I’m not much of a late-night television viewer, but it is hard to work where I do and not be aware of the plight of David Letterman, currently recuperating from heart surgery and thus leaving a void in the lives of several friends and colleagues. While I’m not the person to evaluate Mr. Letterman’s contribution to the American conversation, I think I have the perfect candidate to stand in his stead while he recuperates. The only trouble is that Fred Allen has been dead since 1956.
Allen, for all you whippersnappers out there who believe that topical and even controversial mass-market comedy was invented on late-night television, was the Letterman of radio. He was the person listeners turned to for biting, smart, literate humor on the topics of the moment. His show took several forms over the course of nearly two decades–an hourlong program called Town Hall Tonight , then a half-hour show called Texaco Star Theater –and he attracted to his company such people as Herman Wouk and John Steinbeck, who were dear friends of his, as well as fans. Like Mr. Letterman, Allen made his name on NBC and could match Letterman’s contempt for the network, and indeed for the corporate world’s stultifying fear of creativity. Allen, who served as his own scriptwriter, once wrote a parody of a Gilbert & Sullivan opera that included a song with the following lyrics:
If you want to know who we are,
We’re the hucksters of radio.
We’re the vice presidents and clerks,
Confidentially, we’re all jerks.
He planned to include the song in one of his shows. It will come as no surprise that NBC declined the privilege of airing this material, and, in a later battle with Allen, the network simply cut off his show as he launched into a bit of satire about corporate radio. Bob Hope and Red Skelton protested on the air, and NBC cut off their shows, too. As Allen’s biographer, Robert Taylor, noted, the case became a celebrated First Amendment issue, and NBC eventually capitulated after Allen announced that his next show would consist entirely of recitations from fairy tales. “This apparently is the only kind of program I can put on that will meet the approval of all those vice presidents,” he said.
Allen comes to mind these days for another reason: His brilliant radio career came to an end when his show was buried under an avalanche of money–money that the radio vice presidents gave away in hopes of retaining their dwindling audiences. Were Allen alive today, he would recognize in the plethora of prime-time giveaway quiz shows the death rattle of network television.
The culprit in Allen’s time was a show called Stop the Music , which was broadcast on ABC–yes, the ancestors of the creative people who stole an idea from British television and promised to make millionaires on the air. The host of Stop the Music was none other than Bert Parks, whose professional, if not personal, genes have been transmitted to today’s money-givers. Stop the Music was, in biographer Robert Taylor’s words, “mindless, philistine and stale”–and its ratings wound up driving Allen off the air.
Network television in 2000 is like radio in 1949. The abyss is visible and not very far away, and the vice presidents can think of nothing except gimmicks, and not very original gimmicks at that, to slow their long march to oblivion.
It is pleasant to imagine Allen in Mr. Letterman’s chair, waxing acerbic about his bosses. Confidentially, he certainly would recognize them, all these years later.
LAST WEEK IN THIS SPACE, WE DISCUSSED THE LIFE AND TIMES of Lady Nancy Astor, the Hitler appeaser celebrated in the current issue of Vanity Fair . My friend Dermot McEvoy reminds me about another charming anecdote not included in the magazine’s piece. In 1944, she referred to the British Eighth Army as “D-Day dodgers” who were “sunning themselves in Italy.” The heroic Eighth Army, which drove Erwin Rommel from North Africa, fought in some of the war’s bloodiest battles. One British soldier who took part in the Italian campaign wrote a little ditty in response to Vanity Fair ‘s heroine. Called “The D-Day Dodgers,” it became a popular wartime song among the country’s working classes. It hilariously described German soldiers making tea, and then concluded with a fine bit of verse:
Dear Lady Astor, you think you know a lot,
Standin’ on a platform and talkin’ tommyrot.
You’re England’s sweetheart, her joy and pride.
But we think your mouth’s too bloody wide.
What an appalling individual. And what an appropriate inductee into the Condé Nast World History Hall of Fame.