Starting as a juggler as a youth, he switched to comedy when he found he was getting more laughs for his quips than applause for his skill. He appeared in vaudeville and Broadway shows in the 1920s and moved into radio in the 1930s. As host of Town Hall Tonight (1934 - 1940) and then CBS's Texaco Star Theatre (1940 - 1949), he wrote much of his material and was one of the first American comedians to employ situations and a cast of characters that satirized topical events. He converted somewhat reluctantly to television, starring in The Colgate Comedy Hour (1953 to 1954) and Fred Allen's Sketchbook (1954). The nature of his characteristically wry, ironic, even occasionally mordant humor was expressed in the title of his autobiography, Treadmill to Oblivion (1954). From Wikipedia: Fred Allen was an American comedian best known for his witty, pointed radio programs of the 1930s and 1940s, including a comic feud with comedian Jack Benny.From www.biographychannel.com:
Starting as a juggler as a youth, he switched to comedy when he found he was getting more laughs for his quips than applause for his skill. He appeared in vaudeville and Broadway shows in the 1920s and moved into radio in the 1930s. As host of Town Hall Tonight (1934 - 1940) and then CBS's Texaco Star Theatre (1940 - 1949), he wrote much of his material and was one of the first American comedians to employ situations and a cast of characters that satirized topical events. He converted somewhat reluctantly to television, starring in The Colgate Comedy Hour (1953 to 1954) and Fred Allen's Sketchbook (1954). The nature of his characteristically wry, ironic, even occasionally mordant humor was expressed in the title of his autobiography, Treadmill to Oblivion (1954).
Fred Allen was an American comedian best known for his witty, pointed radio programs of the 1930s and 1940s, including a comic feud with comedian Jack Benny. Allen was famous among his peers for his ability to ad-lib, a skill that Benny famously paid tribute to, responding to a mock insult with the line "You wouldn't say that if my writers were here."
Allen was born John Florence Sullivan in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He started off his professional career as Freddy St. James but a mix-up at a venue turned out to be a blessing. Edgar Allen was booked at the same place as Freddy James but the front office accidentally promoted the appearance of Edgar James and Fred Allen.
Fred Allen started his career in radio the same year as Jack Benny, 1932. Allen hit it big with the program "Town Hall Tonight" in 1934, the same year Jack Benny rose in the ranks of radio with "The Jell-O Program". Their feud started in the mid-1930s and in a testament of the times, people actually believed in this feud so much that a boxing match between the two was staged and it was sold out.
Allen's humor was topical, which has limited its appeal to modern audiences. He fussed and moaned about corporate America and the absurdity of the times. It is due to Allen's talent that his fussing wasn't taken the wrong way. To a newcomer his comedy can be taken as the work of an eternal pessimist, but a more concentrated listening will hear hopeful optimism. The goal of a satirist is to bring about change in the subject, and from that angle, Allen was optimistic in his hopes that his satire would change corporate America.
Most of Allen's material was written by himself. He employed a few writers but they more or less served as consultants and sounding boards in the rough drafts. The final scripts were always written by Allen.
After "Town Hall Tonight", Allen moved to his own self-named show (a rarity in those days of sponsor-billed shows), then in 1940, to CBS and hosted "Texaco Star Theatre". His famous "Allen's Alley" routine began in December 1942. Hypertension caused him to leave radio in early 1944, although he returned to NBC in late 1945 with the "Allen's Alley" routines that many remember: Kenny Delmar as "Senator Claghorne", Parker Fennelly as "Titus Moody", Minerva Pious as "Mrs. Nussbaum", and Peter Donald as "Ajax Cassidy". At times Alan Reed would fill in for Donald with the poet "Falstaff Openshaw".
In 1948 Allen's radio career hit a major roadblock when a quiz program called "Stop The Music", in which listeners called in to play the game. Allen remained in competition with the program until 1949 when his ratings were so low compared that he was taken off the air after 17 years in radio.
One problem with modern appreciation of Allen's routes is political correctness. Allen's comic stereotypes make many people today cringe. His "Allen's Alley" segment, for example, contained four stereotype characters: the Southern politician, the New England farmer, the Jewish wife, and the ranting Irishman.
Fred's female second banana was his wife, Portland Hoffa, whose role was to simply stroll on-air exclaiming: "Mister Allen! Mis...ter Allen!" and then launch into a routine with Fred, usually about her mother. Hoffa remained with Allen throughout his entire radio show. Unlike Jack Benny, who used wife Mary Livingstone as more or less his ego deflator, Fred used Portland's child-like un-professional delivery to comedically prop his ego.
Allen's career faded with the advent of television, although many say he paved the way for later satirists such as Stan Freberg in the 1950s and late-night talk show host David Letterman. Allen remained busy as a newspaper humorist and sporadic columnist. His major work in TV was a two-year run as a panelist on the quiz show "What's My Line?" from 1954 until his death in 1956.
Allen also wrote books, such as "Much Ado About Me" and "Treadmill to Oblivion".
Source material - Robert Taylor wrote a 1989 biography, "Fred Allen: His Life and Wit."
Click for bio from Encyclo-Comedia:
Fred Allen Bio
From The Museum of Broadcast Communications, Chicago, IL:
Fred Allen hated television. Allen was a radio comedian for nearly two decades who, as early as 1936, had a weekly radio audience of about 20 million. When he visited The Jack Benny Show to continue their long running comedy feud, they had the largest audience in the history of radio, only to be later outdone by President Franklin Roosevelt during a Fireside Chat. The writer Herman Wouk said that Allen was the best comic writer in radio. His humor was literate, urbane, intelligent, and contemporary. Allen came to radio from vaudeville where he performed as a juggler. He was primarily self-educated and was extraordinarily well read.
Allen began his network radio career in 1932 after working vaudeville and Broadway with such comedy icons as Al Jolson, Ed Wynn, George Jessel, and Jack Benny. This was a time when the United States was in a deep economic depression, and radio in its infancy. In his autobiography Treadmill To Oblivion, Allen wrote that he thought radio should provide complete stories, series of episodes, and comedy situations instead of monotonous unrelated jokes then popular on vaudeville. With this idea in hand, he began his first radio program on NBC called The Linit Bath Club Review (named after the sponsor).
Allen's world of radio was highly competitive and commercial, just as TV would be many years later. He wrote most of the material for his weekly shows himself, usually working 12 hour days, 6 days a week. Most comedians, like Bob Hope, had an office filled with writers, but Allen used only a few assistants in writing his comedy. And some of these assistants went on to have successful careers in literature and comedy, such as Herman Wouk author of The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War, and Nat Hiken who created Phil Silver's The Phil Silvers Show for TV. Allen's program was imbued with literate, verbal slapstick. He had ethnic comedy routines in Allen's Alley, appearances by celebrities such as Alfred Hitchcock, musical numbers with talent from the likes of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, and social commentaries on every conceivable subject, especially criticisms of the advertising and radio industry. His radio producer, Sylvester "Pat" Weaver (later to become head of NBC TV programming), observed that Allen's humor was so popular that three out of four homes in the country were listening to Allen at the zenith of his popularity. In writing his comedy scripts, Allen compiled a personal library of over 4,000 books of humor, and read 9 newspapers (plus magazines) daily. According to the scholar Alan Havig, Allen's style of comedy had more in common with literary giants like Robert Benchley and James Thurber than with media comedians like Jack Benny and Bob Hope.
In 1946-47 Allen was ranked the number one show on network radio. World War II was over, Americans were beginning a new era of consumerism. And a very few consumers had recently purchased a new entertainment device called television. When Fred Allen was asked what he thought of television, he said he didn't like furniture that talked. He also said television was called a medium because "nothing on it is ever well done." Allen dismissed TV as permitting "people who haven't anything to do to watch people who can't do anything." But, after nearly two decades on radio, he fell in the ratings from number 1 to number 38 in just a few months. Such a sudden loss of audience was due to a new ABC radio give-away show called Name That Tune, starring Bert Parks, as well as a general decline in listeners for all of radio. Listeners of radio were rapidly becoming viewers of TV. And where the audience went, so went the advertisers. In a few short years the bottom fell out of radio. Fred Allen quickly, but not quietly, left radio in 1949.
Allen was first to leave radio, but Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen soon followed. They all went to star in their own TV shows. All but Fred Allen. He made a few attempts at TV, but nothing more. He first appeared on the Colgate Comedy Theater, where he attempted to bring to TV his Allen's Alley from radio. For example, the characters of the Alley were performed with puppets. Such attempts seldom successfully made the transition to the new medium. On the quiz show Judge for Yourself (1953-54), he was supposed to carry on witty ad libbed conversations with guests. But as Havig states, Allen's "ad libbing was lost in the confusion of a half hour filled with too many people and too much activity". In short, Allen's humor needed more time and more language than TV allowed. He then was on a short lived Fred Allen's Sketchbook (1954), and finally a became a panelist on What's My Line in 1955 until his death in 1956.
Fred Allen's contributions to TV has taken two forms. First, he became one of the true critics of TV. He has remained, many decades after his death, the intellectual conscience of TV. His barbs at network TV censorship still hit at the heart of contemporary media (e.g., Allen: "Heck...is a place invented by [NBC]. NBC does not recognize hell or [CBS]"). Second, his comedy style has become part of the institution of TV comedy. His Allen's Alley created the character Titus Moody who turned up on TV as the Pepperidge Farm cookie man. His Senator Claghorn, also of the Alley, was transfigured into Warner Brothers TV cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn the rooster. And later, the "Senator" appeared on the Kentucky Fried Chicken TV commercial. A variety of TV comedians have done direct take-offs of Allen's performances. For example, Red Skelton's "Gussler's Gin" routine and Johnny Carson's "Mighty Carson Art Players" can be traced back to Fred Allen. And Allen's "People You Didn't Expect to Meet" is an idea that has worked for David Letterman. And of course, radio's Garrison Keeler's "Lake Wobegan" is a throw back to Allen's style of comedy.
Allen wrote in Treadmill to Oblivion "Ability, merit and talent were not requirements of writers and actors working in the industry. Audiences had to be attracted, for advertising purposes, at any cost and by any artifice. Standards were gradually lowered. A medium that demands entertainment eighteen hours a day, seven days every week, has to exhaust the conscientious craftsman and performer." He was talking about radio, but his remarks could apply just as well to television many decades later.
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