Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday… well, actually, a new Wildcard Wednesday. You see, for the first time ever, I’ve decided to switch the order of this week’s posts, with the planned Wildcard essay coming today and the official Sitcom Tuesday entry debuting tomorrow. That’s because Sitcom Tuesdays is only able to cover the last six filmed seasons of The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show (1950-1958, CBS), because only they are in syndication and currently available to screen (almost) in full on YouTube. That’s right; as of this publication, most of the Burns & Allen series is currently findable online — YouTube user “jefronty” has put up 238/239 of the filmed episodes, while friend of this blog, WGaryW, has the unaired pilot + 32/52 live broadcasts on his “Vintage Comedy Vault II.” That, along with one more episode recently uploaded by “jeffsabu,” is the extent of what’s available from the first two live years. But because too many of these 52 initial telecasts are still missing, I can’t devote full “favorite-picking” coverage to them, as I can with the others. As a result, I planned to start Sitcom Tuesdays off with Season Three and devote a Wildcard entry to the live shows. But I have to talk about the first two years before Three, so here we are, with a Wednesday post on a Tuesday!
I’m not going to go into too much detail about the series itself, because I assume you know what it is: a domestic comedy starring married vaudevillians and long-time radio personalities George Burns and Gracie Allen, who, like Jack Benny, had been a weekly staple for listening audiences since 1932. The reason I wanted to cover their series here — which, unlike The Jack Benny Program, is actually better on TV than on radio — is because I think Burns & Allen is the best example of not only the journey from vaudeville to radio to television, but also, generally, how to adapt a radio comedy to the small screen. That is, I’m using this show to represent the best of what many early ’50s sitcoms were: holdovers from radio. And, oh sure, Burns & Allen wasn’t quite the first — The Life Of Riley, The Aldrich Family, and The Goldbergs were among the few comedies that transitioned earlier — but Burns & Allen was more successful and, frankly, much funnier than those efforts. And while other, and perhaps more popular, radio series came to TV following Burns & Allen — like Amos ‘N’ Andy and Our Miss Brooks — those shows had the luxury of having George and Gracie as a leading study.
Also, although I credit Jack Benny as being the series most responsible for establishing the kind of character-driven comedy that would propel late ’40s radio sitcoms and the entire genre as it switched mediums, the great performer’s TV show clung to more variety-esque, sketch-like, and guest-star-driven material, keeping the Jack Benny characterization at the fore, but reducing his regular cast to patchwork support while more emphasis was placed on the weekly premise and/or visiting personalities. Accordingly, we tend not to classify Jack Benny’s long-running TV series as a situation comedy, because it was more like a variety show. Burns & Allen, on the other hand, was not nearly as remarkable on the radio — despite some classic stunts early on (like Gracie’s 1940 presidential campaign), it didn’t really start to take the sitcom shape until the pair was allowed to be married on-air in 1941, and even then, it didn’t have Benny’s full buffet of characters. Yet it essentially became a straightforward sitcom on TV, abandoning the musical acts within two months, and thereafter dedicating all of its weekly action to story…. well, except for the integrated commercials, which last into 1952 of the live shows (observing the change from Bill Goodwin as announcer to Harry Von Zell), and George’s monologues, which are theatrical in the live years, become cinematic over the first few filmed seasons, and then are contextualized within this now “of-age” television medium during the last two.
This idea of dividing Burns & Allen into segmented eras is ideal though, for there are easy breakdowns: the two live seasons, the first three filmed ones, the transitional New York year, and then the final two back with Ronnie and company. But remember that each year is different, and in these first two, so much change is occurring that there are eras inside eras, as the show continues evolving. For instance, Episode 5 is the first without a musical act, Episode 7 is the first broadcast from L.A. (instead of NYC) and therefore kinescoped for the larger East Coast market, Episode 8 is the first with John Brown as Harry Morton (replacing Hal March, who first played the role on radio and had more chemistry with Bea Benaderet than his successor), Episode 18 is the first with Fred Clark as Harry Morton (as Harry finally gets an obvious comedic trait — his love of food — that can be exploited for laughs; it’s not a full characterization, like Larry Keating will eventually have, but it’s a step in the right direction), Episode 24 is the first with Harry Von Zell, Episode 26 is the first without Bill Goodwin as Von Zell is now the official announcer, Episode 28 is the first coast-to-coast broadcast courtesy of the coaxial cable, Episode 43 is the last with an integrated Carnation commercial from Von Zell, and Episode 52, of course, is the last live telecast. Each change accompanies an elevation in quality — for this forward trajectory may be inevitable, but it’s definitely aided by decisions like dropping the musical acts and the integrated commercials (losing both of these strengthens the sanctity of the situation comedy), and by the casting swaps — Clark is the best Harry Morton of this live era, and Von Zell is more of a goofball than Bill Goodwin, which comes in handy the more the show is willing to build for him a more precise comedic persona…
Speaking of personas, while memorable comedic plots are going to be a guiding factor in episodic selections (funny ideas sustain this and many other ’50s comedies), I’m interested MOST in how the well-defined relationship between George and Gracie, and specifically their unique and well-known personalities, are used within story. I don’t expect scripts to be character–driven in the modern sense, but I do expect weekly narratives to be influenced by their established traits and behaviors. Furthermore, I’m not just seeking a string of vaudeville routines, for though I appreciate the aforementioned link the series makes between these forms of entertainment, Burns and Allen inherently provide this association by their very existence, and their series, in order to be considered a legitimate situation comedy, has to provide more than those set pieces. This means, while it’s fun to see Gracie befuddle the salesman, or the tax man, or the cop — as she does a lot in Season One — unless these gags are placed within a strong plot, via a character who wants something and is trying to get it (often Gracie, but anyone will do), it’s not really much of a situation comedy. And because The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show is decidedly a sitcom, earning that title deservedly, its best episodic samples are the ones that reinforce what it means to be a part of this esteemed genre.
Remember, though, that only 33 of the 52 live episodes are currently in circulation online (see this) and thus able to be considered for this list, for which I have selected ten of the most memorable, representative, and enjoyable installments from the series’ first two seasons. These shows are special because they were staged like one-act plays, performed for an audience, and transmitted immediately. Regular readers know how much I love this design — I love when sitcoms embrace the genre’s theatrical origins, and as such, I’m fascinated with early, live TV. However, in the case of Burns & Allen, the show becomes smarter with its storytelling — and how it uses its characters within plot — during its filmed years, and if you’re wondering my preference, I have to say, for this series, the live shows tend not to be its finest. In fact, you’ll notice that many stories below will be remade in future seasons, and mostly improved upon… Nevertheless, George and Gracie are vaudevillians and they thrive here. So, if you get a chance to see these — their earliest TV performances — you get the feeling that you’re seeing them at their best. And on that note, these are the episodes that I think best embody these first two years. (Oh, and for reference, they don’t have titles, so they’re labeled with what they’re commonly called in online discourse. Also, keep in mind that they’re all directed by Ralph Levy and written by Paul Henning, Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, and Willy Burns.)
01) Episode 1: “The Kleebob Card Game” or “Kleebob” (First Broadcast: 10/12/50)
On the debut show, George tries to distract Gracie with a made-up card game.
The premiere episode — a remake of the unaired sponsor-less pilot that was produced in July 1950 — may seem green on first blush, but it’s a confident and well-received opener that introduces all the characters and, despite being mostly plot-lite, claims the wonderfully funny “Kleebob” card game (which will be resurrected in a fourth season offering).
02) Episode 7: “Rumba Lessons” or “Rhumba Lessons” (First Broadcast: 12/28/50)
Gracie and Blanche want their husbands to take rumba lessons.
The final show of 1950 is both the first produced in Los Angeles (transmitted live to the West Coast, forcing the East to get it via kinescope two weeks later) and the last appearance of the first Harry Morton, Hal March, who wanted to stay in NYC. This is an amusing story — Gracie has a clear want — with a fine script, free of musical distractions.
03) Episode 8: “Happy Hmm Hmm” (First Broadcast: 01/04/51)
Gracie can’t remember why a date on her calendar has been circled.
This amiable premise — which totally fits the Gracie characterization and is therefore an ideal example of a funny idea being tailored to the show’s most unique and beloved persona — will be repeated in Season Four, but this is a charming entry from the first year that boasts a surprise Jack Benny cameo. Also, John Brown makes his debut as Harry Morton.
04) Episode 23: “Gracie’s Vegetarian Plot” or “Gracie And Blanche Become Vegetarians” (First Broadcast: 08/02/51)
Gracie and Blanche decide to try eating healthier.
By this point in the show’s run, Fred Clark is on board and scripts have gotten the hang of how to use the characterizations in story, for a key part of Gracie is her conviction: once she believes in or sets her mind to doing something, it’s hard to derail her from that course. So, this memorable story — about healthy eating — is a testament to the Gracie character.
05) Episode 26: “Gracie Gives A Wedding” or “Gracie Throws A Wedding” (First Broadcast: 09/13/51)
Gracie offers to throw a friend’s wedding at her house.
George stops the show in the middle of a scene here to officially announce that Harry Von Zell is replacing Bill Goodwin as the series’ regular announcer, and this is good because, almost right away, Von Zell is set up to be a jokier, more clownish character. As for the plot, it’s a typical Gracie yarn — she’s overly generous — and it will be remade in Season Five.
06) Episode 27: “Gracie Goes To A Psychiatrist” or “Gracie Sees A Psychiatrist” (First Broadcast: 09/27/51)
Misunderstandings abound when Gracie goes to a psychiatrist in Blanche’s place.
The last show transmitted initially to only the West Coast (as the following would benefit from the use of the coaxial cable, allowing the stations in the Northeast to enjoy it live, too), this is a classic Burns & Allen story, where Gracie goes to a shrink in Blanche’s stead, and after significantly befuddling him, launches a chain of misunderstandings wherein both Mortons think the other is crazy. It will be remade in Season Four and again, but tweaked, in Six.
07) Episode 29: “The Football Game” or “Gracie Scalps Football Tickets” (Broadcast: 10/25/51)
Gracie gets in trouble with the law after trying to sell football tickets.
Another entry with a fine premise, this low-concept outing (like the majority of these first two seasons’ efforts) has just enough plot to give Gracie a centerpiece where she thoroughly confounds some strangers — here, it’s in the police station after she’s brought in for trying to sell football tickets — and a bevy of funny jokes to share with the well-oiled ensemble.
08) Episode 42: “Jack Benny Steals George’s Joke” (Broadcast: 04/24/52)
Gracie tries to intervene when George feuds with his best friend, Jack Benny.
Who doesn’t love Jack Benny? Although he made a cameo in an excursion highlighted above — and will do so again later in the series — this is one of the rare times when he’s a major participant in the plot, as the story finds Jack and George feuding over a stolen joke. Their back-and-forth on opposite sides of the proscenium is a highlight not to be missed!
09) Episode 45: “Divorce Attorney” or “The Fortune Teller” or “The Swami” (Broadcast: 06/05/52)
Gracie plans to divorce George after a swami says that she’ll have a second husband.
With a heavier story than usual, this offering nevertheless is dynamite for the Gracie character, for after a palm reader tells her that she’s going to have a second husband, she uses her own logic to work through things: she’ll divorce George and remarry him, so that he’s her first and second husband. It’s a silly idea, but with a lot of earned laughs.
10) Episode 46: “The Musical Scam” or “Investing In A Musical Comedy” (Broadcast: 06/19/52)
The men are conned into investing in a new musical, while George is promised the star role.
I selected this entry because I consider it the best “George show” from this era, for while several outings produced in the first two years use his singing talents (and the unfavorable perception of his vocal ability) for comedic opportunity, this one does the finest job of integrating it into an affable, amusing story that uses all the regulars well. A favorite.
Other notable offerings include: Episode 2: “Gracie The Artist,” which features Bob Fosse in the musical sequence and is notable for being the first time that Gracie drives the action, Episode 5: “Gracie’s Checking Account,” which is probably the second funniest of the New York shows, Episode 12: “The Income Tax Man” or “Income Tax Time,” which has an amusing sequence where Gracie vexes Joe Kearns (who else?) as the income tax man, Episode 14: “Johnny Velvet’s Day In Court” or “Testifying Against Johnny Velvet,” which introduces Sheldon Leonard as Johnny Velvet (I’d have featured this entry above, but it’s remade in Season Three and done infinitely better), and three second season outings with classic misunderstanding premises, Episode 31: “Thanksgiving” or “Thanksgiving Dinner,” Episode 39: “Gracie’s Engagement Ring” or “Gracie Loses Her Engagement Ring,” and Episode 47: “Dual Meanings” or “Gracie Confuses A Desk With A Person.”
Stay tuned tomorrow for an actual Sitcom Tuesday! And come back next week for a new Wildcard!