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Fred Allen

Fred Allen (May 31, 1894 - March 17, 1956) was an American comedian best known for his witty, pointed radio programs of the 1930s and 1940s, including a comic feud with comedian Jack Benny. Allen was famous among his peers for his ability to ad-lib - a skill that Benny famously paid tribute to, responding to a mock insult with the line "You wouldn't say that if my writers were here."

Allen was born John Florence Sullivan in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He started off his professional career as Freddy St. James but a mix-up at a venue turned out to be a blessing. Edgar Allen was booked at the same place as Freddy James but the front office accidentally promoted the appearance of Edgar James and Fred Allen.

Fred Allen started his career in radio the same year as Jack Benny, 1932. Allen hit it big with the program Town Hall Tonight in 1934, the same year Jack Benny rose in the ranks of radio with 'The Jell-O Program'. Their feud started in the mid-1930s and in a testament of the times, people actually believed in this feud so much that a boxing match between the two was staged and it was sold out.

Allen's humor was topical, which has limited its appeal to modern audiences. He fussed and moaned about corporate America and the absurdity of the times. It is due to Allen's talent that his fussing wasn't taken the wrong way. To a newcomer his comedy can be taken as the work of an eternal pessimist, but a more concentrated listening will hear hopeful optimism. The goal of a satirist is to bring about change in the subject, and from that angle, Allen was optimistic in his hopes that his satire would change corporate America.

Most of Allen's material was written by himself. He employed a few writers but they more or less served as consultants and sounding boards in the rough-drafts. The final scripts were always written by Allen.

After Town Hall Tonight, Allen moved to his own self-named show {a rarity in those days of sponsor-billed shows}, then in 1940, to CBS and hosted 'Texaco Star Theatre'. His famous Allen's Alley routine began in December 1942. Hypertension caused him to leave radio in early 1944, although he returned to NBC in late 1945 with the Allen's Alley routines that many remember: Kenny Delmar as "Senator Claghorne", Parker Fennelly as "Titus Moody", Minerva Pious as "Mrs. Nussbaum", and Peter Donald as "Ajax Cassidy". At times Alan Reed would fill in for Donald with the poet "Falstaff Openshaw".

In 1948 Allen's radio career hit a major roadblock when a quiz program called Stop The Music, in which listeners called in to play the game. Allen remained in competition with the program until 1949 when his ratings were so low compared that he was taken off the air after 17 years in radio.

One problem with modern appreciation of Allen's routes is political correctness. Allen's comic stereotypes make many people today cringe. His Allen's Alley segment, for example, contained four stereotype characters: the Southern politician, the New England farmer, the Jewish wife, and the ranting Irishman.

Fred's female second banana was his wife, Portland Hoffa, whose role was to simply stroll on-air exclaiming: "Mister Allen! Mis...ter Allen!" and then launch into a routine with Fred, usually about her mother. Hoffa remained with Allen throughout his entire radio show. Unlike Jack Benny, who used wife Mary Livingstone as more or less his ego deflator, Fred used Portland's child-like un-professional delivery to comedically prop his ego.

Allen's career faded with the advent of television, although many say he paved the way for later satirists such as Stan Freberg in the 1950s and late-night talk show host David Letterman. Allen remained busy as a newspaper humorist and sporadic columnist. His major work in TV was a two-year run as a panelist on the quiz show What's My Line? from 1954 until his death in 1956.

Allen also wrote books, such as Much Ado About Me and Treadmill to Oblivion.

Source material

Robert Taylor wrote a 1989 biography, Fred Allen: His Life and Wit.