Fred Allen: Correcting Alphabet Soup


Fred Allen is a comedian I didn’t discover, outside his famous quips about how committees work and about television, until I was well grown and listening to a lot of old time radio. He’s not remembered as well as his rival Jack Benny, and if you wish to point out Jack Benny isn’t well remembered I’ll come over there and spit on your driveway. Besides, Fred Allen did get a cameo in an autographed photo on 30 Rock last season.

Most of his writing defies quotability, as he liked to be very timely, and enjoyed commenting on the other comedians of the day, and so he has to be flanked by footnotes. But some bits carry through, such as this one from the Salad Bowl Revue of October 6, 1933, which is available on archive.org as part of their old time radio collection, and which I believe to be out of copyright. I can’t convey Allen’s voice in print, and unfortunately there aren’t even any good cartoons that parodied him, but he came from Boston so take your guesses and this really is what YouTube is for.


Announcer:

And now Mr Allen’s help and advice on etiquette:

Good night, ladies and gentlemen. Well, our etiquette department is going like a blacksmith’s clientele in a one-horse town, and a postcard tonight comes from Professor Merrill G Clark of Detroit, Michigan.

Professor Clark says, quote, “I am an English professor at a local college and always have trouble eating alphabet soup in restaurants. Invariably the waiter serves me a plate of alphabet soup containing grammatical errors which he expects me to swallow. I have taught English for so long that a grammatical error even in this form upsets me internally. What should I do?” Unquote.

Alphabet soup has always been a problem to grammarians, Professor Clark. Many professors finding errors correct the soup and send it back to the chef, giving him some homework besides. Other teachers send for soup censors supplied by the makers of the illiterate broth. The censors will gladly remove any objectionable words that may have formed in your soup; but generally, by the time the censor leaves your soup is cold and, while you may enjoy a grammatical triumph, gastronomically you are defeated.

The best thing to do is to order your alphabet soup with the H’s dropped and eat it as English mutton broth. Since fully sixty percent of the soup consumed in this country ends up on men’s vests anyway, you are really swallowing nothing but your pride and forty percent of the liquid insult.

If you, too, have a problem in etiquette lying unsolved in your dumbwaiter, ladies and gentlemen, why not send me the spare parts of a possible faux pas and I shall be glad to spank my mind in an effort to help you as I know I have helped Professor Clark tonight?


A bit of Internet searching reveals to me there was a Canadian diplomat named Merrill G Clark, but I can’t figure out when he lived, or if there were any reason that Allen might have heard such a name, or whether he just made up something that sounded plausible and not distracting.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

6 thoughts on “Fred Allen: Correcting Alphabet Soup”

  1. Im surprised that there are no good Fred Allen cartoons, in addition to his self described good face for radio,he had a good face for characture, I guess his act didn’t give the Termite Terrace Gang much to hang a toon plot on. I must admit all I know about Mr Allen I learned from “What’s My Line?” I wonder how “high society” people such as Mr Allen,Bennett Cerf,John Daly and Dorothy Killgalleon would feel knowing that most people who know of them today at all know of them via a “low class” game show.At least Arlene Francis and Steve Allen lived long enough to see GSN,but I don’t recall seeing ether talk about it in interviews. Treadmill to Oblivion is one of those books on my bucket list.

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    1. Thinking it over, it’s weird that there aren’t good (any?) cartoons lovingly ripping off Fred Allen. I suppose his best gimmick, the Town Hall, didn’t get going until World War II and by then (for example) Warner Brothers had enough characters they didn’t need to take them from radio. (Foghorn Leghorn is a more complicated case than anyone realizes.) I’m wondering if maybe there’s something in a minor studio that would turn up something and as it happens I got a hefty guide to the Terrytoons for Christmas this season.

      Also a good question about the ‘high society’ people would view their current reputations. Fred Allen I have the feeling would be amused by the irony of getting remembered for the easiest network work he’d been doing.

      I did get to read Treadmill to Oblivion … at least five years ago, so precise details are vague at this point. I did remember the one feeling oddly like that of Harpo Marx’s autobiography, less for any particular incident and more that it was a memoir written shortly before the performer’s not-anticipated death, so there’s this weird specter hanging over any talk about the present day or ambitions.

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  2. I certainly wouldn’t sware to it, but I have this vague remembrance in the back of my mind of watching an episode of “Night Flight” showing clips from old cartoons one of which was a B&w clip of an owl that the announcer said was supposed to be Fred Allen. But since that show used to air in the crack of dawn I might have just dreampt the whole thing.

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    1. I did not watch Night Flight, which is a shame since looking over its Wikipedia page it apparently showed a good number of movies I’d now find interesting to watch.

      Also this finally got me to check Wikipedia to see if it listed cartoons that riffed on Fred Allen. And so there are. Frank Tashlin’s The Woods Are Full Of Cuckoos looks like it’s probably what your clip was from. It had a fox playing the Fred Allen part, apparently, but the introduction featured an owl, Owl Kott (doing Alexander Woolcott) and maybe that’s what the Night Flight announcer was thinking of.

      And I was going to mention Friz Freleng’s Toy Town Hall but along the way I discovered this 1946 compilation of doughnut-related cartoons and activities that Fred Allen’s name got attached to and I’m not sure about reality working anymore.

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  3. An early 80s Tonight Show rendered a pair of Benny and Allen references— Johnny Carson interviewed Selma Diamond..first Robert Blake asked her how old she is and she said,”39…when Benny died he left 39 to me” which lead to Carson quoting Fred Allen saying, “Her voice was like the mating call of two pieces of chalk on a blackboard” ( I don’t know if he was inferring that Allen had said that about Diamond, herself or someone with a similar voice.

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    1. Ooh, nice reference. I don’t know that Allen actually said that, but it does sound like something he might have tossed off about Jack Benny’s voice. Or possibly Benny getting back at Fred Allen’s voice. (I won’t live long enough to catalog all the pretty snappy insults they made about the other’s voice.)

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