FRED ALLEN: HIS LIFE AND WIT by Robert Taylor, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 340 pp., $19.95
NOTHING is as ephemeral as radio humor. The line that can set you to chuckling as you drive in to work can seem banal and insipid when you recount it at dinner time. Fred Allen's humor has been sitting around for 40 years now, and in truth it must be said that in the context of contemporary mass-media humor - David Letterman, Johnny Carson, ``Saturday Night Live'' - it really isn't very funny anymore.
Nevertheless, Robert Taylor's biography of Fred Allen makes you laugh as it recounts some of Allen's best characters, skits, and lines from the halcyon days of radio - the years of the Depression and World War II - when Allen rivaled Jack Benny as radio's most popular personality. ``I have just returned from Boston,'' said Allen to Groucho Marx once. ``It is the only thing to do if you find yourself up there.''
But the strength of this book comes not from unearthing the few nuggets from Allen's repertoire that have withstood the ravages of the passing years. Taylor, the book and art critic for the Boston Globe, has given a much deeper appreciation in his loving and elegantly written work; he shows that it was Allen's sophisticated, cutting-edge comedy that presaged, inspired, and even begot the comedy of Letterman, et al., that we appreciate so much today.
Unlike the pratfalls and slapstick of the Marx Brothers or the self-deprecation of Jack Benny, the power of Allen's work came from its currency. One of his skits in 1939 tackled the then-nascent and arcane matter of nuclear fission. Why should you want to split an atom, he asked his radio ``physicist.'' ``Well, you never know when someone may come in and want half an atom,'' replied Dr. Gaffney Flubb.
Allen would tweak sponsors, competing programs - particularly the egregious giveaway and quiz programs that began to sweep through radio in the late '40s - politics, the Broadway theater, and Nutley, N.J. He was forever at odds with the censors at NBC; his scripts - painstakingly crafted by his own hand, with the help of a small staff that at one point included novelist Herman Wouk - were often eviscerated to a point that made ``each successful broadcast sound like a message from an occupied country.'' But each week, enough of the Allen wit and sting survived the censors to let America see itself and laugh at its own foibles, pretensions, and idiosyncrasies.
Taylor's own crisp and gentle prose moves the story along deftly and swiftly, from Allen's Boston boyhood through big- and small-time vaudeville, Broadway, and finally, radio. We come away with not only an appreciation of Allen's art, but a genuine affection for the man as well, for Allen was also a thoroughly decent human being. He was a devout Roman Catholic, a devoted husband, and generous to a fault - he was Broadway's softest touch. ``[W]hen he emerged from a stage door, he attracted flocks of panhandlers who swarmed around him like gulls around a mackerel trawler.... [H]e enjoyed this spontaneous largesse: its appeal for him did not lie in princely benevolence, but in recognizing faces, talking to people on a one-to-one basis, and responding to individual need.''
For the millions who remember and savored Allen, the book should be a delight. For the millions who never knew him, it should be essential - for it delivers to the reader an incandescent picture of a forever-vanished yet not-to-be-forgotten age.