Old Time Radio Related Articles
The Inside Scoop on Radio and Television’s Comedians
Read G. Burgan
They kept America laughing through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and through cycles of recession and prosperity. Their names are household words and many people think of them as members of their extended family. They include Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Abbot and Costello, Groucho Marx, Fred Allen, Jack Benny and many, many more. They are the comedians of radio and television’s Golden Age.
What were they really like? Were they as funny off mic and camera as they were on? Who were the genuinely nice guys and who were the stinkers?
Jordon R. Young inadvertently provides us with a look into the personal lives of the great radio and television comedians in his book “The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV’s Golden Age. I say “inadvertently”, because the book’s primary purpose is to chronicle the men (Sorry, no women in this account) who wrote the material for comedy’s greats.
A book on radio’s comedy writers is long overdue. With very few exceptions, no reference was made to these writers in the credits of the programs on which they toiled. This was no accident, as writer after writer recalls that even great comedians like Bob Hope denied their writers on-air credit because they didn’t want to spoil the illusion that the programs were spontaneous and the jokes were the creation of their own fertile minds.
Jordan’s book is essentially an oral history. He interviewed twelve comedy writers -- some in person; some over the phone.
How did Jordan select his interviewees? In an e-mail interview he explains: “Anybody who worked for a major comedian was fair game. I chose Paul Henning because he wrote for Burns and Allen; George Balzer because he wrote for Jack Benny, and so forth. Some of the writers suggested others to me -- Bob Schiller suggested I interview his old friend Parke Levy, who was one of the original writers on "Duffy's Tavern." It turned out Parke had started with Jack Pearl and "Baron von Munchhausen" in 1932, so I was able to go back to the beginnings of radio comedy with him.”
The book’s strength is it’s unabashed candor. By his own admission, Jordan did almost no editing of the material. Because of this, the book provides some remarkably candid accounts of the behind the scenes encounters between the writers and the men and women they worked for. The language includes four letter words.
Some writers still seethe with anger at the low pay, long hours and anonymity under which they toiled. All night writing sessions were common. At the same time, some comedians were wonderful to work for, paid well and generously and readily extended credit to their writers.
Who were the most enjoyable of the writers he interviewed? “Impossible to choose,” Jordan says. “But two of the most enjoyable would be Paul Henning, because he's such a sweet, modest, down-to-earth guy; and Bob Schiller, because he's a wickedly funny man who is almost incapable of uttering an unamusing sentence.”
Who were the most difficult to interview? “Norman Panama and Parke Levy were good interviews, but it was frustrating because they were both very ill, and had to be done by telephone. Parke was outrageously funny, but he was so ill we had to do the interview in short segments, 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there; he died not long afterwards.”
Which of the writer’s surprised Jordan the most in what they revealed? “Bob Weiskopf's recollections of writing for Eddie Cantor were certainly an eye-opener. But I've heard similar horror stories from other people who worked with Cantor, so I don't doubt them. Bob Schiller's comments about Red Skelton were also a revelation. I grew up worshipping Cantor and Skelton, but unfortunately they were not very nice to their writers. Paul Henning did not characterize George Burns as an ogre, but he revealed an eccentric little known side of him that surprised me.”
If the oral history’s greatest strength is it’s candor, it’s greatest weakness is its repetition. After reading a few chapters you may feel that you have heard some of this before. Don’t worry. It’s not dejavu. You have. Several of the writers interviewed by Jordon worked for the same entertainers, and in telling their stories, recount may of the same details and events.
However, it’s a small price to pay for the kind of insight that only someone on the inside can provide. Part of Jordan’s gift is his ability to ask the right questions, put the interviewee at ease and then just listen.
If you’re interested in radio’s Golden Age, if you wonder what it’s like to be a comedy writer, or if you’d just like the inside scoop on some of America’s greatest comedians, this book will prove a treasure trove of information.
Jordan R. Young is a show business historian who has written twelve books including "Spike Jones Off the Record" and "Reel Characters: Great Movie Character Actors." He has written over 600 articles for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and other publications and original plays including "Hollywood Is a State of Mind.”
“The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV's Golden Age by Jordan R.Young, Past Times Publishing Co., P. O. Box 661, Anaheim, CA 92815, 1999.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.