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From the current Spring 2019 Issue

When radio listeners could hear all the nation’s best comedians—
and none of their audiences

TO LAUGH... OR NOT TO LAUGH

By Garry Berman

 

When we listen to classic radio comedy from the likes of Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and George Burns and Gracie Allen, it’s easy to assume that hearing them perform in front of live, responsive studio audiences was simply a matter of course. After all, what radio comedian, having paid his or her dues in vaudeville, wouldn’t want the spontaneous laughter of an audience to add energy to a radio show?

In fact, the issue of hearing audiences on the radio wasn’t always so cut-and-dried. As difficult as it may be to fathom now, studio audiences at the time were instructed to remain silent for the duration of the program, and to even suppress their laughter during comedy segments. Performers would stand on a stage facing the audience with a thick sheet of glass known as a “glass curtain”) hanging between them. The logic behind this remains elusive, but broadcasters at the time felt the distracting sound of audience laughter during a broadcast would confuse — even unnerve — those listening at home. Imagine sitting in the studio audience of your favorite late-night TV talk show, and being instructed not to laugh out loud at the jokes by the host or the guests for the entire show. “Keeping an audience under glass was one thing,” George Burns once wrote of the practice, “but asking them not to react made working in front of them really tough. We would do great material and these people would sit there smiling loudly.”

In 1931, Ziegfeld Follies and Broadway veteran Eddie Cantor became the first comedy star to star on his own weekly radio program, The Chase and Sanborn Hour. The show made him the first radio comedian not only to perform in front of a live audience on a regular basis, but the first to encourage the audience to respond audibly while the show was on the air. During one broadcast, Cantor and announcer Jimmy Wallington were performing a skit about two women truck drivers. Suddenly, Cantor succumbed to a spontaneous urge and ran down to the front row — where his wife Ida and Wallington’s wife were seated — and grabbed their hats and fur scarves. He and Wallington wore them for the remainder of the sketch.

“The audience is howling,” Cantor recalled in his memoirs, “and there’s no stopping them as we two clowns mince around in our finery. They keep on laughing until the show is over.” Immediately after the show, a representative from the J. Walter Thompson ad agency (which handled Chase and Sanborn) called the comedian. Cantor was wary, expecting a reprimand, but was surprised when the representative praised him for enlivening the show with the audience’s participation.

Cantor decided that listeners sitting at home would feel more involved in the proceedings if they heard the live audience laughter, and thus would feel more inclined to laugh along with those present at the show. When Ed Wynn reluctantly entered radio in 1932 as Texaco’s “Fire Chief,” he insisted on performing his program in front of a live audience. The glass curtain’s extinction became inevitable.

At the same time, a dilemma presented itself to veteran stage comedians. Some, like Cantor and Wynn, were accustomed to including visual gags in their stage acts, but they didn’t take much time to consider how that would play on radio. They often wore costumes, mugged for the studio/theatre audience, and insisted on including sight gags to keep the visitors sitting in front of them laughing along and eliminate as much dead air as possible. In that respect, hearing audience response was a reasonable argument (it also helped with the timing of each joke), but there were pitfalls. While a comedian could score points for inviting home listeners to feel more a part of the laugh fest, his antics for the benefit of the theatergoers were obviously lost on the millions at home, who had no use for funny faces and slapstick on a radio show.

And, it should be noted, not everyone in the broadcasting business was thrilled with hearing an audience reaction. John Carlisle, director of programming for CBS, grumbled, “To sit by a radio receiver and hear laughter without knowing what provoked it is extremely annoying. So annoying, in fact, that some comedians would do better to work without a studio audience.” That was fine with Fred Allen, for one, who also found audience laughter distracting — even when it was coming from his own audience. (George Burns joked, “I think Fred Allen didn’t even want people listening.”) The debate reached a crescendo of sorts throughout 1934, as a growing number of listeners clamored to get free tickets to see their favorite broadcasts in person.

Despite Cantor’s initial glee over the reaction to his spontaneous “hats and scarves” skit on his program, by early 1934 he had made a 180-degree turn of opinion regarding the presence of a live audience. In a curious column he wrote for Variety that January, he insisted “I don’t care how smart or conscientious the radio performer may be, with a visible audience in front of him he is tempted to play to the elephant’s tail. The laughter and applause on the average hour program, with a studio audience present, runs about four minutes. The sponsor is paying for that time and the listening public should get entertainment during those four minutes instead of laughter, a good part of which puzzles, and prolonged applause which irritates.” He also disputed the argument that radio comedians need live laughter to help with their timing, adding that any comedian “would be 100% better off concentrating on that audience listening in throughout the country…The comedy would be more imaginative, more creative. The studio audiences are nice people, but they’re a nuisance.”

As Jack Benny might say, “Well!”

Ironically, it was the ad agencies — who virtually controlled radio on behalf of their sponsors — that grew to favor live audiences on the air. As Variety reported, “Advertising agency men appear not to share Eddie Cantor’s viewpoint with regard to radio programs performed before audiences. While some actors take the same slant espoused by Cantor, the agency group feels that the objections to an invited audience do not offset the advantages.”

Just a few months later, a group of some of the top radio comedians gathered for an informal luncheon to discuss the pros and cons of having live audiences on comedy programs. As reported by The New York Times, this summit consisted of Jack Pearl (“Baron Munchausen”), Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante and Groucho and Chico Marx. Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn were absent, but both were known for playing to the audiences in front of them as well as to listeners at home.

During the meeting, Jack Pearl said he highly favored a visible audience, and Jack Benny and Chico Marx agreed. Groucho was on the fence, and, the report continued, “Durante claimed that the invisible audience only should be considered and that an audience in the studio was frequently distracting to the comedian.”

Benny admitted that he was initially indifferent to broadcasting before a studio audience but had recently warmed to the idea of admitting visitors, provided it did not interfere with overall theatre attendance. Groucho, while acknowledging that most radio comedians still had a soft spot for their days of performing on stage, added that on radio “I would prefer to have no visible audience. That enables the comedian to concentrate entirely on the listening audience, as well as eliminating the use of make-up and the nuisance of procuring tickets for relatives and friends.”

But Chico offered an interesting counterpoint to Groucho’s comment. “While we have always banned visitors at the studio,” he said, “recently it was decided to transport the act to the stage of the Playhouse. At the very first performance the improvement in Groucho’s technique was apparent to me. The visible audience obviously stimulated him and for the first time I really saw the old Groucho of the footlights. His actor’s blood was roused and he gave the best performance he has ever given on the air.”

While not present at the meeting, George Burns had discussed the subject in an interview a few weeks earlier. “We never have [studio] audiences listening to us when we broadcast,” he acknowledged, “because we’re afraid that if radio listeners heard laughter coming over the air they might think that Gracie is just clever instead of crazy.” Before long, however, even George and Gracie were broadcasting to both visible and invisible audiences. The staggeringly popular Amos and Andy, on the NBC network since 1929, avoided the issue altogether by simply refusing to have a studio audience until it became a 30-minute situation comedy in 1943.

And how did the listening public feel?

A number of published letters in The New York Times reflected a range of opinions. A man from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania wrote: “…the noise, raucous laughter and applause caused by the studio audiences spoil many radio programs. The programs of Jack Pearl, Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, Marx Brothers et al. are spoiled by the so-called necessary studio audiences…The studio audience too many times spoils the lines of the joke or whatever is being said.”

A man from Schenectady agreed, objecting to “the distracting, boisterous and continued interruptions that completely shatter every ‘audienced radio program.’ Antics and facial grimaces or physical contortions do not reach the silent audiences. If they consist of the stock in trade of the performers, then the sponsor and its artists should return to vaudeville. Long noses, big eyes, funny hats and comical wardrobes are the vintage of burlesque and not radio.”

But a woman from Long Beach, New York, wasn’t bothered by hearing laughter and applause coming out of her radio speaker. “I am most emphatically on the affirmative side, in spite of the noise, raucous laughter and applause which seems to disconcert some listeners to the point of distraction. I have never yet found it necessary to dial these programs out. Though they do not necessarily add to my enjoyment of the programs, they certainly do not detract from it.” She also suggested that different programs had different quality audiences. “The Phil Baker and Jack Benny audiences seem to know how and when to laugh better than, say, the Ed Wynn audiences. That is something I cannot even attempt to explain…”

Radio Mirror magazine also weighed in on the matter, noting in a June 1934 editorial that in its own mail from readers, “three out of five letters take up the subject of audiences being used as background atmosphere on the air. And the opinions are about equally divided… So that the only solution is to follow the method which seems to make the broadcast most realistic, which puts the performer most at ease and which will satisfy the greater number of those tuner-inners [across the country].”

By the following year, the tide had already become too strong to turn back. New York City was chock full of theatres and auditoriums of various seating capacities serving as homes to radio’s most popular programs, complete with live audiences — although most audience members were guests of the program sponsors and the stars; securing tickets for the general public was tricky at best.

Not everyone was happy, but most radio comedians were finally enjoying instant feedback for their efforts. That could only be a good thing, despite the disapproval of those who seemed to prefer listening to — and performing — radio comedy in a silent vacuum. The parley even continued into the early days of television… but perhaps that is a debate for another time.


Tune in to Those Were the Days on April 27 to hear an afternoon of radio comedy from the 1930s.

 

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