Fred Allen – Radio Comic Genius and Catholic | Catholic National Register


There is a story from the 19th century of a man who, due to his profession, was plagued with depressive sadness.

When he had finished his professional work at the end of the day, he realized that he did not want to be left alone to cry, he was so sensitive. In the end, he became so depressed and sick that he decided to see a doctor. The wise doctor was well aware of the symptoms presented and said to his patient: “Go see Grimaldi (then London’s most famous stage actor) and have a good laugh to yourself.”

The man looked at him before answering sadly, “I am Grimaldi.”

The comics are notoriously depressive. Take silent movie star Buster Keaton, who went from alcoholism to depression, until he was admitted to an institution where he used vaudeville tricks to escape from a straitjacket. . Or the case of the British comedian Tony Hancock who, the more famous and loved he became, the more he suffered from depression and morbidity. In 1964, at only 44 years old, at the height of his glory, he committed suicide. More recently, there is the example of comedian Robin Williams, who also committed suicide. The Hollywood star said: “I think the saddest people always do their best to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want someone. another feels like that. “

However, there are exceptions to every rule.

A household name in the 1930s and 1940s, Fred Allen was a comedian who was also a pioneer in harnessing the power of the cutting edge new medium of radio. Before radio he had been a moderately successful performing artist. By chance, he came across the then embryonic medium of radio. Without wanting to, he discovers there his true vocation, and also his true genius.

Allen was neither depressed nor suicidal. He has been married all his life to one woman, a rare phenomenon in show business. He was pleasant with those he worked with, appreciated by his fellow artists and loved by his audiences. He went to Holy Mass every Sunday at St. Malachy’s Church in Manhattan, near his place of residence. Occasionally he served mass. His faith was part of who he was, so much so that it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary about it. He simply lived and died as a faithful Catholic.

Allen was born to Irish parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 31, 1894. His real name was John Sullivan. His mother died when he was three years old. Raised later by an aunt, he left school at age 14 to work as a stock boy at the Boston Public Library. His job was to pick up and bring back the books from the library. It sounds boring; it turned out to be Sullivan’s fabrication. He has become a voracious reader. Deprived of the benefits of formal education, he became self-taught. It was during this time that Sullivan came across a book on comedy. It intrigued him so much that he started to read everything he could find on the subject.

In his spare time, he entertained others by juggling. By his own admission, however, he was not a juggler; Still, he entered a local talent competition and during his performance he stumbled upon something else. He noticed that the audience reacted more warmly to his jokes than to his real juggling. He decided to give comedy a try – eventually posing as “the world’s worst juggler”.

Soon the New York City vaudeville circuits beckoned. In 1916 he was on tour abroad, in Australia and New Zealand. The tours were long, but Sullivan put his time to good use – again reading. Many years later he said of that time: “I have learned that any joke or story can be told in many forms. … I came to Australia as a juggler and had to go back to America as a monologue.

In the 1920s, and now under the stage name Fred Allen, he gave more shows and tours, but in better and better places. In 1922, he met a chorister called Portland Hoffa. They will marry five years later. Over time, his wife would become part of his routine on stage. For the next 29 years, they were as close professionally as they were privately in their married life.

In 1932, as America felt the impact of the Depression, the stage show that Allen appeared in unexpectedly closed, and the next promised show did not materialize. Out of necessity, Allen saw radio as a potential source of work.

As had been his method of learning a new skill, Allen read and studied as much as he could on the still new, though increasingly popular, medium of radio. He made his radio debut on October 23, 1932, on the CBS network The Fred Allen radio show. Under various names of sponsors, this radio show will be broadcast every week until 1949. In doing so, it has become one of the most watched radio shows of the golden age of radio. With his humorous outlook on life, his laconic style of delivery, his ultra dry wit and above all his superb comic timing, the man had found his medium. Radio had unearthed supreme talent in Fred Allen and he would dominate the airwaves and influence many other performers who would come later.

While writing most of his own material, Allen’s content was always more than just gags. GK Chesterton once wrote: “Humor can seep under the door while seriousness still gropes at the handle. This could have been the slogan of The Fred Allen radio show. His radio shows watched the news, with a wry smile that never seemed to take anything too seriously. However, for all that, the attitude displayed in the shows was healthy – that everything is transitory, even our fears and our worries, and that we must therefore consider them with a smile.

Allen’s wit and verve, both verbal and mental, is what made his show run on a tide of jokes, puns and silliness. Whereas in the end, he manages to merge it all into something positive and strong, in the face of what the world throws at him.

Again, Chesterton had unwittingly summed up Allen when he wrote: “The mind is a thing of combat and a thing of work. A man can appreciate humor on his own; he can see a joke when no one else sees it; he can see the point and avoid it. But the mind is a sword; it is meant to make people feel the point and see it. “

This sword in the hands of a comedian could well be the biblical sword of truth, to which Saint Paul refers. Wit and humor are supremely human gifts. But like everything that makes us human, such gifts can be used to direct us either to our Creator or away from him. This is perhaps where the spiritual struggle of the actor lies.

Fittingly for an Irishman, Allen died of a heart attack on St. Patrick’s Day, 1956, while walking near his home in Manhattan. Rightly so, too, it was in the church of Saint-Malachie, where he was married and where he attended early Sunday mass, that his requiem took place a few days later.

In his 1954 autobiography, Conveyor belt to oblivion, Allen wrote: “All the comedian has to show for his years of hard work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughs.”

Without a doubt, many comics would agree with this claim. But in Allen’s case, we have to separate the man from the comic character. This line quoted in his autobiography is classic on Allen’s aerial comedy – ironic, world weary, besieged if all the time makes a tongue-in-cheek joke. However, Catholic John Sullivan knew that the “echo” bounces far beyond the stages and music halls of this world and in doing so reaches the one audience that really matters – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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