Monday, March 29, 2004

“…and now, here’s America’s top master of ceremonies…”

Though I’m sure Ralph Edwards might have raised a few strenuous objections over those words, it was nevertheless the way Art Linkletter was introduced week after week as the host of People Are Funny—which competed with Edwards’ Truth or Consequences as radio’s best-known audience stunt show. Created by producer-director John Guedel, the series premiered over NBC Radio on April 10, 1942, and enjoyed a lengthy run of nearly twenty years before bowing out June 10, 1960.

Entrepreneur Guedel had a definite Midas touch when it came to creating hit radio shows; in addition to Funny, he was also responsible for launching House Party (a popular daytime program also hosted by Linkletter) and You Bet Your Life, the comedy-quiz starring the one…the only…Groucho Marx. Funny’s origins date back to 1938—with an audition record that cost him thirty dollars, Guedel would give birth to a program that would net him millions. In its earliest incarnation, it was known as Pull Over, Neighbor, heard over NBC and CBS stations in Los Angeles in 1939 and later revamped as All Aboard. The story goes that the show’s eventual title stemmed from Guedel’s attendance at a dull after-dinner speech; while observing that the fidgety audience was just as bored as he was, Guedel jotted down on a napkin—“People are funny, aren’t they?”

Not long after, Guedel was browsing through a magazine while at the doctor’s, and came across a blurb that mentioned the recent cancellation of a current radio show—so he telephoned the agency that produced the show, and sold them People Are Funny. The concept of the show would be a concentration on the humorous facets of human nature—a subject that Guedel, a self-proclaimed “jack of all trades,” knew a little something about. (Before getting into radio, Guedel’s colorful career included jobs as a ditch-digger, traveling salesman, and writer for motion picture comedy producer Hal Roach.) His first choice for the show’s host was a young announcer named Art Linkletter, whose tremendous talent for ad-libbing appealed to Guedel. Linkletter, however, was already employed in San Francisco—but it didn’t really matter to NBC anyway; the network wanted top emcee Art Baker for the host’s position, though Guedel brought in Linkletter as co-host in the program’s early weeks so that he could compare and contrast the two Arts in action on the same soundstage.

People Are Funny became an immediate Friday night smash for NBC, a popular quiz program that technically wasn’t a quiz program, but a show in which audience members participated in offbeat, unusual stunts for prizes of cash and merchandise. To illustrate with an example of how the show worked, a broadcast (undated, though believed to be from either 1955 or 1956) I previewed last night begins with an eight-year-old child actress who is sent out of the studio to a nearby grocery market. She has a grocery list—buttermilk, a ¼ lb. of butter, a loaf of bread and a bottle of catsup—and she has been given a dollar by her “father” to procure said groceries. (I’ll wait for the incredulous laughter to subside as we marvel at the low cost of comestibles back then.) Now, the premise dictates that she’s "lost" the dollar, and she must try to convince a passerby to loan her another—whereupon that individual will be brought back to the studio so that they can retrieve the amount loaned; it has been placed under the windshield wiper of a new Plymouth convertible, which is also theirs to keep. (The kid comes back later, and not one person has given the little moppet the necessary dollar—demonstrating that not only are people funny, they’re notoriously tight with a buck to boot.)

People Are Funny made a small change on October 1, 1943—the show gave Art Baker his walking papers and announced that Linkletter would now be the emcee. Baker did not go gently into that good night, however; he sued both Guedel and the show’s sponsor for breach of contract, stating that according to its terms he could be released only if the sponsor had cancelled the show. Baker accused them of conspiring to axe the program, and then quickly re-signing Linkletter (at a lower salary). Alas, Baker was not restored to his proper place on People’s throne (he lost the lawsuit, but would later resurface on television as host of You Asked For It)—and it wasn’t long before people were saying: “Baker…Baker…can’t say as I recollect the name…” Linkletter rode the program to national prominence, and he earned the respect and admiration from notables like Eddie Cantor and Bing Crosby for his ad-libbing prowess. (The radio show even went to the movies, in a 1946 film that showcased Linkletter and old-time radio stars like Jack Haley, Rudy Vallee, Ozzie Nelson and Frances Langford.)

Listening to People Are Funny today, one becomes keenly aware that while it’s a teensy bit dated, it still holds up fairly well. In addition to the little grocery guttersnipe, the first show has a single man who is extremely boastful regarding his culinary talents—so Linkletter has several women in the audience test him with cooking-related questions. If he’s able to answer five out of seven correctly, a motor scooter awaits him for his efforts; but for every one he misses, ingredients are added to a mixing bowl by Prudence Penny (the home economics editor of the Los Angeles Examiner), which he must sample generously if he loses. (Ms. Penny also serves as the arbiter as to whether or not the questions have been answered correctly.) Needless to say, our Galloping Gourmet isn’t quite as clever as he believes himself to be, and before he goes home with a stove as a consolation prize, he has a heaping helping of raw oysters, chocolate syrup, soft strawberry ice cream, sauerkraut, horseradish and raw egg (a concoction endorsed by both the salmonella industry and World O’Crap, in its early Regrettable Food Recipe days). Linkletter cracks (after also sampling this “goop mélange,” to show he’s a good sport): “This dish is the dish that you serve your relatives just before you want them to go back home.”

The second show has an interesting stunt in which a “bride” and “groom” are assigned to bring people back to the studio in order to prove that “all the world loves a lover.” The bride is assigned to return with “something old” (a person over the age of 60) and “something new” (someone under the age of 6), while the groom must nab “something borrowed” (a wife or girlfriend) and “something blue” (a sad or melancholy person). “You know, he’s the one really taking the chance—because if he borrows somebody’s wife [and] brings her back here he may find the guy doesn’t want her back and he’ll be stuck with two,” Linkletter remarks. Under the guise of needing witnesses for a wedding, the first one to return to the studio will be awarded “a 21-inch Stromberg-Carlson console model television” (on a show sponsored by RCA Victor, no less). The “bride” wins the TV, but the “groom” gets a nice camera and the guests get wristwatches (except for a little four-year-old girl, who nets a new bicycle out of the whole deal).

For most of its run, People Are Funny was an NBC staple, sponsored by Wings Cigarettes from 1942-45 and then by Kool/Raleigh Cigarettes and Sir Walter Raleigh Tobacco (1945-51). It then moved over to CBS for three seasons for Mars Candy, and then returned to NBC for a year sponsored by Toni, and multiple sponsorship after that. (The show also made the successful leap to television, from 1954-61.) The radio version (of which there are approximately fifty episodes extant) hasn’t lost its power to entertain audiences today, demonstrating that—to borrow the raison d’être of Candid Camera’s Allen Funt—that people are funny when caught in the simple act of being themselves.

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