The First Person to be Censored on TV

 

His name might not be familiar to the average Joe or Joan these days, but there were few stars in all of show business history bigger than Eddie Cantor. He could be described as a comedian who sang, or a singer who performed comedy. He wasn’t especially brilliant as either, but, as of an overall entertainer with boundless energy, and an advocate for a number of charitable causes, he prided himself in being, as we would call it today, “family friendly.” And he wore his love of show business on his sleeve. Audiences adored him. So, it is that much more shocking that Cantor became the first entertainer ever to be censored on live television–and it happened 75 years ago this week.

Cantor’s career dated back to vaudeville and as a star in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1917. He was also one of the first comedians to appear on a sound film, in 1923. When he began his radio show in 1931, he became the first comedian to star in his own weekly program, which led to a number of hit films and further stage appearances. Cantor maintained a staggering popularity for decades, rivaled by only a handful of his fellow performers.

Not long after World War II got underway, the FCC reduced its required number of on-air hours at licensed television stations from fifteen hours per week to four hours. Only about a half-dozen stations in the country remained on the air (mostly devoted to airing war updates and civil defense content). The manufacturing of television equipment was suspended until the end of the war in August of 1945, as the research and development of television technology and manufacturing became dedicated to the war effort, especially in disciplines such as radar and communications.

But even before the war’s official end, new TV programming slowly began to appear, and the sales of sets gradually increased. And, even during this period of stalled progress among manufacturers, technicians, and program producers, it was becoming evident that television would inevitably demand an enormous amount of material to broadcast once the war was over, and the industry’s growth could resume.

Nora Martin and Cantor.

 

On May 25, 1944, Cantor took part in a NBC music variety broadcast, seen on the first direct hook-up between WNBT in New York and its Philadelphia affiliate. He was scheduled to perform the song “We’re Having a Baby, My Baby and Me” from his 1941 Broadway show Banjo Eyes. The telecast was to be aired as a special feature at an event honoring Philco executive J.H. Carmine. According to Cantor, he and his singing partner Nora Martin were originally led to believe that the song selection would be fine for the broadcast. But just forty minutes before air time, NBC executives declared some of the lyrics unsuitable. The most troublesome passage was the following, which wasn’t part of the actual, written lyrics, but rather spoken as a break in the song:

Girl:  Thanks to you, life is bright.  You’ve brought me joy beyond measure.

Boy: Don’t thank me. Quite all right. Honestly, it was a pleasure.

Girl: Just think, it’s my first one.

Boy: The next one’s on me.

When Cantor heard of NBC’s intention to delete certain parts of the lyrics, he erupted with rage, and threatened to cancel the program.  With no time to rehearse another number, he and Martin performed the song on the broadcast without making any changes or deletions of their own. During the troublesome spoken exchange in the performance, however, NBC vice president in charge of programs, Clarence Manser, had Cantor’s audio cut off, and the camera focus was deliberately blurred to obscure his hand gestures and hula-like dance for comic effect.

After the broadcast, Cantor declared, “I’m blazing mad at the fellows who tell you it’s all right and then sneak around and cut you off. Of course, NBC has the right to say we don’t use the lyrics, but when little Hitlers tell you you can’t do it just as you’re going on, that’s tough.”

Manser explained that the portion of the song was censored due to “the obligation of NBC to the public to make certain that its facilities do not bring into American homes material which the audience would find objectionable.” Just what exactly was supposed to have been objectionable about the song and/or Cantor’s rendition remains a mystery.

Manser added that Cantor had been previously reigned-in by network censors, but the comedian claimed no recollection of any previous incident. He was also offended on a personal level by the notion that he had done or said anything in poor taste, considering the pride he took in using only clean material. “No man can be in the business for thirty-five years and do any vulgarity and last,” he said. “I’ve been at it longer than NBC or television.”

Less than a week later, Cantor and Martin repeated their duet on a Hall of Fame radio-TV simulcast, which included Al Jolson and bandleaders Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman. NBC did not censor the song a second time, but the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, aware of the controversy, did.

Cantor and Menser had another run-in over material shortly thereafter, during rehearsals for Cantor’s regular “Time to Smile” radio program.  With comedian Joe Besser (future member of the Three Stooges) as a guest, Menser ordered a number of Besser’s lines changed or deleted. Besser, whose “swishy,” somewhat effeminate inflections went unchallenged on Fred Allen’s CBS program, reluctantly agreed to rehearse some last-minute changes in the script. He and Cantor deemed the replacement material inferior, but Menser ordered them to be read anyway. Besser abruptly walked out, with Cantor’s backing. Cantor sang a song to fill the time on the air.

At least Cantor decided not to hold a grudge with NBC forever, or he may not have agreed to become one of the original rotating hosts of the network’s Colgate Comedy Hour TV comedy/variety series in 1950.

Ironically, in a 1952 episode of I Love Lucy, the news of Lucy Ricardo’s pregnancy prompted husband Ricky to serenade her with “We’re Having a Baby, My Baby and Me.” But while the song finally had its first uncensored televised performance, the word “pregnant” was not allowed to be said on the air at the time.

You can read about other television “firsts”(over 100 of them) in my book “For the First Time on Television,” available at Amazon.com. It’s swell.

Until next week…

 

Happy 50th Birthday, Monty Python!

It seems 2019 is a year for a several big anniversaries, especially those at the 50-year mark: The first moon landing, Woodstock, the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, and more. But it especially behooves us to remember and celebrate 50 years of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which remains, to me, the most brilliant comedy program ever to air on television, on either side of the Atlantic. I’ll probably write about Python again for this blog later in the year, but for now, here’s a brief history, plus a few modest but heartfelt few words of appreciation:

An early shot of the Pythons (without Terry Gilliam).

In a nutshell, the group was officially formed in May of 1969. They had already been familiar with each other’s work on stage and television. Eric Idle, John Cleese and Graham Chapman had attended Cambridge University, and Michael Palin and Terry Jones were Oxford grads. All had performed in their respective schools’ performing clubs, the Footlights at Cambridge, and the Oxford Revue (American Terry Gilliam, an L.A.-based cartoonist, moved to England in 1968). All had achieved enough early success to land writing jobs at a number of BBC comedy sketch programs, including The Frost Report (with host David Frost), before earning their own programs.  At Last the 1948 Show starred Cleese and Chapman (along with Marty Feldman), and Do Not Adjust Your Set, an afternoon children’s show, was created by and starred Palin, Jones, and featured Gilliam’s animation.

Admirers of each other’s work, the two group’s decided to join forces and present their ideas for a new comedy sketch show to the BBC. The executive in charge of Light Entertainment (i.e. comedy and variety) at the time was Michael Mills. When the group met with him to pitch their idea for the show, they soon realized that they hadn’t come up with anything to pitch, or how to describe what they wanted to do. They knew they didn’t want to do a traditional sketch show, in which each sketch had a beginning, middle, and ended with a snappy punchline. Other than that, Cleese has said,”At that moment, we had no idea what we were going to do.” When Mills pressed them for more of a description, the exchange became awkward, even embarrassing for the group, due to the fact that the Pythons hadn’t really discussed it amongst themselves yet. Would there be anyone else in the show? “Well, we don’t really know.”  Any music? “We might, maybe.” Filmed segments? “Oh, yes!” After more silence, Mills said, “Well, okay, but I’m only gonna give you thirteen shows.”

From there, the group was left alone to do basically whatever they came up with, sans interference from the BBC, or even pre-approval of their scripts. It was a surprising but welcome turn of events. “That’s all you need to succeed in comedy,” Idle says. Part of the lackadaisical attitude on behalf of the Beeb was the program’s graveyard timeslot, late on Sunday nights (when few viewers were paying attention).

The Goons (left to right: Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe.

The Pythons’ comedy influences were many, ranging from American comedians like Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Jack Benny, and Phil Silvers, to British greats Peter Sellers, the comedy group “The Fringe” (which included Peter Cook and Dudley Moore), and The Goons radio show, written by Spike Milligan and co-starring Sellers.

When Milligan first aired his comedy show Q5, featuring surreal gags and blackout sketches–often abandoned in mid-sketch– the Pythons were still preparing their first episodes. Upon seeing Q5, Cleese and Terry Jones spoke to each other on the phone and said, “Isn’t that what we’ve been planning to do?”

Even so, Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired the first of its 45 episodes on October 5, 1969 (other possible titles for the show included Owl Stretching Time, The Toad Elevating Moment, and A Horse, A Spoon, and a Basin). The sketches bounced back and forth from shamelessly silly sight gags to skits about philosophers, historical figures, writers, and composers–and then back again to wonderfully pointless slapstick and

silly gags, with Gilliam’s mind-bending, and hysterically funny cartoons interspersed throughout.  I won’t mention all of the sketches and catchphrases by name because, unless you’ve lived in a cave all your life, you already know them.

The lazy writers among us might say “…and the rest is history.” Being one of those lazy writers, I’ll do the same for now, saving more of my lavish praise for the show for Part 2 of this entry, in the Fall, to mark the first appearance of the program in the U.S., in 1974.

To get more of the story about Python’s beginnings, and many more fascinating and truly funny anecdotes, here is a wonderful discussion from 2014 between John Cleese and Eric Idle.

Once again, Happy Birthday, Monty Python!

Until next week…