Henry Morgan isn’t now and never will be a ratings champion. Which probably doesn’t bother him when all is said and done. The now 31-year-old satirist is forging a career as something of a contemporary version of Fred Allen: the cerebral cynic who doesn’t quite wrap to broadcasting’s conceits and takes a cheerful bludgeon to them, caring almost nothing for the consequences.
After a few years’ worth of becoming a cult darling who’s a hit with the New York intelligentsia and select, more sophisticated radio entertainers (his admirers include James Thurber and Robert Benchley in hand with Fred Allen and Fanny Brice), Morgan finds himself gone network half-hour. About the only thing that changes from his legendary, fifteen-minute nightly bludgeon Here’s Morgan, is that Morgan now engages a team of writers (Aaron Ruben, Carroll Moore, Jr. and Joe Stein), a full orchestra (Bernie Green’s), and a cast that could be called the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players: Arnold Stang, Florence Halop (for a time Miss Duffy on Duffy’s Tavern), Madeline Lee, and Art Carney.
Other than that, little else has changed. As had previous sponsors such as Life Saver’s and Adler Elevator Shoes, Morgan’s new sponsor Eversharp, promoting its Schick injector razors, provides him a too-inviting foil. He’ll come up with so many barbs tied to the product’s slogan (“push-pull, click-click”—and Morgan’s “push-pull, nick-nick” will be just one) that Eversharp will dump him after this season.
The official reason will be given as “flabby material” followed by “low ratings.” The real reason could be gleaned from Morgan’s on-the-air crack after he learned they would dump him: “It isn’t my show, it was their razor.” Unfortunately, Eversharp has one thing right: The Henry Morgan Show isn’t exactly a smash.
In fact, ABC gives Morgan a priceless lead-in come January 1947: it puts him aboard at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night—immediately following Bing Crosby’s Philco Radio Time. The only thing keeping Crosby from the number one showing on Wednesday nights this season (his Hooper rating: 17.6) is Mr. District Attorney. (18.5.) You’d have been hard pressed to get a better lead-in even allowing the comparatively late hour.
But Morgan will actually lose over fifty percent of the audience Crosby’s lead-in offers. Forget the top fifty; Morgan won’t even be seen knocking on the door of the top two hundred.
About the only thing to keep him on the air until circa 1951 will be the critics who adore his cheerful shredding of sponsors (he’ll be particularly merciless when Rayve Shampoo picks him up following the Eversharp dump), advertising executives, radio cliches, and just about any other show business pretense, to extents even Fred Allen didn’t dare to reach; and, the radio entertainers (Allen is one) who find him engaging enough for guest shots.
By then, Morgan will seem to have overstayed his welcome by a few years. Even his admirers will seem to believe that Morgan simply doesn’t know how to refine his barbed style up to but not beyond the point at which even those who understand and appreciate his satirical relentlessness tire of such a tirelessly negative attitude, even if sticking it to the Establishment is never a terrible idea in its own right.
Only in the decades following his brief heyday as a network radio comedian will Morgan be seen for what he really is: somewhat ahead of his time as a media satirist.
TUNE IN TONIGHT . . .
You’ll never hear it examined and discussed quite the way it is here, with Morgan’s customary, cantankerously cheerful cheekiness. You can also take it as a continuing zap against an earlier nemesis: the U.S. Navy, who once objected and protested, almost continuously, to Morgan’s earlier mock weather reports, such as the immortal “High winds, followed by high skirts, followed by men.”
Gerard: Arnold Stang. Additional cast: Art Carney, Florence Halop, Madeline Lee. Announcer: Jay Stewart. Music: Bernie Green Orchestra. Director: Charles Powers. Writers: Henry Morgan, Aaron Ruben, Carroll Moore, Jr., Joe Stein.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Vic & Sade: Vic’s Christmas List (NBC, 1941)—Bernadine Flynn, Art Van Harvey, Bill Idelson. Vic enjoys a quiet game of solitaire until Sade (Bernadine Flynn) finds what she thinks is a rather extravagant Christmas gift list he almost threw in the trash—including names she’s never heard of. Classic calm absurdism. Writer/director: Paul Rhymer.
The Life of Riley: Piano Lessons for Junior (NBC, 1945)—William Bendix, Conrad Binyon, Paula Winslowe, Sharon Douglas, Scotty Beckett. Gills bragging at lunch about his piano-playing kid gives Riley the (what a surprise) absolute wrong hare-brained idea. If you’re a fan, you’ll love it. Writers: Leonard Bercovici, Alan Lipscott, Ruben Shipp, Robert Sloane.
The Mel Blanc Show: Mel Breaks the New Radio (CBS, 1946)—Mel Blanc, Joseph Kearns, Mary Jane Croft, Hans Conreid. Colby lets Mel come back to see Betty on condition he not even think about fixing the Colby radio he accidentally broke. One of the better entries in this short-lived, ill-fitting exercise. Director: Joe Rines. Writer: Mac Benoff.
Our Miss Brooks: Indian Burial Grounds (CBS, 1950)—Eve Arden, Gale Gordon, Jane Morgan, Gloria McMillan, Richard Crenna, Jeff Chandler, Leonard Smith. Conklin’s in for a rude surprise when he thinks a property he owns sits on a sacred Indian burial site. And that’s no sitting bull. Writer/director: Al Lewis.
Bold Venture: The Mutineers of the Marino Victory (ZIV Syndication, 1951)—Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Nestor Paiva, Jester Hairston. Slate and Sailor are hijacked by two men who killed their ship’s captain and first mate on behalf of a dope shipment they tried to protect. Almost typical Bogie and Baby stuff and not half bad at that. Writers: Morton Fine, David Friedkin.
The Big Show: Series Premiere (NBC, 1950)—Host: Tallulah Bankhead. Guests: Fred Allen, Mindy Carson, Jimmy Durante, Jose Ferrer, Portland Hoffa, Frankie Laine, Paul Lukas, Ethel Merman, Russell Nype, Danny Thomas, Meredith Willson. Hostess: Tallulah Bankhead. The NBC extravaganza intended as network radio’s last gasp at classic variety premieres tonight with a flood of wit and a wealth of genuine variety. “[G]ood enough,” as New York Times critic Jack Gould cracks, “to make one wish he could have seen it.” Writers: Goodman Ace, George Foster, Frank Wilson.