If you’re a fan of comedy, study comedy or old enough to remember when Radio was the entertainment medium of choice, because TV wasn’t there yet, the name Fred Allen rings all sorts of bells with you. However, if you strain to remember who John Belushi was, never heard of the word vaudeville and only know Radio as the place you hear Rush Limbaugh, the name Fred Allen will mean absolutely nothing to you. And that’s truly a shame because, along with contemporaries Jack Benny, George Burns and many others, Allen influenced and were the cornerstones of what comedy has become today. Saturday Night Live can have its roots traced back to him – the entire genre of absurdist humor, so well epitomized by Monty Python has its roots in Fred Allen (of course, there was a whole other world of British humor – but there were cross-influences early on, during the days of vaudeville). Early TV pioneers, Ernie Kovacs, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, were all influenced to some degree by him.
Yet he doesn’t come up in conversation these days. One reason could be his early death (in 1956), the death of radio as an entertainment medium (at about 1949/1950), TV not sophisticated or technologically advanced enough in its early days to duplicate the absurd nature of Radio comedy. All of these things were factors in the disappearance of Fred Allen as a figure of note in the art of Comedy, especially American Comedy.
But Fred Allen was a staple in the diet of most Americans from the early days of radio up until 1949. His was a comedy of droll, absurdist humor – people and situations you couldn’t duplicate on screen. Because Radio has always been an “imagination medium”, Fred Allen was able to pull off a lot of situations which just couldn’t happen anywhere else. Ironically, Jack Benny, another pioneer in American Comedy was a colleague of Allen’s – they worked together in Vaudeville and were even manufactured rivals on Radio. Yet Benny succeeded where Allen didn’t – perhaps because Jack Benny developed situational comedy, rather than sketch comedy which could translate well to TV (just like Lucille Ball did when she transitioned over from My Favorite Husband on radio to I Love Lucy on TV).
Whatever factors conspired to defeat his career, his legacy, though largely not acknowledged in the world of comedy in 2018, owe much to this figure whose style and delivery were unique and whose vision was unparalleled.
As an example – here is one show, a post-Christmas episode from December 27, 1939, to give you some idea of who Fred Allen was and why his comedy was so influential.
It might be safe to say they don’t make them like this anymore. Perhaps some re-discovery and re-evaluation might be a good idea. No?