Sunday, February 29, 2004

“Hello, every-b-uh-bbb-uh-b-bbb…hi!”

I’m a little fuzzy on how the whole discussion got underway, but my good friend Jeff and I once had a disagreement over whether or not Mel Blanc could be classified as a “genius.” Jeff took a pro-genius stance, arguing that his long list of legendary credits, including voicing practically every character that came out of the Warner Brothers cartoon studio—Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, etc.—entitled him to the “genius” appellation.

Now, I bow to no one in my admiration for Mel. Lou Costello once praised Blanc as “the finest radio artist I know.” He was certainly among the busiest actors in radio, not only working alongside Lou and partner Bud Abbott, but appearing on shows with George Burns & Gracie Allen, Fibber McGee & Molly, Judy Canova, and (of course) Jack Benny. My argument was that Jeff was slighting equally talented voice artists, and I ticked off the names of Paul Frees, June Foray, and Daws Butler for starters. (If memory serves me correctly, he dismissed Butler entirely, denigrating him as “a cheap-o Hanna-Barbera hack”—this doesn’t necessarily make him a bad person, just wrong.) I even argued that artists like Frees and Foray were much more versatile, capable of doing not only comedic but dramatic parts as well. But Jeff continued to stick to his guns—and I respect him for that, but that’s par for the course; most of our arguments generally conclude with both of us agreeing to disagree.

I thought about this incident last night as I was listening to The Mel Blanc Show, a 1946-47 situation comedy sponsored by the Colgate-Palmolive folks on CBS Radio beginning September 3. It’s a moderately entertaining program, and of course, Blanc gets to demonstrate his patented versatility by playing two characters (and on some episodes, even more)—the first being himself, in his natural voice, as the proprietor of Mel Blanc’s Fix-It Shop. The comedy frequently emerged from the concept that Mel most assuredly did not put the “handy” in “handyman”—items left at his place of business more often than not left in worse condition than when they had arrived. Mel also played his helper, Zookie—who spoke in the same stutter that Blanc used for Warner’s Porky Pig (Mel also used that stutter for a character named August Moon on a short-lived comedy-drama called Point Sublime.). Zookie, sad to say, is a worthy candidate for Most Annoying Old-Time Radio Character—his shtick gets old very quick.

In his autobiography, That’s Not All, Folks!, Blanc relates how he bought a hardware store in Venice, California and used the establishment to promote his series. He tells a story (and you’ll have to bear with me here, I don’t have my copy of the book available) about a customer who came in one day, wanting to purchase a “little bastard.” Mel did a double-take, and the customer explained that it was a type of small file, prompting Mel to crack: “No sir, we don’t have a little bastard—but we do have this great big son of a bitch!” Mel finally turned over the store’s operation to his father-in-law, explaining that “much like my radio character, I didn’t know a jigsaw from a hacksaw.”

The Mel Blanc Show also featured a talented group of supporting actors, beginning with Mary Jane Croft (who would later work alongside Lucille Ball on The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy), who played the part of Mel’s girlfriend Betty Colby, and Joseph Kearns, who essayed the role of her father. Mel was constantly trying to ingratiate himself with the crusty Mr. Colby in order to ask for Betty’s hand in marriage—with little success. In the February 4, 1947 broadcast that I entertained myself with last night, Mel and Betty are discussing that very subject:

BETTY: Mel! A wedding ring!
MEL: Yours, Betty—ain’t it a beaut? Five diamonds!
BETTY: Oh, Mel, it’s gorgeous…
MEL: Of course, you really can’t tell from this picture…
BETTY: When am I going to get it?
MEL: Betty, you can have the whole catalog, right now…of course, I won’t buy the ring until I get your father’s consent…and that’s what worries me…
BETTY: Oh, Mel—stop worrying…Father will surely give his consent…you think he dislikes you because he always says: “Mel Blanc, I’ll break every bone in your body!”
MEL: Well…he doesn’t say it because he’s a chiropractor…
BETTY: Oh gosh, married…Mel, I get goose pimples every time I think about it…what about you?
MEL (giving out with a Woody Woodpecker laugh, then) Betty…remember how we first met…?
BETTY: Yes…you came over to my house to fix the antenna on the roof…
MEL: Yeah…the birds were singing…but I didn’t hear them…the sun was shining…but I didn’t see it…
BETTY: You didn’t?
MEL: No, don’t you remember? I fell off the roof and was unconscious for two hours…

Later in the show, Mel’s friend Mr. Potchnik—a Russian piano teacher played by Mel’s future Flintstones co-star Alan Reed—comes up with a plan on how to get Mr. Colby to soften: Betty will introduce three “suitors” (all played by Mel) to her father who are asking for her hand in marriage. The suitors will be so dumb they’ll make Mel look good in comparison. Let the wacky complications ensue!

Other regular characters on Blanc’s show included Hartley Benson, the resident Beau Brummel (played by Jim Backus as a riotously funny Cary Grant/Ronald Colman-impression), and Mr. Cushing (Hans Conried), the “Mighty Potentate” of the Loyal Order of Benevolent Zebras, the lodge to which Mel belonged. Cushing always greeted Mel with the lodge password: “Ugga-ugga-boo, ugga-boo-boo-ugga,” which soon became the series’ memorable catchphrase. Blanc was later to adopt this bit of silliness into a song that he and Spike Jones transformed into a hit record.

While The Mel Blanc Show did on occasion produce a classic episode or two—the one that always comes to mind is the one where Mel destroys Mr. Colby’s radio and is forced to impersonate the various programs in an attempt to cover his blunder (Jerry Lewis lifted this bit for a wonderful gag in Rock-a-Bye Baby)—the show wasn’t consistently amusing. (Veteran radio comedy scribe Bob Schiller describes it in The Laugh Crafters as “a terrible show,” and since he was employed there briefly, I will take him at his word.) I think part of the problem is that when you listen to Mel, you’re not laughing because he’s Mel, you’re laughing because he’s Bugs Bunny, or Daffy Duck, or Jack Benny’s violin teacher, etc. The second show (3/18/47) did have one laugh-out-loud moment for me: in this episode, Mel has managed to get himself engaged to both Betty and her man-chasing cousin Dottie (Elvia Allman). He disguises himself as Inspector MacGregor (complete with Botsford Twink burr) of Scotland Yard in an attempt to sour Dottie on the idea of matrimony, portraying “Mel” as a wanted criminal:

MEL (to Betty): My, but you’re a bonnie lassie…you look just like Annie Laurie…
DOTTIE: And who do I look like?
MEL: Peter Lorre…I was just joking, girl…you, too, are a bonnie lassie—and you do look like Lassie…

The Mel Blanc Show closed its fix-it shop doors on June 24, 1947, and its entire run is extant for OTR radio fans to enjoy today. Those familiar with Blanc’s work will no doubt want to tune it in for its novelty value, but you do need to be made aware that it is only sporadically funny; Blanc’s strength clearly lies in supporting roles, like those on The Jack Benny Show. I guess if I think about it, maybe his willingness to play second-banana was genius after all.

No comments:

Post a Comment