Fred Allen, King of Radio, Takes on Television

If you’ve never heard of Fred Allen, “cranky” might be a good introductory word. From 1933-1949 he was one of the comedian kings of radio, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to complain about the following on the air: advertising, censorship, other radio shows he disliked, the radio shows of his friends, the entire medium of radio. Even if the advertisers didn’t always, listeners loved Fred Allen, but ultimately they abandoned him as he was knocked out with a two-hit combo in the form of a popular live game show encroaching on his timeslot, and television siphoning away viewers. But if you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em. Today we look at one of Fred Allen’s many forays into the world of television.

In addition to the changing face of radio, Fred Allen had left his show for health concerns. Fred suffered from hypertension and had previously left radio for a year because of his doctor’s orders. By November of 1950 he was ready to come back to the public eye and was a frequent host of a show on NBC called The Big Show, which was quite similar to his radio program with music and sketches. The first episode of The Big Show also featured a very telling remark from Allen on the concept of TV: “You know, television is called a new medium, and I have discovered why they call it a medium – because nothing is well done.”

Following The Big Show, Fred would make the occasional appearance on television here and there, but would go on to host two other programs which were cut from the same cloth that did his radio career in: as the host of a quiz show called Judge for Yourself, and a panelist on the show What’s My Line. Today we look not at one of his ongoing series but at a short-lived series sponsored by the cigarette company known as The Chesterfield Sound Off Time. Each week the show would alternate hosts between Fred and Bob Hope. On January 6, 1952 it was Fred’s turn on stage.

The show basically breaks down into three distinct sections. First, the monologue.

Despite the live studio audience that’s present, they don’t seem to be very into what Fred’s dishing out this evening. But maybe that’s because his first comment of the evening is a comment on their reaction to him coming out on stage. “People are always so careless with applause… I know you guys wouldn’t go to Hamburger Heaven and pay your checks before eating your hamburger. But the minute a comedian comes on the stage, before you even know what he’s going to do, you applaud.” He continues, proposing an applause installment plan where the crowd steadily increases their applause throughout the show as a way of combatting all those comedians out there who, according to Allen, “ought to applaud the audience for sitting through the entire thing.”

The majority of Fred’s monologue is a bit odd. While it does feature a man in a suit speaking to an audience about modern life, it doesn’t share a lot of DNA with the modern late night monologue. Following this applause routine, Fred goes into a strange flight of fancy about a horror television program he was watching in which an alligator narrated a show to his wife who was “half alligator and half bag” (which might be the only joke I completely understood in this riff). After a lot of strange diversions, puns, and tangents, we learn that the horror story involved her husband being decapitated and finding his head in a bowling bag. He’s telling a story throughout the piece with a number of stops along the way, and the crowd reacts positively, but they aren’t rolling in the aisles either. But no matter how strange I found this opening, it does sufficiently warm up the crowd as he moves into the next section of his show: The News.

You may be surprised to learn that Fred Allen basically invented the “fake news” format later used by Weekend Update, Laugh-In, and countless others. Originally he used it on radio, but he also brought it along to television. On this particular show it’s referred to as “Sound Off News.” In it, newspaper headlines appear on screen, just as they would in an old-fashioned movie newsreel, and is then followed by a short sketch satirizing the news. The most substantial sketch is based on the news story that PhilCo would be sponsoring coverage of the two major Presidential political conventions. In Fred’s imagining of this scenario we see his cynicism and wise-assiness at its finest as he plays a huxster for a fictional company known as Mother’s Bread. He continually hypes the entrance of the next President of the United States, but keeps getting diverted by talking about the sponsor. When the candidate finally does take the stage, he thanks the bread and then launches into his speech. “My opponent has been giving you the bologna, and I want to give you the bread to go with it! Vote for Mervin McGee and the whole country will be riding on the gravy train and we’ll all be sopping up the gravy with Mother’s Bread!”

The third section of the show starts off as a sketch but quickly evolves into something different. Initially as the sketch begins we see a body slumped over onto a desk. Fred emerges from the wings and begins asking why there’s a body on stage. A “network executive,” the Vice President in Charge of Bodies, comes out to help and determines that this might be a CBS body since they have no facilities over there. Just as he leaves, the body sits up revealing that it’s none other than Mr. Dave Garroway!

If you’re under 50 and you haven’t already googled who that is, I’ll go ahead and tell you. At the time at which this show was broadcast, Garroway was a national television host, and a week later, he would be the first host of a brand new show on NBC called Today. It’s interesting to hear Garroway not only attempt to sell his show, but also attempt to sell the idea of watching television that early in the morning. He explains that one doesn’t actually have to watch the show. Since so many people are used to listening to the radio while they get ready in the morning, the Today show was apparently designed as a mostly audio program to get people to try watching TV in the morning. At the end of the segment, Fred closes with a joke: “I’ve had guest stars turn out to be stiffs, but first time I’ve had a stiff turn out to be a guest star.”

I’m not an expert on Fred Allen’s work, but I don’t think this episode of television (which was not Fred’s chosen medium) is emblematic of his work. There’s a little of the wry, punchy guy in there, but on the whole, Fred seems as though he may have been a little reigned in with this one. Regardless, it’s impossible to deny that Allen was one of the masters of American media during his time on the airwaves and would greatly alter the face of radio and television forever.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” featuring Chris Elliott!

Fred Allen, King of Radio, Takes on Television