One of old-time radio’s greatest comic stunts might have been inspired by politics on the surface, but it also drew inspiration from its protagonists’ ratings drop . . . and proved only to be a short-term fix in the end. Which, come to think of it, is just about what most political fixes prove to be, no?
George Burns and Gracie Allen are in a ratings slide for a third year when someone—depending on the sources, either George’s brother, William, or one of the other couple’s writers—mentions that Allen had done just about everything but run for president, and Burns lights up hollering, “That’s it!” What kind of mad fun could the couple have now, with Gracie on a campaign tour of sorts in which she even drops in on other radio shows on behalf of her Surprise Party candidacy, and while she was at it make monkeys out of politics as usual?
And hadn’t a similar gambit worked once before, in 1933, when they dreamed up the stunt about Gracie’s missing brother? Besides, by the time Gracie hits the hustings Burns & Allen were on their fifth network, sponsor, day, and time slot switches in eight seasons. It might be to wonder whether the constant switches haven’t helped keep their ratings in the tank or near enough to it.
So Gracie’s off and running. She’ll even whistle-stop the country, sort of, promoting the gag. There’ll be magazine articles under her byline, a small book, and one of the zaniest campaign songs in American political (anti-political?) history. And the stunt will work—sort of. Burns & Allen will return to the seasonal top fifty, with a 21st-place finish overall and landing in the top ten on Wednesday nights.
The bad news: Their Hooper rating (14.3) is actually a point or two lower than their previous season’s rating. The best news: Running on the platform “Down with Common Sense” probably doesn’t embarrass anyone, unlike the missing-brother stunt, which cause Gracie’s real-life brother no end of grief; the publicity-shy accountant disappeared for real, as best he could, until the gag ran its course.
The problem with the presidential racie, alas, is that it doesn’t address the real Burns & Allen problem: The still-lingering vaudeville overtones and the continuing flirtation act (Gracie the flirt, with just about every male crossing the microphones except the one to whom she is married off-mike) make less and less sense, all things considered, when one also considers the couple’s real-life marriage.
It’ll take another two years before George Burns gets the proverbial a-ha! and flips the show inside out. Out goes the vaudeville, away goes most of the flirtation act, and in comes the couple as only a slight exaggeration of their actual married selves.
That, however, will be then. Tonight is now. And from launch to climax it will prove a hoot. And a revelation, in its perverse way.
George (Burns) is surprised to discover the Surprise Party has a presidential candidate, “because that’s the only way you can get to the White House, you can’t just walk in and sit down!” Which is nothing, of course, compared to what he doesn’t think when he learns she’s promised the entire cast government jobs if she’s elected.
Sixty-two years later, this installment, indeed the entire gag (it will last for twelve weeks, right to the end of the season), will stand as a damning commentary on American politics, politicians, and government in the middle of Burns and Allen’s linguistic lunacy. Politicians will yet promise voters, essentially, that if they can’t find a way to reduce the high cost of living, then we’ll just have to do without it.
And that still threatens to be just about the only promise an American politician, thinking there is just about nowhere in American life where government doesn’t belong, can keep.
Additional cast: Mel Blanc, possibly Bea Benaderet, Truman Bradley. Announcer: Truman Bradley. Music: Ray Noble Orchestra, Frank Parker. Writers: Paul Henning, Keith Fowler, George Burns, possibly Harvey Helm.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: Jack Plays “The Bee” (comedy; NBC, 1937)
The Fred Allen Show: Life at the South Pole (comedy; NBC, 1940)
Lux Radio Theater: Guadalcanal Diary (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1944)
Escape: How Love Came to Professor Guildea (adventure; CBS, 1948)
mr. ace and JANE: Hiring a Maid (comedy; CBS, 1948)