The CBS talent raids of 1948-49 have lured NBC bellwethers Amos ‘n’ Andy and Jack Benny (with a small host of performers following Benny) over the bridge. NBC’s retaliation has been, thus far, to launch its own talent hunt. Barely was NBC in Benny’s rear view mirror when the network announced to one and all that it sought fresh, younger comers to bring to its radio and television networks.
At 1949′s beginning, or near enough to it, one NBC executive happened to be in a New York nightclub catching the act of a pair who’d been working as a team for a few years, with a reputation among industry insiders as possibly the hottest (and likely the wildest) comedy act to come down the pipe in several years.
The straight-man-with-stooge wasn’t necessarily a new concept, on radio or elsewhere, as anyone with memories of vaudeville, or of Ed Wynn, the Fire Chief and Wynn’s second banana Graham McNamee on NBC over a decade earlier, or of Abbot & Costello contemporarily, could affirm. But few straight men had Dean Martin’s singing voice, whatever you think of his style, and no stooge was as crazed as Jerry Lewis. Between them, the pair made Wynn, Abbott & Costello, and Milton Berle resemble the comatose.
The only problem with Martin & Lewis seems to have been that it was the industry insiders who knew more about the pair than the general public did. But their nightclub act has drawn rave reviews from everyone who’s seen it, mostly, which should have made the team a television natural, for awhile, anyway. On radio, alas, there’s very little if any groundbreaking. John Dunning (in On the Air) would eulogise it appropriately enough:
NBC offered a contract, the pair moved to Hollywood, and their show was concocted over the next three months. Expectations were high for the April premiere. The budget was huge, reportedly $10,000 a week, and this enabled the producers to hire top guests (Lucille Ball for the first broadcast). But the show was unexciting, and the critics said so . . . Like Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis was a visual comic, dependent on mugging. It was standard variety fare: an opening song by Martin, some verbal slapstick, a guest spot, more Lewis antics, and a closing number by Martin.
Despite the lack of success, NBC wanted it back after a short season, upping the fall ante to a reported $12,000 a week. Maestro Dick Stabile became one of Lewis’s main foils, but Lewis was screechy and shrill, and the show closed at the end of the season. Martin & Lewis went into movies, but returned to NBC in the fall of 1951. Martin was billed as “master of ceremonies.” Lewis inevitably arrived “late,” turning up at the end of Martin’s song, which he (Lewis) continued to sing in that terrible screech. But it was more of the same, a short season and an uninspired encore.
And, uninspiring ratings. Martin & Lewis on radio aren’t even a topic on Sunday nights at 6:30pm. In fairness, by the time they premiered the big topics on Sunday night were (and would remain) Jack Benny’s maiden half-season on CBS following his defection from NBC; and, Fred Allen’s elbowing-to-one-side by Stop the Music at 8:00pm. Between that and a still-powerhouse competition—in which Amos ‘n’ Andy, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Walter Winchell (who actually squeezes in between Benny at the top and Bergen-McCarthy in third place on the night), and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show are Benny’s fellow heavyweights (though none, of course, with quite his punching power)a—Martin & Lewis may not have stood a chance even with a better vehicle, even if they could have translated to radio what’s making them a nightclub hit.
Why does NBC lack the foresight to put them right to television, even allowing the network might be using its radio network by now as a kind of testing ground for possible television hits? Not only will Martin & Lewis prove a hit in films for awhile, they’ll be a hit when they’re part of Ed Sullivan’s maiden Toast of the Town. They’ll be the hottest comedy team in the business for a spell of the early 1950s. And they’ll make NBC look even more foolish over its very own air, making numerous successful appearances (including the 1950 premiere) on its own television hit, The Colgate Comedy Hour.
Not as foolish, alas, as Martin & Lewis will make themselves look with their acrimonious split in 1956. Martin will tire of the films that seem more and more, to him, to be excuses for Lewis’s antics. Lewis—whom critics genuinely believe the real talent in the team—will be bewildered by Martin’s rising unease. (Not to mention Martin’s own foolish tongue, infamously lashing out to his partner, “You’re nothing but a f—king dollar sign to me!”)
The pair goes on to separate successes and, contrary to popular mythology, to have a few scattered surprise, informal reunions, until mutual pal Sinatra brokers their formal reconciliation in 1976. It won’t restore their professional partnership, but it will help the two men restore their friendship, which lasts until Martin’s death in 1995.
Tonight: Our heroes have separate plans for the evening—Dean (Martin) has a theater invitation from guest John Carradine, Jerry has a date with the studio secretary and plans to buy a toy for Carradine’s nephew (Len Dale)—a child who turns out to be something of a whiz kid—plus the usual Martin croonery and Lewis shrillery.
Additional cast: Paul McMichael. Announcer: Ed Herlihy. Music: Dick Stabile Orchestra. Director: Robert L. Redd. Writers: Dick McKnight, Ray Allen.