It's safe to say that the radio scriveners of the Golden Age of Radio were responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue to the sponsors, networks and Comedy headliners of the era. Some of the gagmen often made a few hundred dollars a week in the process. But these writers rarely received on-air credit for their amazing talent.
Throughout the post-Depression and World War II years, radio comedy was a welcome diversion for these eras. And in all fairness to the industry, at least a hundred radio comedy writers and gagmen of the era did very nicely indeed. The comedy writing teams for Burns & Allen, Jack Benny, Abbott & Costello, the various Bob Hope programs and Fred Allen were examples of generally well compensated comedy writing teams. Goodman Ace in particular was an example of one of the era's most prominent, successful and well-compensated comedy writers throughout the era. Abe Burrows was another.
But for the most part, radio gagmen lanquished in relative obscurity outside the Radio Industry itself. It was therefore somewhat surprising when the fledgling American Broacasting Company (ABC) announced The Comedy Writers' Show as a summer replacement for the second half-hour of Theatre Guild On the Air, one of ABC's stronger offerings of its first five years as a network.
ABC defies convention with a series showcasing Radio's gagmen
Premiering late Sunday evening, June 6th 1948, The Comedy Writers' Show represented yet another effort by ABC to provide more innovative programming to both its growing audience and network of affiliate stations. The premise was unique on several levels:
- Its headliners were gag writers for several of Radio's most popular programs.
- They created their gags on air, spontaneously crafting each night's resulting script.
- The suggestions or ideas for their nightly subjects were submitted by a different famous Entertainment personality of the era each week.
To the extent that they succeeded--or failed--in their initial efforts, we submit this John Crosby review from the July 2nd 1948 edition of the Oakland Tribune:
By JOHN CROSBY
"The Comedy Writers Show," which you'll find on KGO (7:00 p.m., PDT on Sundays) brings into the open the men behind some of radio's more celebrated comedians, a risky enterprise. These are the men who are generally kept securely locked in a dungeon, forbidden the nourishing warmth of publicity which is to Hollywood what sunlight is to plants.
There are four of these comedy writers and according to the indictment handed down in a press release, they are charged as follows:
Leonard Stern is a writer for Abbott and Costello. This will come as a great surprise to many radio listeners who were under the impression Abbott and Costello made it all up as they went along. Sid Fields is an important part of Eddie Cantor's brain, possibly the frontal lobe. Roger Price is part of that enormous stable of jokesmiths which carries the blue and egg-splashed silks of Bob Hope. Johnny Murray, according to a press release, "creates the lines for Red Skelton," the verb in this case being one I thought reserved exclusively for the use of dress-designers and God.
The general idea behind this show is simple, I think, dangerous. It provides a glimpse behind the scenes, showing how a comedy show is put together. For my money, the assembling of, say, Red Skelton is a process as disillusioning as the assembly of any blonde before her night out. These things shouldn't be exhibited, particularly on a National network. I note with some suspicion that all but one of the comedians whose writers are involved belong to NBC rather than to ABC, which broadcasts the show. This may well be a plot on the part of one network to undermine the principal source of income of another.
The four comedy writers, spurred by a moderator named Ben Brady, a producer, are presented with a situation sent in by a celebrity. Here's a situation sent in by somebody-or-other whose name I didn't catch. A comedienne--say, Joan Davis--is running for President. How would this be built into a comedy show? It's a situation that is certainly familiar to every comedy writer in radio, since virtually all comedians have taken a stab at politics this spring. They leaped into action, as follows:
"I've been stumping the country."
"You've been stumping the country?"
OLD GAGS REVIVED
"Yeah. Wherever I went they couldn't figure out what I was."
"If you want to be President you'll have to get lots of publicity."
"I get lots of publicity. I got my face on 'Time'."
"It looks like you didn't keep up the payments."
"If I get to be President I'm going to do something about this housing shortage. Why I know a woman who bought a prefabricated house from Sears Roebuck. Sears was living in one room and Roebuck in the other." (A joke I've heard on at least two programs prior to this.)
There was another situation that pertained to horse races. "I attend the races just for laughs. Yesterday I laughed away my car, my home and my wife." It's hard to identify any of these writers but I rather think that last one was produced by Bob Hope's.
The delivery of these chestnuts was appalling. It lacked that undiscriminating self-confidence with which your good comedian approaches any line, no matter how unfunny. Shreds of doubt were evident in each of these authors--or creators if Murray insists on keeping up this attitude--and there is nothing that will deflate a joke faster than that.
I don't know if Joan Davis ever achieved the White House. I got awfully sleepy.
Copyright, 1948, for The Tribune
We'd rush to remind our readers that John Crosby, a widely syndicated radio critic of the era, exercised an often caustic pen. But in our experience at least, Crosby's critiques were a fairly predictive barometer of a program's success--or failure. But it's also worth remembering that summer replacement programs were often either placeholders or 'trial balloons' which, if they found traction during Radio's most challenging summer periods, might be candidates for a full, Fall run.
Radio producer Ben Brady served as the panel's moderator throughout the series. of the recurring ensemble of regular gagmen/panelists, Sid Fields went on to the most memorable career. Sid Fields, long a writer for Abbott and Costello, went on to appear as Abbott and Costello's redoubtable nemesis and landlord, Mr. Fields, in The Abbott and Costello Show over Television. Fields also wrote for Eddie Cantor, Ben Blue, Milton Berle, Rudy Vallee and Fred Allen.