Friday, December 14, 2012

Radio Comedians vs. the Vice President of NBC

Ed Gardner of Duffy's Tavern
During the seasonal holiday of December 1946, Duffy’s Tavern made the transition from Hollywood to New York. With the entire cast and crew flying to New York to broadcast from the East Coast, the West Coast censorship department of NBC, having censored many lines deemed “unsuitable” for broadcast, wanted to alert the East Coast counterpart. On December 31, 1946, Don Honrath in NBC’s West Coast Script Division, sent the following telegram to Richard McDonagh of the East Cost Script Division:


On January 2, 1947, McDonagh sent a reply, accepting Honrath’s offer. “I am notifying all concerned at this end and you may be assured that the show will stay clean or else.” The reason behind the network’s intense scrutiny was the result of Rep. Thomas Lane’s recent public argument over two of the jokes that, he felt, insulted the Catholic church. The radio program was singled out by name and the network felt this was bad publicity. The other reason was prompted by radio comedians, who were attempting to slip jokes of a taboo nature, past the network censors who reviewed each script before broadcast. For years radio comedians were upset that even the mildest joke was deleted from their scripts for reasons that seemed inane. In retaliation, script writers began slipping in jokes about the network and the executives in charge. When the vice-president of NBC initiated a new policy that said radio comedians would not kid radio on the air, the comedians took action.

Fred Allen on NBC Radio
The debate about comic censorship came to a pinnacle on the evening of Sunday, April 20, 1947, when NBC cut Fred Allen off the air briefly during a wisecrack about a mythical network vice-president in charge of overtime, who received his vacation by accumulating seconds from the ends of overtime broadcasts. NBC, days prior to the broadcast, had ordered to “fade” any jokes directed at the network. When Fred Allen discovered his program was momentarily faded off the air for a few seconds, he spoke to reporters. “Last week, we ran over our time and the last part of the program was cut off,” Allen explained. “I decided to use this in the program and build a joke around it. But NBC told me I couldn’t kid radio on the air. I don’t mind suggested changes in my script if it will improve the show any. But this didn’t offer any improvement. Of course, I refused to make the change. I’ve been on the air for 15 years and this is the first time anything like this has happened to me.”

J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency representing Fred Allen’s sponsor, demanded the network reimburse money for the dead air time. “We buy and pay for half an hour’s time from NBC for this program. And that’s what we expect to get. Allen was cut off the air for about 35 seconds. So NBC is going to get a bill for the time we didn’t get. And, oddly enough, on that Sunday night spot, it’s a nice little chunk of dough.” NBC counter attacked by claiming they estimated the time at 25 seconds. Under contract, if the network had technical issues beyond their control, the sponsor was not obligated to receive a partial refund for dead air. What NBC did not realize until it was too late was their counter attack was also an admission of deliberate dead air and this mistake cost them.

Red Skelton
Two days after Fred Allen’s censorship, comedians Bob Hope and Red Skelton both had their radio shows censored on the air. Radio’s hypersensitive vice-presidents drew more public laughs than either of the gold-plated comedians. Hope was cutoff for about 15 seconds following his reference to comedian Fred Allen’s experience. During a discussion of Las Vegas, Nevada, Hope remarked, “You can get tanned and faded at the same time.” The fading reference was to dice, but Hope added, “Of course, Fred Allen can get faded any time…” and there the audience got the best of radio. The show faded from the air.

On the Red Skelton program, in the early minutes, Red said, “We might ad lib something to hurt the dignity of an NBC vice-president. Did you hear ‘em cut Fred Allen off Sunday…” Silence struck again. What the audience did not hear was, “You know what NBC means, don’t you? Nothing but confusion, nothing but cuts.” Then he came back on with, “…well, now we’ve joined the parade of stars.” Hope and Skelton were said to have referred their scripts to NBC censors, and both were reminded that ad-libbed material would not be acceptable. NBC had only the remark that the cut-out material was “objectionable.”

The silence was not by accident, because someone in the control room opened a push-button offensive, directed by Clarence L. Menser, vice president of NBC in charge of programming. Local offices of the broadcasting company issued the following statement: “Two of NBC’s comedians decided to have a little fun with the network tonight and both were cut off the air for about 20 seconds. Bob Hope and Red Skelton decided they would make some remarks about Fred Allen, and were told that if they did not debate objectionable material they would be cut off. But Hope and Skelton ignored the NBC order, and like Allen they were cut off for a few seconds.”

Dennis Day, comedian
The advertising agencies representing Bob Hope and Red Skelton followed the avenue of J. Walter Thompson and NBC issued credits to the sponsor accounts. On the evening of April 23, four comedians defended Fred Allen and his comrades. When Dennis Day’s radio girlfriend, Mildred, coming into the room, asked: “What are you doing?” 
    “I’m listening to the radio,” Dennis replied.
    “But I don’t hear anything,” she said.
    “I know it,” Dennis replied. “I’m listening to the Fred Allen program.”

Later that evening, Henry Morgan, on his radio program, said he had seen a movie, “Smash Up, the Story of a Woman.” He claimed it gave him an idea for a movie he’d like to make. “Cut-Off, the Story of Fred Allen.” Kay Kyser claimed the whole controversy was a build-up for his new show, a new type of quiz program and wanted to thank Allen, Hope and Skelton for the big send-off. “They were faded for their errors and that’s my new show -- ‘Comedy of Errors’.” Information, Please also jot in a jibe on the rival CBS. Ed Gardner jumped the bandwagon on Duffy’s Tavern, presenting a show based on a political campaign by Archie and the barkeep remarked: “I think I’ll get Fred Allen to make my campaign speeches for me during the times he is cut off the air. And then again -- I don’t think I will. I might want to be vice-president.”

Ed Gardner and singer Mary Martin
None of these comedians faced censorship because, hours before prime time programming, NBC announced that it had a change of heart in what the New York Times referred to as “its running feud with Fred Allen on the subject of vacation-minded vice-presidents in radio.” It wanted, said NBC, to forgive and, especially, to forget. Harried officials of the network most of the day sat around a long table in their office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and in a complete reversal of form, decided to try to ring down the curtain on what Radio Row generally agreed was at best only a sustaining comic opera. An executive at NBC reported the network considered encouraging other comedians to make wisecracks about the matter, presumably on the well-substantiated theory that repetition was the quickest way to kill a joke on the radio. The four day skirmish between NBC and its radio comics came to a temporary end when the network agreed to turn the other cheek and invite the comics to say anything they wanted to about the network.

It was later discovered that NBC’s decision was swayed because of a substantial number of letters from listeners, mostly favorable to the comedian; a protest from the American Civil Liberties Union charging that Mr. Allen’s rights under the Constitution had been placed in jeopardy; and reports that Fred Allen made the front pages of the London press. Late that evening, Kenneth Banghart, while delivering the 11 o’clock news, mentioned Fred Allen. The program continued, loud and clear. He mentioned Bob Hope and Red Skelton, saying that he understood that all three comedians had been offered honorary vice presidencies, without duties and without vacations. To wit, the program continued uninterrupted until its scheduled close at 11:15.

“Seldom has the futility and silliness of unnecessary censorship been more vividly illustrated,” columnist John Crosby remarked. “The deluge of criticism which NBC had to take in twenty-four hours was far worse than anything Mr. Allen by himself could have done.”

Fred Allen on NBC Radio
The bizarre series of events reflected a situation which had been brewing for some months, if not years. Because, for better or worse, popular programs on the air were subject to varying forms of censorship on a pretty regular basis and the issue was neither as black nor as white as it might have seemed offhand. The most prevalent form of censorship was almost as old as commercial radio itself. Comedians on the air had been circumscribed in what they said because of the perennial fear of broadcasters and sponsors that some substantial group of potential customers might be offended. Ed Gardner discovered this with the two jokes that shocked a number of orthodox Catholics. Fred Allen got the last laugh, when, one week after the initial fade out, his half-hour radio show was broadcast without interruption. Allen closed his broadcast with, “Well, we got it all on tonight.”

When NBC thought that repetition was the quickest way to kill a joke on the radio, they soon discovered they were dead wrong. The jokes kept coming and comedians Jack Benny, Victor Borge, Milton Berle, and George Burns and Gracie Allen took advantage. The network kept its promise and avoided censoring the industry reaction to spoofing radio on the radio. This was, however, only a temporary solution. One year later, it was known that several top comedians were fed up to a point of seeking a shift to another network rather than continue under NBC’s strict and allegedly stuffy code. (CBS succeeded by purchasing Jack Benny and Amos ‘n’ Andy.) The network had begun another form of censorship: thou shalt not make reference to a rival network. Because Bing Crosby succeeded where no other comedian had before, transcribing his programs instead of a “live” broadcast, the network took offense when Crosby, formerly an NBC product, was now on ABC. The network once again nixed all mention of Bing Crosby’s rival network show and references to ABC, soon becoming another sore spot for the network.

In May of 1947, Ed Gardner came up with a gimmick that could close the door to vice-president gags. The “gimmick” required an appointment with Sidney N. Strotz (pronounced like throats), West Coast vice-president of NBC, where Gardner proposed to Strotz, in person, that the executive appear on a future broadcast of Duffy’s Tavern. A few months prior, at a special party for Jack Benny given by Edgar Bergen with assistance of NBC and Standard Brands at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Strotz was among the guests. He mingled, cracked jokes and won the hearts of the comedians in attendance. Since then, Strotz was known among the circles as the only vice president of the company to have a sense of humor. Knowing Strotz might not agree to appearing on a comedy program that could take advantage of the scenario, Gardner offered one stipulation. Strotz approve of every word of the script before the broadcast.

Jack Benny once commented that he wished his writers would have come up with the idea, acknowledging Gardner’s idea as "brilliant," apparently unaware that Strotz was a guest on George Burns and Gracie Allen’s radio program a year prior.

During the broadcast, Archie became a member of the “Top Ten Record Company” and record sales are so successful that Archie decided he wanted to be a radio comedian. To get a job at NBC as their next great comedian, Archie phoned NBC and convinced Sidney M. Strotz to come down to audition him. To ensure someone would laugh at the jokes, and not him, Archie asks Harry Von Zell to come down to the tavern and become a member of the audience.

VON ZELL: Well, I’m the next thing to a comedian. Every week I stand next to Eddie Cantor. [LAUGHS] Oh, I popped a corny!
ARCHIE: There you are, Harry -- a perfect example of what’s wrong with radio. You put a guy that ain’t funny in front of a microphone and what have you got?
EDDIE: Mr. Archie…
ARCHIE: Eddie! Watch your timing!
EDDIE: Sorry. I just wanted to tell you that Mr. Strotz is here.
ARCHIE: Oh, Von Zell, get up off your knees. Well, good evening, Mr. Strotz. Welcome to Duffy’s Tavern. I hope you’ll pardon the appearance of the joint.
STROTZ: Don’t apologize, Archie… I like the place. [BREATHES DEEPLY] Ahhh… this dead air… just like NBC.
ARCHIE: Yeah, huh? Well, we’ve all been waitin’ for you.
STROTZ: Yes, I’m sorry I was held up but I had trouble selecting my new office furniture.
ARCHIE: Trouble?
STROTZ: Yes. We Vice Presidents have quite a bit of trouble getting desks to fit our feet.
ARCHIE: Well, big job -- big feet. Say, how does a guy get to be an NBC Vice President anyhow?
STROTZ: Very simple. You start out as an NBC guide and then you wander into an empty office and stay there until a little man comes along and puts gold letters on the door.
ARCHIE: Hey, you really got a sense of humor. You don’t seem like the kind of a guy that would be annoyed by comedians.

To prove he is as funny as Jack Benny and Charlie McCarthy, Archie hands Strotz a list of questions and Archie delivers the punch lines. Old vaudeville jokes referring to “Mr. Bones” and asking Archie if he likes bathing beauties. “I don’t know,” Archie responds. “I never bathed any.” Strotz is not convinced so he decides to trade places: Archie will be a vice-president while Mr. Strotz becomes a comedian.

STROTZ: Wait a minute… I just thought of a joke.
ARCHIE: You did, huh? Is it clean?
STROTZ: Of course it’s clean. It seems that there was a traveling salesman who stopped at a farmhouse and he knocked at the door… [LONG PAUSE] …so the following summer, the farmer’s daughter showed up with a gold bracelet.
EDDIE: What happened to the middle of the joke?
ARCHIE: Sorry, Sid, but as Vice President I had to fade you off the air. We have to do those things, old man, even if it means cutting our own Strotz.

Ed Gardner on Duffy's Tavern
The broadcast may have also resolved the bout between comedians and NBC. During the first week of November, weeks after the new season of comedies premiered on the network, top comedians on the NBC skein are reportedly happy with the new attitude of management toward censorship of script material. The consensus of NBC comedians was that the network had at long last adopted a healthy approach toward censorship in which arbitrary rulings of the blue pencil boys were to be avoided in favor of a more reasonable policy of giving jokesters the benefit of the doubt.

Reaction of gagsters was brought into the open during the good-will mission of NBC programming vice president Ken Dyke, whose Hollywood junket was made primarily to consult with comic stars and hear their gripes. After a series of confidential talks with Eddie Cantor, Red Skelton, Art Linkletter, Ed Gardner and Jack Benny, it was learned that Dyke assured them that the web was operating under a new policy which would prevent recurrence of incidents similar to last season. Dyke reassured gagsters, however, that there would be no attempt to muzzle jokesters if material used is funny and free from dirt. Although none of the comedians divulged to reporters any details of their talks with Dyke, it was evident that the executive’s visit had done much to clear the air and erase ill feeling which existed prior.

Closing chapter to this story: In November, conferences were held with NBC talent, sponsors and agencies for the purpose of developing new methods to eliminate objectionable broadcast material which “might be offensive to American families listening to NBC programs.” NBC was receiving enthusiastic cooperation from all of the principal commercial shows and the new policy would be applied should it become necessary to fade a program because of objectionable script. First, NBC will inform both agency and client if any part of a script was found objectionable. Failing to obtain cooperation in the climination of objectionable phrases, both client and agency will be informed that the program would be faded for at least 30 seconds and the following announcement made on the network: “The National Broadcasting Company regrets the necessity of interrupting this program in order to delete which, in its opinion, would be objectionable to listeners in many American homes.” This cut and announcement would become standard, and NBC executives expressed the hope that with the better understanding now existing between NBC clients, agencies and talent, there would be few, if any, cases where it will be necessary to use it.

The above information is taken from the book about Duffy's Tavern from Bear Manor Media. Reprinted with permission.