A great national literature is disappearing Radio comedians: The passing of a once vital piece of American popular culture.

The Argument

January 21, 1996|By Theo Lippman | Theo Lippman,Special to the sun

America is about to lose one of the last survivors of a great national literature, un-mannered, un-recognized as such, and, so far, un-replaced. "Literature" may be the wrong word, but the great radio comedians were an important part of American cultural history. George Burns is the man.

Early last year, as he anticipated his 100th birthday on Jan. 20, 1996, he dismissed concerns for his mortality with, "I can't die - I'm booked." It was an appropriate way to look at it for a man who had been in show business since he was 8-years-old.

He wasn't kidding. He had a birthday date to do one of his signature monologues at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. He was under contract to do a television show for CBS. A special gala was scheduled in Hollywood. But his health failed him, and he is going to spend his 100th birthday "in the upstairs bedroom," as a dear friend put it to Martin Gottfried. Mr. Gottfried, a show business journalist best known for his Broadway biographies and histories, started work seven years ago on a centenary biography ("George Burns and the Hundred Year Dash." Simon & Schuster. 329 pages. $23). So he not only had the time to interview many Burns friends and relatives and do other research; he also got to talk to Mr. Burns a lot while he was still fully alert. It is a better book than any other written about the comedian, including those turned out by Mr. Burns and collaborators.

Most of the people who would have watched in Las Vegas and on CBS if fate had not intervened think of Mr. Burns as a movie star and saloon comic. Those roles began in earnest when he was already in his 70s (though he had played them before). The "Oh, God" movies especially brought him before a large and adoring audience. In 1977, just after the first "Oh, God!," Mr. Burns was walking on Fifth Avenue in New York with actor Walter Matthau. Strollers and workers yelled at him affectionately. Many sought his autograph. Mr. Burns said to Mr. Matthau, "Can you imagine this happening to me? I was never this big in the days with Gracie."

Most have left us before Burns did, though Bob Hope is alive and well and still appearing on television, but only rarely now.

George Burns and Gracie Allen, his wife, were the first really big radio comedy stars. They had been doing a vaudeville act in which she played dumb as a fox and he played her straightman. They transposed it to radio. It was not exactly high art. Many critics thought it banal at best. But Burns and Allen and soon a hTC few other radio comedians became in the 1930s and 1940s about as big as it gets in popular entertainment.

In a sense they were historical figures, creators of (along with other forces) and symbols of the technology and popular culture suddenly uniting the nation. They gave practically all Americans a commonly shared experience.

Favored stars

Radio was reaching out to unite Americans, like the public schools, like novels and touring drama companies did earlier -only much more so. Radio by 1940 had a vaster audience than any medium that had gone before, and the comedians were the favored stars.

That is only one reason Burns and Allen and their fellow laughter-provoking entertainers were so influential. Some others:

Big-name comedians had no competition. Audiences didn't have give up one to listen to another. Today, cable and over-the-air and satellite technology provide a Babel of choices. In the 1930s and 1940s, even big cities had only a few broadcast stations. Small cities and farm communities had to get by with staticky reception from distant towers. When radio comedians were on, they had you all to themselves. Everybody, it seemed, listened to the same shows (and discussed them the next day).

Here is a typical week's schedule from The Sun for early March 1942. By that time, 78 percent of American homes had radios - compared to 34 percent when Burns and Allen went on the air in January 1932. Monday at 7, "Blondie and Dagwood." No other comedy that night. Tuesday at 7:30, "Burns and Allen." "Duffy's Tavern" at 9. "Fibber McGee and Molly" at 9:30. Bob Hope at 10. Wednesday at 7:30, "The Great Gildersleeve." Eddie Cantor at 9. Kay Kyser at 10. Thursday at 7:45, Fanny Brice. "The Aldrich Family" at 8:30. Bing Crosby at 9. Rudy Vallee at 10. No funny stuff on Friday and Saturday that winter. But Sunday brought Jack Benny at 7, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy at 8, Fred Allen at 9.

Some of those were situation comedies, as they are now called, and some were variety shows. The former also had music and the latter also had sketches.

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