America is about to lose one of the last survivors of a great national literature, un-mannered, un-recognized as such, and, so far, un-replaced. "Literature" may be the wrong word, but the great radio comedians were an important part of American cultural history. George Burns is the man.
Early last year, as he anticipated his 100th birthday on Jan. 20, 1996, he dismissed concerns for his mortality with, "I can't die - I'm booked." It was an appropriate way to look at it for a man who had been in show business since he was 8-years-old.
He wasn't kidding. He had a birthday date to do one of his signature monologues at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. He was under contract to do a television show for CBS. A special gala was scheduled in Hollywood. But his health failed him, and he is going to spend his 100th birthday "in the upstairs bedroom," as a dear friend put it to Martin Gottfried. Mr. Gottfried, a show business journalist best known for his Broadway biographies and histories, started work seven years ago on a centenary biography ("George Burns and the Hundred Year Dash." Simon & Schuster. 329 pages. $23). So he not only had the time to interview many Burns friends and relatives and do other research; he also got to talk to Mr. Burns a lot while he was still fully alert. It is a better book than any other written about the comedian, including those turned out by Mr. Burns and collaborators.
Most of the people who would have watched in Las Vegas and on CBS if fate had not intervened think of Mr. Burns as a movie star and saloon comic. Those roles began in earnest when he was already in his 70s (though he had played them before). The "Oh, God" movies especially brought him before a large and adoring audience. In 1977, just after the first "Oh, God!," Mr. Burns was walking on Fifth Avenue in New York with actor Walter Matthau. Strollers and workers yelled at him affectionately. Many sought his autograph. Mr. Burns said to Mr. Matthau, "Can you imagine this happening to me? I was never this big in the days with Gracie."
Most have left us before Burns did, though Bob Hope is alive and well and still appearing on television, but only rarely now.
George Burns and Gracie Allen, his wife, were the first really big radio comedy stars. They had been doing a vaudeville act in which she played dumb as a fox and he played her straightman. They transposed it to radio. It was not exactly high art. Many critics thought it banal at best. But Burns and Allen and soon a hTC few other radio comedians became in the 1930s and 1940s about as big as it gets in popular entertainment.
In a sense they were historical figures, creators of (along with other forces) and symbols of the technology and popular culture suddenly uniting the nation. They gave practically all Americans a commonly shared experience.
Radio was reaching out to unite Americans, like the public schools, like novels and touring drama companies did earlier -only much more so. Radio by 1940 had a vaster audience than any medium that had gone before, and the comedians were the favored stars.
That is only one reason Burns and Allen and their fellow laughter-provoking entertainers were so influential. Some others:
Big-name comedians had no competition. Audiences didn't have give up one to listen to another. Today, cable and over-the-air and satellite technology provide a Babel of choices. In the 1930s and 1940s, even big cities had only a few broadcast stations. Small cities and farm communities had to get by with staticky reception from distant towers. When radio comedians were on, they had you all to themselves. Everybody, it seemed, listened to the same shows (and discussed them the next day).
Here is a typical week's schedule from The Sun for early March 1942. By that time, 78 percent of American homes had radios - compared to 34 percent when Burns and Allen went on the air in January 1932. Monday at 7, "Blondie and Dagwood." No other comedy that night. Tuesday at 7:30, "Burns and Allen." "Duffy's Tavern" at 9. "Fibber McGee and Molly" at 9:30. Bob Hope at 10. Wednesday at 7:30, "The Great Gildersleeve." Eddie Cantor at 9. Kay Kyser at 10. Thursday at 7:45, Fanny Brice. "The Aldrich Family" at 8:30. Bing Crosby at 9. Rudy Vallee at 10. No funny stuff on Friday and Saturday that winter. But Sunday brought Jack Benny at 7, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy at 8, Fred Allen at 9.
Some of those were situation comedies, as they are now called, and some were variety shows. The former also had music and the latter also had sketches.
By the way, there were a couple of 15-minute comedy shows in the late afternoon or early evening: "Amos 'n' Andy." "Easy Aces." "Lum and Abner." That brings me to another reason radio comedy was so influential. Most of the good shows came on early enough for children - and were suitable for them. Burns and Allen put on a family show, as did the other comedians. Little to no sexual innuendo. A related point: Radio comedians got good press and were thought of as role models for a nation of families. Martin Gottfried reports that George Burns and his best friend Jack Benny were world-class adulterers even as they posed as the most faithful of husbands for their audiences. Gossip columnists of the day let it be.
Another reason that Burns and Allen, Fred Allen, Bob Hope, et al., were so much more influential and popular than any of today's comedians (many of whom are just as funny) is that they endured. Burns and Allen were still on radio in October 1950, when they started their television show. Even Fred Allen, a cerebral Pagliacci who appealed to a less broad audience, was on the air for 16 straight years. These were not re-runs. They were weekly and topical, another reason for their influence.
The Burns and Allen television show, like other radio comedians', was just a visual version of what had gone before. This brings up another reason for radio's importance, one that even intellectuals who hated the content of commercial radio concede. Radio required the listener to imagine. The audience ideated. It participated, and that made it a healthier mass movement than one in which the audience is passive.
Masters of radio
Audiences listening to disembodied words can get too imaginative, too involved, of course. For instance, Adolf Hitler used radio for undemocratic and ungodly ends. Some Republicans thought Franklin D. Roosevelt did something similar. Winston Churchill was accused by some Britons and Americans of demagogy. Whatever you think about all that, there is no denying that those three masters of the politics of the era were masters of radio as well, which I doubt was a coincidence.
The radio comedians had no politics, except that they kidded everybody in high office from time to time. They did it with bemusement and gentleness. This is not to say they were unpolitical. I would argue that their humor, coming at the moment the nation was linked by technology and experiencing economic disaster and world war, did more to unite the nation and to keep it smiling through very hard times than any of their predecessors -or successors.
George Burns and many of his crowd spent more successful years in vaudeville, movies and night clubs than they spent on the air, but they were never bigger than when they crackled through the ether to millions of Americans of widely different places and lifestyles on that first truly mass medium.
Theo Lippman, a former Sun editorial writer, is the author of five books including "Spiro Agnew's America," "Senator Ted Kennedy" and "The Squire of Warm Springs." He grew up halfway between Savannah, Ga. and Jacksonville, Fla., one or the other of which's radio stations came through loud and clear most nights.