a vaudeville act. That’s what they’re all doing.” He didn’t like how television took away the ability to use the imagination, saying, “In radio, even a moron could visualize things his way; an intelligent man, his way. It was a custom-made suit. Television is a ready-made suit. Everyone has to wear the same one…”

He also confessed, “We all have a great problem–Jack Benny, Bob Hope, all of us. We don’t know how to duplicate our success in radio. We found out how to cope with radio and, and after seventeen years, you know pretty well what effect you’re achieving. But those things won’t work in television. Jack Benny’s sound effects, Fibber’s McGee’s closet–they won’t be funny in television. We don’t know what will be funny, or even whether our looks are acceptable” (he most notably became a panelist on What’s My Line?).

As for Ed Wynn, he said, in the early days of his TV show, “I’m still figuring out how much I can talk, and how much time I can be permitted to walk around the stage, without slowing up the show.”

The vaudevillians-turned radio stars-turned TV stars still had a bit of on-the-job training to do, also they but managed to keep audiences in stitches while doing so.

Until next time…

 

Comedy legends vs. new technology

In the beginning, there was vaudeville.  It was entertainment in its purest form: performers would tour the country virtually year-round, repeating their new or established acts for a different audience, in a different town, for modest pay. Vaudeville existed as such, unchanged, for over 50 years.

The Palace Theatre in New York–the Mecca of vaudeville for twenty years.

But in the early decades of the 20th century, new technologies allowed for more and better mass communication and entertainment. In the late ‘20s, silent movies became sound movies, the radio networks were born, and, eventually, television enabled entertainers to reach millions of people at a time. With so many new creative doors open for comedians, they still faced unexpected challenges.

Stan Laurel (far left, seated) and Charlie Chaplin (holding life preserver) with Fred Karno’s troupe in 1910.

The more visual stage comedians were naturally drawn to motion pictures, and the early silent film stars came from either American vaudeville, or, in the case of people like Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and others, British Music Hall acts.

With the arrival of sound, adjustments needed to be made. Even the most accomplished silent film comedians had to face the new reality in the late 1920s. They simply didn’t know what talkies would do for, or to, their established comedy, because now they would have to flesh out their screen characters with voices and funny dialogue—things they didn’t need to think about before. Some adapted to sound well, and even looked forward to it; others, not so much .

    Hal Roach, the legendary comedy producer who created Our Gang (a.k.a. the Little Rascals) in 1922, and teamed Laurel with Hardy in 1926, kept pace with the sound revolution better than his main competitor Mack Sennett, even though the industry as a whole was still uncertain  about how sound would affect film comedy in general.

Roach stars Laurel & Hardy weren’t intimidated by sound films, and were the first major silent film comedians to take the plunge into sound successfully.  At first, they planned to use dialogue sparingly, without forcing it on either themselves or their audience, although Fate had given them the voices that perfectly suited their characters’ mannerisms and body language, as did their dialogue.

Laurel & Hardy’s transition to talkies was a fairly smooth one. Despite Roach’s intention to keep dialogue sparse in his talkies, the team’s first sound film, Unaccustomed as We Are plays almost like a television sitcom episode, with considerable (and necessary) dialogue throughout. In addition to the dialogue, the film uses sound for several  gags, including the closing shot of the film, in which we see Stan and Ollie say goodbye in the hallway of the apartment building, after which Stan disappears at the top step of the stairs. Then we hear a long series of thuds and crashes, knowing that poor Stan is tumbling his way to the first floor. Even in this first talkie, the creative team had found ways of using sound for gags.

As Stan once explained, “In that scene we removed the pain, by having the camera stay looking at the top of the staircase. The sound effect of the fall lets the audience visualize its own scene, and that just made it funnier to them.”

Harold Lloyd  also became a star at the Roach studios, and was one of the most revered and highest grossing film stars of the 1920s. After leaving Roach, Lloyd’s first sound film, Welcome Danger, wasn’t originally produced to be a sound film at all.

Scene from “Welcome Danger.”

He had completed filming, editing, and even began to show it to preview audiences in 1929 when he saw how the movie business was undergoing the sound revolution. When he previewed Welcome Danger for about the third time, there was a one-reeler sound film also on the bill, and he saw how the audience was in hysterics over it–even shots of  pouring of water, the frying of eggs, the clinking of ice in a glass. Lloyd said, ‘We worked out hearts out to get laughs with gags, and just because they’ve got some sound, the audience is roaring at these things.”

He realized it was time to make the transition, so he revamped the film by re-shooting major portions, and adding dialogue and sound effects, at the cost of almost one million dollars.

Buster Keaton felt no anxiety about making the transition to talkies, and in fact welcomed the arrival of sound, knowing that even a sound comedy could still be comprised primarily of slapstick anyway. Adding dialogue wouldn’t necessarily hurt the visual gags he was such a master at creating. There was no reason why Keaton couldn’t continue just being Keaton.

It was not sound that threatened his career, but rather the callous treatment he received from MGM studios, which, having acquired his contract, quickly and inexplicably stifled his ability to control his own material. The studio even partnered him with Jimmy Durante for a few films, before conceding that the two of them had no comedy chemistry. It also didn’t help that Keaton had been going through a divorce and an increasingly worrisome drinking problem.

 Harry Langdon, on the other hand, had trouble, due in great part to the character he created to great success in silent. His rather eerie baby face,

Langdon in his first talkie, a 1929 short film welcoming him to Hal Roach Studios.

enhanced with ample make-up, and childlike mannerisms necessitated him to take on a young voice to match. But the sight–and sound–of a grown man looking and speaking like a shy child comes off as somewhat disturbing. This was, not the only reason, but one reason why Langdon’s career faltered in the sound era.

As for Chaplin,  it was no secret that he had been resistant to making sound films. He vowed to continue making silents , even if it cost him millions of his own money. But there was a great deal of anguish behind his defiance.

He saw sound films as a threat to his very career, and was finding it increasingly difficult to justify making non-talking films in the sound era. But seeing how sound pictures were changing the film business had him truly torn between the past and future of the industry. He later wrote, “Occasionally I mused over the possibility of making a sound film, but the thought sickened me, for I realized I could never achieve the excellence of my silent pictures. It would mean giving up my tramp character entirely. Some people suggested that the tramp might talk. This was unthinkable, for the first word he ever uttered would transform him into another person.” It became clear that Chaplin was fighting a losing battle with progress.

Next week, Part II:  How comedians adapted to the challenges of radio.