what i'm watching: old timey tv and old timey ads

One of my favourite comedies has always been "The Burns and Allen Show," the old TV vehicle for the comedy team of Gracie Allen and George Burns. The show's entire run (1950-1958) was finished before I was born, but in my days as an insomniac teenager and young adult, I would watch late-night re-runs, and I fell in love with this show.

Burns and Allen, who were married, began their act onstage in vaudeville, then moved to radio in the heyday of that medium, then had a popular TV show from the earliest days of television. Gracie was the comedian, playing on her supposedly addle-headed, ditzy, unique way of seeing the world, and George was her straight man. (Interestingly, their stage act originally featured George as the air-head and Gracie as the straight, but Gracie was getting all the laughs, so they switched roles.)

One of Burns and Allen's long-running gags was that George would be poor and unknown if it weren't for Gracie. This reflected real-life common wisdom that Gracie was the star, and George would have no career without her. Gracie retired in 1958 and died in 1964. As you may know, George Burns went on to have an entire second career making movies and doing standup, especially known for his role as God in the "Oh, God" movies. He died in 1996 at 100 years old.

"The Burns and Allen Show", although predictable, corny and dated (and hilarious), had some post-modern touches that put it way ahead of its time. George served as narrator, setting up Gracie's situations, and stepping in and out of the frame. The borders of the set were left visible on a proscenium stage, so George could walk in and out of the action. If you've seen "It's Garry Shandling's Show," where Shandling rode a golf cart to the fake sitcom set, that was an homage to Burns and Allen. The action also stopped for George to do standup on related themes, similar to the opening and closing frames of "Seinfeld". Later in the series' run, George would turn on a TV and watch Gracie and their neighbours, Harry and Blanche Morton - "Let's see what the Mortons are up to..." - while he smoked his cigar and addressed the audience.

I love The Burns and Allen Show, and I absolutely love Gracie Allen, a comic genius. I hadn't seen the show in years - decades - and I always wanted to re-watch it on DVD. A few months ago, Allan surprised me with more than 100 episodes on DVD, somebody's homemade package being sold online.

We started watching it, thinking we could go through the entire series in order, but we've been disabused of this completest plan. As is often the case with the early days of a great comedy, the beginning was rough. The show needed more time to develop, and was probably still making the switch from radio to television. So instead, we're going to sample various seasons until we find where The Funny begins, and watch from there.

In the early days of television, shows had a single sponsor that was strongly associated with the show, another holdover from radio. The sponsor often enjoyed top billing, such as "Maxwell House Coffee Time" or "Texaco Star Theater". This had mostly stopped before my time. The one show I remember that retained that type of title was "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom", which people of my generation grew up watching on Sunday nights - "before Disney," as we all said.

Not only did shows have single sponsors, but ads were part of the show, and much more conspicuous than current product placement or other forms of embedded marketing these days. The only analog that I can think of today is (sadly) the in-game advertising we are subjected to during baseball games, where someone sits in the announcer's booth for an inning, and the announcers and the guest "chat" about the product during the game. In these old shows, the ads were performed by the show's "announcer" - another radio holdover, and a precursor of the late-night co-host. This freed the show's star from unseemly shilling, and in George Burns' and other's cases, allowed them to distance themselves with irreverent snarky comments about having to do the ads.

The Burns and Allen Show was sponsored by "Carnation Evaporated Milk, the milk from contented cows". Each show contained two or more scenes in which coffee, or baking, or some form of cooking - or even Gracie receiving a bouquet of carnations! - figured in. Then the comedy stops and the announcer launches into a long spiel about the benefits of Carnation evaporated milk. (For Burns and Allen fans, this is Harry Von Zell*, except for the first season, I was surprised to learn a different announcer, Bill Goodwin, was part of the show.)

In some scenes, the characters themselves extol the virtues of having been raised as a "Carnation baby" or how wonderful the cake was because the icing was made with Carnation evaporated milk, or how silly Gracie wondered how you get milk from a bunch of carnations. It's a full-fledged commercial, but the show doesn't stop, break for ads, then resume, the way we're accustomed to. It's similar to today's embedded marketing, but much cruder. Although who knows, as we continue to mute and skip commercials, this technique might be revived.

* This made the Burns and Allen Show very unusual in having two characters with the same first name, Harry Morton and Harry Von Zell. The latter Harry was already referred to as "HarryVonZell".


johngoldfine said...

I was a first-run watcher and adored Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Jackie Gleason, Steve Allen, Phil Silvers...

....but hated Lucy, Ozzie and Harriet, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Ernie Kovacs, Red Skelton, Garry Moore.

The only pattern I can see is a possible distaste for slapstick...except that I never got tired of the Three Stooges, who were somewhat less than cerebral.

laura k said...

I'm a Honeymooners fanatic, love I Love Lucy and love Sergeant Bilko. But I can't say I liked Jackie Gleason in all guises, only Ralph Kramden.

Never liked Jack Benny (George Burns' best friend) and absolutely cannot fathom what was ever considered funny about Milton Berle.

Can take or leave everyone else on that list.

My love for Burns & Allen and The Honeymooners isn't based in nostalgia, though - just pure laughs. I hope I communicated that.

laura k said...

I hate The Three Stooges, btw. I'm pretty sure this is the only point I'm willing to concede is gender-based.

Amy said...

I have never watched Burns and Allen, except for clips during awards shows or tributes or the like. They do always make me laugh, but I was too late to see them on TV and never caught up with reruns.

I am also not a slapstick fan, John. I am just not a big fan of pies in the face and most physical humor. I also find nothing funny about farces and plays with people slamming doors and missing each other as they come and go. Or mistaken identities. Or costumes.

I guess I prefer my comedy to be either situational/character based or language based, like George Carlin. I like parodies.

Having said all that, as a child I loved the early Lucy shows, not the later ones, hated Red Skelton, and generally preferred things like Leave it To Beaver, The Dick van Dyke Show, Make Room for Daddy, etc. Most of the people John mentioned were "before my time" (yay! I am younger than someone!). I did like Sgt Bilko in reruns and some of the Honeymooners. I never liked how Ralph treated Ed Norton nor how Alice treated Ralph, so I was not a huge fan.

johngoldfine said...

De gustibus non disputandum est.

A friend's 11 year-old has just discovered the Stooges and she is appalled, as is the 11 year-old's younger sister.... Little boys do seem to like that unashamed and very earnest physical violence. I certainly was not immune to its pull.

laura k said...

I said this in the post, but it bears repeating: The Honeymooners and Burns & Allen are both before my time, but they are among my all-time favourite comedies. Some things, if they appeal to us, are timeless.

Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy and other such comedies are, IMO, truly dreadful.

One comedy from my youth that Allan and I both love is Get Smart. Allan bought us the whole series on DVD (comes in a phone-booth box that opens three different ways!) and we both laugh through whole episodes.

laura k said...

I don't love or hate slapstick, a little mixed in is good, a la The Simpsons or The Marx Brothers or Get Smart, but I don't need whole comedies based on nothing but.

I do love farce when it's done really well. Done poorly, it sucks. But well choreographed "door slamming" humour, like Abbott and Costello or the play Noises Off, can be hilarious.

laura k said...

Every boy and man I ever dated love The Stooges, including the boy I have lived with for these last 25 years.

John, I hope I will not offend you when I say that I find quoting in Latin so pretentious. People frequently do it on the Pepys Diary site. I used to ask people to always post a translation, so that people of different backgrounds could also understand. Then I stopped commenting altogether.

johngoldfine said...

Mr. Lord, my Latin teacher for four years, would be upset that you object to Latin tags. And as for me, I confess, that--since there's no arguing taste, or each to his own, or, as the French put it, chacun a son gout, or to repeat the earlier offending Latin, de gustibus...--I've always loved them and trot them out at a moment's notice. I'll restrain myself here at wmtc, however.

laura k said...

Oh hey, it's not a Rule, you can post in Latin if you like. It's just my opinion. Many of us did not have Latin teachers, you know. To me Latin is like a big inside joke among people with formal education, used to mark the club. (Even though I can usually figure out the meaning.)

johngoldfine said...

I was trying to sell a tv series about urban archaeology once, and after an unsuccessful meeting with a producer, my partner got furious with me. I forget what the offending word or words were, but she said that I used big words I didn't need to use but that wound up alienating people who didn't know them.

I certainly saw her point as far as dealing with that particular producer was concerned and have ever since tried to keep her advice in mind in classes, with administrators, and with folks at the DMV. Fancy talk is just a version of 'Do you know who I am!"

And so out in public I wouldn't dream of using Latin tags or big words, however apposite.

Where I do use them habitually, however, is with people I am relaxed with, people I'm not worried will think I'm high-hatting them, putting on airs, or getting above my raising--most typically, in fact, my wife with whom I have absolutely zero need to mark the club, as she belongs to the same one.

Amy said...

Just to be clear, I said I liked those shows as a CHILD. I am not sure how I would respond now. I will admit, however, that I still find sitcoms more entertaining than farces and slapstick. But if I had to pick a comedy format, it would be more something like Jon Stewart, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, etc: social commentary and word play. I love a good pun. I never like humor that comes at the expense of pain, physical or otherwise, of others (e.g., Three Stooges). I just don't find it funny to see someone else hurt, even when I know it is "fictional." Unless it is a politician or other public figure---feel free to mock them anytime!

laura k said...

John, I totally know you are not trying to make a display of any type here at wmtc. Perhaps my dislike of the Latin expressions is merely a pet peeve. I just don't get it when people in an English-speaking forum decide to switch to a langauge that no one speaks and only a handful of people (relatively speaking) ever learned. But each to her own!

Amy, I figured you meant then, not now. I'm not a big sitcom fan, though I did love Mary Tyler Moore and the great political sitcoms, MASH and All In The Family, until each show lost it.

allan said...

including the boy I have lived with for these last 25 years.

GINA: Let me ask you. What will you do if Martine wakes up? Run away like a mouse?

JERRY: No, more like the Three Stooges at the end of every movie.

GINA: Who are these Stooges you speak of?

JERRY: They’re a comedy team.

GINA: Tell me about them. Everything.

JERRY: Well, they’re three kind of funny looking guys and they hit each other a lot.

GINA: You will show me The Stooges?

JERRY: I will show you The Stooges.


Whether it's comedy or rock and roll, "Stooges" = brilliance.

laura k said...

Those Stooges I like.

impudent strumpet said...

And so out in public I wouldn't dream of using Latin tags or big words, however apposite.

This amused me because I had to look up the word "apposite", which is the first time in a long time I've had to look up an English word.

laura k said...

This amused me because I had to look up the word "apposite", which is the first time in a long time I've had to look up an English word.

I don't really know that word, either. I surmised its meaning from context, but I really should look it up, too.

johngoldfine said...

"Apposite": I was just messing with you...consciously using big words out in public in the very act of saying I wouldn't dream of doing so.

I didn't like being told that something I consider just another arrow in my verbal quiver was "pretentious." You hoped I wouldn't take offense, but I'm afraid I did--and that's not really fair to you, Laura. It's your house, we are your guests, and you can say what you like. If we don't like it, we can leave.

laura k said...

Yeah, I thought you took offense. Thanks for your honesty in saying so.

I don't want or need you to leave or to change your style of writing for wmtc, and I hope you will not.

johngoldfine said...

No, of course I won't go anywhere, and I'm far too old to change.

laura k said...

Good. :)

laura k said...

Also, and more importantly, I apologize if I hurt your feelings. That wasn't my intention, but if it was the result, I am sorry. Glad you're still hanging around.