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…

 

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