Fred Allen wasn’t necessarily thrilled when a change in the advertising agency handling his sponsor’s account compelled a title and slight format adjustment away from his groundbreaking Town Hall Tonight.
The new agency was governed, Allen would write (in Treadmill to Oblivion) by a former college football quarterback who “could never recognise one of [his former teammates] until he had asked him to bend over.”
The president was going through life as a quarterback running the team. He also did some of this thinking at the quarterback’s working level. Only two people think lower than a quarterback—a sandhog on the job and a man looking out of a manhole.
When our Town Hall Tonight program was taken over by the new agency things began to happen—mostly to us. The college quarterback began sending turtle-necked memos which intimated that, as the mink said when it backed into the electric fan, “the fur is going to fly.” The show was going to receive “All of the agency’s thinking,” which meant that everything we were doing was going to be overhauled completely. We were told that the Town Hall idea was corny. The most popular show in radio at that time was Jack Benny’s. Jack had a group of pleasant people gathered around the microphone to engage in an informal half-hour of comedy, music, and song. The quarterback, being an advertising man, knew the importance of the word “copy.” His solution was that all we needed to improve our show was to copy the Benny program in style and structure.
I tried to explain the value of the Town Hall title and the appeal the locale had to small-town listeners. He said that the Jack Benny-type show was the trend. I argued that no two comedians could use the same methods. A comedian can only be funny doing and saying the things that fit his personality and feel right to him. The quarterback’s reply bluntly stated that Jack Benny’s show had the largest audience on any network. The size of our audience could be improved. My rejoinder asserted that no one person can please everybody. Heinz made 57 varities of pickles yet he did not please all of the pickle lovers. I claimed that radio was like the pickle business. Let Jack Benny go along selling his big dill. I would take the other side of the street and peddle my little gherkins. It was as futile as trying to convince a Russian delegate at the U.N. Nothing helped. The Town Hall title disappeared. We became just another group of actors gathered around a microphone in a radio studio. The colourful illusion had been completely stripped from the program.
The quarterback, as Allen called him, did concede one point: Allen was allowed to retain the established “Town Hall News” segment (sees nothing, tells all), changing only its name, to the “March of Trivia.”
Yet in retrospect and immediately, Allen—who may have been annoyed at stripping the Town Hall “illusion”—may well have the last laugh. The new Fred Allen Show, sometimes referred to by its slogan, “An Hour of Smiles,” manages to avoid “the quarterback’s” insistence that its protagonist and his company shift it to the emerging Benny style. And it will remain one of radio’s most engaging and singular hours, even if Allen is stripped of the labeling he feels secures the show’s ambience.
The cast remains the Mighty Allen Art Players, and—identifier notwithstanding—Allen and his two new writers, Arnold Auerbach and Herman Wouk (yes, kiddies: that Herman Wouk) will maintain as much of the sophisticated small-town air as possible. Allen, Auerbach, and Wouk will even develop two new recurring segments, “People You Don’t Expect to Meet” and “Mr. and Mrs. Average Man’s Round Table,” a delightful satire of The University of Chicago Round Table that probably throws a hint toward the eventual parodists of Information, Please who will respond with It Pays to Be Ignorant.
Allen won’t write quite so specifically about it in Treadmill to Oblivion, but the quarterback was actually wrong about something else: Jack Benny’s was not the most popular radio show of 1938-39. He finished the regular season with a Hooper rating of 27.7—good enough for a mere second place, behind Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy’s Chase and Sanborn Hour and its 32.2.
Town Hall Tonight finished the same season tied for fourteenth place (with Big Town) with a 15.3 rating. Most likely, the show’s fall from a sixth-place 1937-38 finish panicked the new ad agency—even though Town Hall Tonight was Wednesday night’s most popular comedy of any kind for the final two seasons it aired under that title and motif.
It may provide Allen a quietly perverse laugh to know that, under whatever title, the show would continue to be Wednesday night’s most popular comedy for the rest of the 1939-40 season.
Tonight: Appropriately enough for election-season listeners of the future, the master and his pack (Portland Hoffa, Minerva Pious, Jack Smart, Charles Cantor) take a (somewhat) good-natured zap at polling and surveying, among other mayhem.
Announcer: Harry Von Zell: Music: Peter Van Steeden orchestra. Director: Probably Vick Knight. Writers: Fred Allen, Arnold Auerbach, Herman Wouk.