Monday, August 6, 2012

Much Ado About Me

I've been a lifetime student of comedy, and part of that, for me, has included listening to old radio shows from the 30's and 40's. That was how I first discovered Fred Allen. He had a kind of fun, homespun radio comedy show that consisted of monologues, comedy sketches, and music, really, a kind of middle America version of the Jack Benny show. The two shows often poked fun at each other, and I came to realize that the David Letterman / Jay Leno battle for ratings had happened in almost exactly the same way about fifty years earlier between Benny and Allen.

Fred Allen has long fascinated me because he was very popular (if I understand right, he had better ratings than Benny did) but today he is largely forgotten. Perhaps this is because he didn't make the transition to TV? Maybe the more mainstream comedians are the ones that get forgotten? I'm not sure. Anyway, I was in New Orleans a little while ago, and with an hour to spare, I visited Beckham's Books, and the first thing to catch my eye was "Much Ado About Me", Fred Allen's autobiography.

Reading it, I was shocked to learn I had a few things in common with Fred Allen:
- We both grew up in Massachusetts
- We both got our start in entertainment as professional jugglers
- We both got a pretty good entertainment education from some not-too-trustworthy mentors
- We both made use of advice from John Steinbeck when writing our books
- We both used a "franchised" pseudo-vaudeville system to eventually propel ourselves into the big time. (his pseudo-vaudeville: franchised local talent nights; mine: franchised amusement park entertainment. His big time: The Palace; mine: Disney Imagineering)

Anyway, this book is primarily about his Vaudeville career -- he doesn't touch on his radio career much, because he had already done that in another book (which I want to seek out), "Treadmill to Oblivion." Reading the details about how Vaudeville worked, and how he made his was through it were absolutely fascinating to me. He gets into all kinds of details about his act, and how he marketed himself ("World's Worst Juggler", for example), and what the day to day of real Vaudeville was like. The book was incredibly readable and approachable. Since I used to listen to Fred's show a lot, I know his voice, which is very distinctive, and it is clear there was no ghost writer -- I could hear his voice on every page of the book. The foreword of the book is especially notable, and so I include it here, in full.

Some years ago John Steinbeck offered to help me with a book. I didn’t know how to write a book. John listed some rudimentary suggestions for the beginner. I pass them on to you. John wrote:
       Don’t start by trying to make the book chronological. Just take a period. Then try to remember it so clearly that you can see things: what colors and how warm or cold and how you got there. Then try to remember people. And then just tell what happened. It is important to tell what people looked like, how they walked, what they wore, what they ate. Put it all in. Don’t try to organize it. And put in all the details you can remember. You will find that in a very short time things will begin coming back to you, you thought you had forgotten. Do it for very short periods at first but kind of think of it when you aren’t doing it. Don’t think back over what you have done. Don’t think of literary form. Let it get out as it wants to. Over tell it in the matter of detail—cutting comes later. The form will develop in the telling. Don’t make telling follow a form.
Fortified with John Steinbeck’s advice I am starting my autobiography.
In short, if amusing tales from the days of Vaudeville interest you, I recommend this book highly.

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