From the current Summer 2023 Issue
The comedians who were among radio's earliest stars--
and the writers who gave them jokes to read
"YOU WOULDN'T SAY THAT IF MY WRITERS WERE HERE!"
By Garry Berman
When radio really began to come into its own as entertainment in the early 1930s, the top vaudeville comedians of the day began to catch the interest of sponsors, who were offering deals for these comedians to star in their own programs. Many accepted these offers and eagerly signed on the dotted line.
It was a heady time for the new radio stars, until the biggest headaches — of the truly migraine variety — came courtesy of the voracious appetite radio had for new comedy material every week. The experienced vaudeville comics were accustomed to performing roughly the same proven act to local audiences at each stop on any given circuit, and enjoyed the comfort of knowing they were facing a new, fresh audience each time they stepped onto the stage. This allowed them to use the same material almost indefinitely as they crisscrossed the country.
The growth of network radio changed all that, allowing millions of people across the nation to hear a comedian’s best material on a single night — material that may have taken months or years to perfect — and those millions of listeners certainly didn’t want to hear the same material the following week. “I guess the biggest adjustment we all had to make between vaudeville and radio,” George Burns recalled, ”was that in vaudeville, seventeen minutes of good material could last for years, while on radio seventeen minutes of good material would last seventeen minutes.”
Consequently, even the funniest of funny men and women who had made the transition to radio soon found their creative wells running dry. With the explosion of comedy on radio in 1932, the comedians discovered the strain involved in writing and sustaining a weekly comedy program, be it 15, 30 or 60 minutes long.
The demands of radio forced these performers to create, adapt, borrow and even steal a lot of comedy material virtually every week, while working to keep it sounding fresh. Some comedians stubbornly felt compelled to hammer out each program more or less single-handedly, accepting only peripheral help from assistants. Fred Allen’s desire to write each of his own broadcasts himself proved impractical, due to the back-breaking workload.
“After the first few programs,” he acknowledged, ”I realized that a person who attempted to write a half-hour comedy show week after week had to end up talking to himself. I was not only writing the entire program, I was eternally re-writing it, rehearsing it and appearing on it. The day after each show I had to attend a meeting at which a transcription of the program was played. [The sponsor executives] regaled me with the post-mortems. They commented on the comedy, the singing, the music and the sound effects. The show had been done. It was like trying to breathe yesterday’s air.”
Barely a month into his Texaco program as the Fire Chief, Ed Wynn confessed, “I have never worked so hard on any job in my life as at this job of broadcasting. I’ve been up until the wee hours of the morning working up new gags for future broadcasts. This business of being funny is no joke. In four programs, I have written dialogue that runs an hour and five minutes. Why, by the time the thirteen engagements are filled I will have written enough material for three [Broadway] shows.”
“When we all went into radio I don’t think any of us realized how much material we would need,” George Burns said. “Even with all our back issues of College Humor and Whiz Bang, by the end of the third or fourth week we were out of new material. So we began hiring writers to work for us full-time.”
So it was that the creature known as the modern-day comedy writer was born. The older, experienced writers knew their way around writing for stage productions, either as monologue and sketch writers for vaudeville acts or as librettists for Broadway revues. The younger crop usually consisted of new college graduates who had gotten the writing bug while contributing to their campus humor magazines.
“When they entered the university gates,” The New York Times reported at the time, “they may have had visions of being doctors or lawyers, but fate decreed otherwise and gave them a place in radio as authors of comedy. Today they are found working for comedians. They are in the broadcasting station’s continuity division, and on the radio staffs of advertising agencies that prepare ethereal scenarios for their clients. Theirs is a new profession, despite the fact that they may have majored in chemistry or economics at college.”
“Radio was new,” Allen explained years later. “It hadn’t developed any comedy writers. David Freedman, who was writing the Eddie Cantor program; Billy Wells, writing Jack Pearl’s Baron Munchausen routines; Harry Conn, Jack Benny’s first writer, and a few others were really high-priced revue and vaudeville writers. They were enticed into radio with bonanza salaries and I suspect that each of them was earning more than the $1,000 we had available for our entire show.”
One thing the stage veterans and fresh-faced graduates had in common: writing for the airwaves was a new experience for both of them — by the same token, delivering another writer’s jokes before the microphone was a new experience for comedians. Instead of creating characters and gags that audiences could see on a stage, the new generation of radio writers had to create a world consisting solely of voices and sounds. From there, they had to tap into the listener’s imagination to elicit laughter. At least now the comedy stars had found some help.
The New York Times further assessed of the situation: “Indeed, with the accelerated pace at which the entire entertainment world has come to speed of late, the coiner of gags has become a mogul of mass production. With stage, motion picture and radio entertainers clamoring for new material with which to be louder and funnier, he is the man to whom they turn for grist to feel their mills. They take it as he gives it out. Hark to the lay of the gagster!”
Allen learned of a young critic, Harry Tugend, who worked at the Motion Picture Herald and had expressed in an interest in writing for radio. The two met and talked, and soon Tugend was writing for the comedian. “For four years,” Allen remembered, “Harry and I wrote the programs and coped with the forces that attempted to impede our weekly trek from the writing session to the microphone.”
Another young writer whom Allen hired to share the workload was future novelist Herman Wouk, who recalled that his boss “was a role model and still is. Fred was one of the most honorable men I’ve ever met. He was the best comic writer radio ever developed, and here we were handing him what must have seemed like mediocre material. I was twenty-one years old and making two hundred dollars a week, a remarkable salary for the Depression. Not once did he tell us our contribution wasn’t good enough.”
It appears not every writer was so fortunate. George Burns admitted that it wasn’t easy for comedians to rely on others, after creating material on their own during the vaudeville years. “We were all tough on our writers,” he admitted. ”I think a lot of that came from fear. Most of us had become successful by writing our own material, and it was hard for us to trust our careers to other people.”
Dave Freedman, who wrote for several top stars, sympathized with the dilemma comedians faced. “In fifteen short minutes,” he said, “you play to forty million people. Once used, the material is gone forever. The next program has got to be just as good, or even better, or people will say the comedian is slipping. That’s why comedians can’t afford to take chances. They buy from a comparatively small group of known, successful writers because they don’t dare to do anything else. Comedians, even the best ones, are often poor judges of material. They buy their comedy from known writers to make sure they aren’t buying tragedy instead!”
Ed Wynn echoed Freedman’s sentiment. “The critics who belabor comedians for using old and stale material can’t know much about comedy,” he said. “They would already understand that all humor is old, that interpretation refreshes it. Aside from that, a comedian from years of experience with audiences knows experiments are dangerous. He has learned from visible and audible audiences what types of jokes can be depended upon for laughs. If I tried uncertain types over the radio, how would I know they were going over? If I tried experiments I would be scared to death, nervous, apprehensive. I couldn’t be myself. I’d lose my appeal.”
Comedy writers became highly sought-after for all available entertainment venues — and as a result, those who got hired were very well paid, especially on radio. However, the biggest stars tended to trust only those scribes who had already earned solid reputations as writers for vaudeville and revues.
Only a handful of radio writers were responsible for the majority of the comedy listeners enjoyed in the early 1930s; it wasn’t uncommon for a popular gagman to work for two or three different programs simultaneously. Some writers even achieved a modicum of celebrity themselves, appearing on the pages of various radio magazines of the time.
Dave Freedman would soon find himself writing for Cantor, dialect comedian George Givot, and the Block and Sully program simultaneously, every week. It was a mind-numbing workload, but Freedman was so well compensated that he and his family lived in a 14-room penthouse apartment in New York. The apartment also housed file cabinets containing as many as three million jokes. Freedman kept a staff of three assistants, who not only helped write new jokes but also hunted for old gags to adapt for their current employers.
Working on the tightest of deadlines became the norm. Often, a freshly-written script would arrive at the broadcast studio with barely an hour to spare before being read live on the air.
Other top writers were living quite well also. Billy Wells had previously written for stage productions (including George White’s Scandals) and authored the Ed Wynn vehicle Manhattan Mary, in addition to writing shows that starred the team of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough. Unlike Freedman, who had a tendency to spread himself as thin as possible among several radio programs, Wells worked on radio as an exclusive writer to Jack Pearl (”Baron Munchausen”).
George Burns and Gracie Allen employed John P. Medbury as their head writer; the newspaper humorist had been supplying material for them since they first took to the airwaves in 1930. Eugene Conrad had also signed to write for the team on radio and later accompanied them to Hollywood for their scenes in the film International House.
Groucho and Chico Marx were already film stars when they took over radio’s Five Star Theater in late 1932 with their ”Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel” sketches. The duo played it safe by employing writers — like Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman — who had worked on the scripts for the Marxes’ recent films and knew the brothers’ style inside and out. (A decade later, Perrin would start a lengthy tenure as a writer on The Jack Benny Program.)
Jack Benny was, by all accounts, a genuinely humble and generous individual, and deflected much of the praise he received onto his writers. Indeed, one of Jack’s replies upon receiving an insult from fellow comedian Fred Allen was, “You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here!”
In his early years on the air, Benny especially relied on Harry Conn to help produce quality jokes; in return, Jack paid Conn a hefty $1,200-a-week paycheck. “His is a tough job,” Benny said at the time, “because he has to adapt himself to my mental processes, if any. A script writer, to deliver the goods, must, to all intents and purposes become the mental double of the comic — and believe me that’s some chore.”
Then there was Al Boasberg, whose shadow — both figuratively and literally — loomed large in that still small community of comedy writers. Boasberg’s reputation as a gag writer grew steadily throughout the 1920s, when he helped shape Jack Benny’s act from a violin-playing shtick to more of a monologist. Benny also began to cultivate his on-stage character, one that would eventually develop into his vain, self-delusional ladies’ man persona (the image of him as a cheapskate would come later).
Boasberg is also credited with giving the struggling young comedian Bob Hope a boost (by providing him with snappier one-liners) and writing Burns and Allen’s “Lamb Chops” sketch, which solidified the team’s switch from George as the comic to the straight man, reacting to Gracie’s flights of fancy. Lest we forget, Boasberg also contributed the famous ”Stateroom Scene” to the Marx Brothers’ film A Night at the Opera.
“All the comedians knew [Boasberg],” Benny said. “When I was in vaudeville, I would send him fifty dollars and he would send me two jokes or something to do on stage… He took care of a lot of stars. Burns and Allen used him, but he didn’t really work steady until radio. By then I was making so much money that it didn’t make any difference to me what I paid him.”
Benny considered Boasberg less a script writer than “a doctor of scripts… All he’d have to do was to look at what we had written and if he thought it was fine he didn’t have to write a word. But if he could add something to it, perhaps there might be a weak spot here or there, then he was to do so. But either way, I paid him a thousand dollars each week. Now, I wouldn’t have given him ten cents to sit down and write me a script. Even if I had told him what I wanted. He just wasn’t the man for that. But he could sit down and go over a script and fill in the weak spots and that was worth a thousand dollars.”
After moving to Beverly Hills in 1936, Benny established a work routine that involved meeting with his writers in the library of his home each week, where they would work on that latest script. Jack’s daughter Joan was always welcome to sit in and watch them work after she returned home from school.
“There they would be,” she recalled, “one of the writers stretched out on the sofa, the others in various chairs, Jeanette, the secretary, furiously writing at the round table, and Daddy in, of course, the winged chair. I loved to hear them going over each sentence, each line; discussing whether it was funnier to emphasize this word or that word, whether a line should read ‘the’ something or ‘that’ something. The attention to detail, to fine points, was amazing. They all laughed a lot, but they were serious, too.”
Such was the world of radio’s first generation of comedy writers, upon whose shoulders all who came afterward have stood, scribbled, and awaited the approval of their famous, funny bosses.
Tune in to Those Were the Days on August 5 to hear 1930s broadcasts featuring Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny.
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