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'Can You Top This' Classic Comedy:
An OTR Article by Read G. Burgan
Published In RADIO WORLD March 6, 1996:

Read G. Burgan

Did you hear the one about the barber who'd been betting on the horses and losing heavily. This drove him to drink. While in this condition a minister came in for a shave, and although he smelled liquor on the barber's breath, he didn't say anything. After several minutes, the minister's face was a mess of blood from all of the nicks he received at the barber's unsteady hand. Unable to contain himself any longer, the minister remonstrated, "Now you see the effect of liquor!" "Yes," replied the barber, "it makes the face very, very tender."

Or about the man who was arrested for stealing petticoats from a department store? When he was brought before the magistrate, the judge asked him, "How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?" "Guilty, your honor. But can't you let me off this time? After all, this was my first slip?"

You may not be rolling in the aisles, but the first joke rated 900 on the Can You Top This laugh meter and the second went over the l,000 mark.

Can You Top This was one of those programs that was tailor made for radio. Four people sat around telling jokes, each one trying to outdo the other. Can you imagine the same format on television? In the movies? Broadway? In magazines or newspapers? Only on radio could such a format survive and thrive. And thrive it did, for 14 years. In 1943 an estimated ten million people listened to the weekly program and Time magazine said "There is nothing quite like it on the U.S. air."

Can You Top This was the brain child of Senator Edward Hastings Ford. The "Senator", like most of his jokes, was made up. The program itself was simply an outgrowth of a regular meeting at which Ford and the other participants would spend countless hours telling stories at New York's famous Lamb's Club. From the outset of the program in December of 1940, Ford owned the rights to the program and was a regular participant.

The lynch pin for the program was actor Peter Donald who would begin each round of jokes by telling a joke submitted by a listener. Donald was born in Bristol, England into a theatrical family. By the time he was nine years old, he had traveled around the world twice. At the age of ten he began acting in radio. Later he played Ajax Cassidy on the Fred Allen Show, and dramatized the voices of Winston Churchill, Field Marshall Montgomery, King George VI and the Duke of Windsor on the March of Time.

Donald, who had red hair, a manicured mustache and black horn rimmed glasses, began the Can You Top this program when he was only 22 years old. He was a wonderful dialectician. When he recounted a listener's joke, it was in full dialect and dramatized to the hilt. He gave you the feeling that you were sitting in a pub with friends who had hoisted just enough to become well oiled and were now telling their favorite jokes for all they were worth.

Each week from 3,500 to 12,000 letters were received from listeners submitting jokes which they hoped would be read over the air. If their joke were read, and their rating on the laugh meter beat the jokes of the program's experts, they would receive cash prizes. Only four or five listener jokes were used in any given week. Ford claimed that they never received any new jokes, only variations on old ones that professional comedians had used for years.

No one got rich by having their jokes read. In the beginning, the listener received $5, plus an additional $2 for each of the experts he bested, for a maximum of $11. Several years later, the minimum amount had increased to $10, with a maximum of $25 and some samples of the sponsor's products. In later years, a listener also received a phonograph record of Peter Donald telling his story.

The task of reading through the 3,500 plus letters each week fell to Betty North, who was a vaudeville veteran. In a small office not far from the Lamb's Club, she kept several filing cabinets full of jokes sent by listeners. Certain subjects were taboo, including: death, religion, race, deformities and stuttering. (Where would today's comedians be with those restrictions?!) Some listeners sent risqué jokes, knowing they would never be used but assuming that the unassuming Ms. North would nonetheless be amused by them.

An acceptable joke had to be one that could be told quickly and that did not require any visual cues for the audience to understand it. Ms North was adept at selecting jokes that would make a hit with the Can You Top This Audience.

The rules of the program were simple. Peter Donald first would read a joke submitted by a listener. The studio's response was registered on a "laugh meter." The laugh meter consisted of a microphone aimed at the audience, amplified and displayed on a large meter shaped like a man's smiling face with a scale divided from 0 to 1,000.

Three guest joke experts appeared regularly on the program: Senator Ed Ford, Joe Laurie Jr., and Harry Hershfield. The three professional comedians boasted a combined collection of more than 15,000 jokes. Joe Laurie Jr. was known for his diminutive size. He liked to quip that his greatest thrill was when a midget looked up at him. He was a writer for Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, had a regular column in Variety and was in demand as an after dinner speaker.

Harry Hershfield had been a cartoonist whose character "Abe Kabibble" appeared in comic strips. His regular column appeared in the New York Daily Mirror. He was also a photographer, reporter, banquet toastmaster and screenwriter. Senator Ed Ford cut his teeth in vaudeville, and authored a book entitled, "After Dinner Speaking and Other Forms Of Insanity."

The three studio joke experts were not given access to the listener's jokes prior to the program, and they were not allowed to bring any written notes to the broadcast. Further, their jokes had to be in the same category as that of the one submitted by the listener, which could range from barbers to jealousy to drunks to . . .you name it.

Each time a joke was told, the highest rating it received was read on the laugh meter. If the listener's joke as told by Peter Donald received a higher rating than the expert's, a small sum was added to the amount the listener received. If a listener's joke was topped by all three experts, he was sent a joke book written by the three experts.

The strength of the program was the manner in which the four studio joke tellers delivered their jokes. Most of the jokes were ethnic jokes, the majority falling into one of several categories: Jewish, Irish, Scotch, Italian, Swedish and German. Each of the three experts were uninhibited in using the most outlandish stereotypical dialect in acting out his story. Joe Laurie Jr. sounded like an international Joe Pesci.

The half hour show originated in 1940 as a local program on WOR in New York. In 1942, NBC put it on its Saturday night schedule under sponsorship by the Colgate Palmolive company. The program moved to Mutual in 1948. In 1950 it moved to ABC . And in the best tradition of "What goes around, comes around," the program returned to NBC in 1953. After a final year on NBC, Can You Top This, like most of the other network radio programs, found that it could no longer top TV.

-- The End --

Special thanks to the Radio Historical Society of Colorado for providing material from their well stocked reference library.

Read Burgan is a free lance writer and a former public radio station manager who can be reached at (906) 296-0652 or through e-mail at rgb@upnet.com.