Fred Allen was a truly great American comedian, who is, sadly, mostly forgotten today. His dry wit and outlook made him a bit of a philosopher, one who still has a lot to teach us today. I know, he inspired me.
I discovered Fred Allen when I was a teen, decades after his death. Inspired, I decided to go to college in Boston after reading is auto-biography Much Ado About Me. I found the Public Library much as he described it, but could not find the many diners with names ending in “lunch,” of the vaudeville theaters he wrote of.
Allen was born John Florence Sullivan in Boston. His dry witted, topically pointed radio shows Town Hall Tonight in the 1930s and The Fred Allen Show in the 1940s made him famous with a different brand of comedy — more reliant of play on words, social commentary and a realistic view of American society. While some of the characters from Allen’s program have not held up well, the mixture of topical humor and interacting with “average” American caricatures was not unlike modern late-night TV. And, he got Americans laughing during the dark days of the Depression and World War II.
Allen wrote two wonderful memoirs, Much Ado About Me, that followed his boyhood in Boston and Treadmill to Oblivion that outlined his radio career. Finally, Fred Allen’s Letters offered a glimpse inside the genius of the man behind the twangy voice. And, as someone who works in PR, I always recall his line: A telescope will magnify a star a thousand times, but a good press agent can do even better.
Allen’s Alley was his high point, and his undoing — each week Allen's Alley followed Allen and his wife/co-star Portland Hoffa strolling down the fictitious Alley asking questions of the residents on a topic in the news. They represented a comedic cross section of America, from a blow hard senator, to a Jewish housewife, to a New England farmer, to a would-be poet. He wrote nearly all of the 273 episodes of the show, and that exhausted him bringing his show to an early end in 1949. He was “too big for television” and his career turned to writing and stints on gameshows. As he put it, “Television is a medium because anything well done is rare.” Many may not recall Fred Allen as we do Will Rodgers or Mark Twain, but we should.
Allen could hold a mirror up to our world, and so much of his humor is still quite relevant, such as:
Imitation is the sincerest form of television.
He was so narrow minded that if he fell on a pin it would blind him in both eyes.
California is a great place to live, if you're an orange.
I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.
He could slice though the hypocrisy of society with telling quips:
A molehill man is a pseudo-busy executive who comes to work at 9 a.m. and finds a molehill on his desk. He has until 5 p.m. to make this molehill into a mountain. An accomplished molehill man will often have his mountain finished even before lunch.
Hollywood is a place where people from Iowa mistake each other for movie stars.
An actor's success has the life expectancy of a small boy about to look into a gas tank with a lighted match.
A committee is a group of the unprepared, appointed by the unwilling to do the unnecessary.
The world is a grindstone and life is your nose.
All the sincerity in Hollywood you could stuff in a flea's navel and still have room left to conceal eight caraway seeds and an agent's heart.
A celebrity is a person who works hard all his life to become known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized.
I'm a little hoarse tonight. I've been living in Chicago for the past two months, and you know how it is, yelling for help on the way home every night. Things are so tough in Chicago that at Easter time, for bunnies the little kids use porcupines.
A conference is a gathering of important people who singly can do nothing, but together can decide that nothing can be done.
But, he could be self-deprecating too…
I don't have to look up my family tree, because I know that I'm the sap.
Allen’s final biography ended on a sad and broken note:
We are living in the machine age. For the first time in history the comedian has been compelled to supply himself with jokes and comedy material to compete with the machine. Whether he knows it or not, the comedian is on a treadmill to oblivion.
But his life’s work, and innovative wit live on in his show, movies and books. In this truly difficult time America can use the humor and honesty of Fred Allen, I know I could. Author Herman Wouk wrote with Allen, and remembered him this way in the New York Times: “In Fred Allen, the voice of sanity spoke out for all Americans to hear, during a trying period of our history, in the classic and penetrating tones of comic satire. Because he lived and wrote and acted here, this land will always be a saner place to live in. That fact is his true monument.”