The two close friends had been arguing all afternoon. They were also laughing at the absurdity of their argument. The argument was all in the script. They were radio stars, Fred Allen and Jack Benny. The argument—they called it a “feud”—was all in the writing. It was the late 1940s. Everyone knew that it would soon be The End of radio. Allen knew it. Benny knew it. The script writers knew it. All the comedians figured that they had better start wearing dresses like Milton Berle. They had better start squirting each other with seltzer bottles. It didn’t matter what they said anymore. Nothing like that mattered. You had to look funny.
When it was radio, no one paid any attention to what anyone looked like. William Conrad, a short, fat, balding man who played Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, thought he would go on to play Matt Dillon on television. After all, he had made movies. He knew how to act in front of a camera. But only his voice was six foot tall and ruggedly handsome. He was a short, fat radio actor. James Arness got the part. That’s how it was in those days. The money moved what moved and the money was being taken out of radio and being put into television.
“You, uh, you finished tonight, didn’t you, Jack,” said Allen to Benny in the script. Benny had, for the season. “Yes,” said Jack carelessly. “Every year the sponsor and I say goodbye and shake hands and…yikes!” “What’s wrong?” asked Allen. “This year he didn’t shake hands.” Whoo hoo it was funny. Darkness was descending on radio, which had encouraged everybody to “turn out your lights.” The brightly lit radio dials were on the wane. “I don’t care about TV,” people would say, “I’ll stick with radio.” “TV is good for shut-ins, not for regular people.” (Why was radio not good for shut-ins?) The great radio producer William Spier gave people buttons that said, Help stamp out TV, recalling a slogan of the time, Help stamp out TB.
For a while, Fred Allen was king of the airwaves. Then it was discovered how to destroy him. Not just win; destroy him. His competition gave away money. That’s what the audience really cares about. That’s what the bourgeoisie has in its bones. If you listened and you knew the name of a song, they would give you money. But you had to listen. That’s how Fred Allen went down. Intellectual wit came bang against moneygreed and lost, lost, lost.
The poet wrote: The idea is that there is a link between self-criticism, feelings of worthlessness, and bourgeois morality. Is that possible? Does the one feed upon the other? Feelings of terrible self-criticism, worthlessness are in their way socially unacceptable. Bourgeois morality is extremely socially acceptable. Is it possible that the one masks itself as the other—and thus achieves a permanence and a place of honor in one’s consciousness? Is it possible that bourgeois morality and feelings of worthlessness, even of self-destruction, are, at base, one and the same? Bourgeois morality brought radio down.
“To stay on the air, you gotta give stuff away,” said Allen from the script, remembering his audience. “I’ve got a new quiz show; it’s called ‘Break the Contestant.’” So, ha ha, in the script, Benny “disguises himself”—this wasn’t hard to do on radio!—and enters Allen’s contest. He wins! But no, he has been recognized. “You’re king for a day!” says Allen, mocking Benny in the script. “Come on, men, the king has to have new robes. Take off his pants.” This was radio, but it had an audience of people watching. This show gave those people something to see. It was like Milton Berle wearing a dress. “Allen,” snarled Benny as his pants were removed, “you haven’t seen The End of me!” “No, king, I haven't,” said Allen, “but it’s coming up soon.” Good night, folks, we’re a little late.
Jack Foley is