David Freedman: How to Make Visual Comedians Funny on Radio

Cover of the Book There Was a Boy, There Was a Girl, a memoir of Beatrice and David Freedman by their daughter-in-law Nancy Freedman
A memoir about Beatrice and David Freedman by their daughter-in-law Nancy Freedman

It has been my good fortune as a radio writer to be associated with such stars as Eddie Cantor, Lou Holtz, Fanny Brice and Al Jolson. In every case I strove to transplant the magic personality of these stars to the medium of the air by creating a sound substitute for those qualities that were purely visual.

Cantor's electric personality with eyes popping, hands vibrating and every part of his being reaching out to warm an audience is a difficult thing to convey through mere words coming out of a loudspeaker. It was necessary to create a character that would bring into every home a picture of this live, vivid comedian whose art is not merely slapstick and whose humor is not merely gags.

We hit on the idea of making him Uncle Sam's advisor -- Eddie Cantor, U.S.A. -- and immediately he seemed to have a permanent and important place in the scheme of things. His comedy became timely and topical and just as in a circus there was always a clown who got tangled in the carpets and bungled all the jobs of setting up the apparatus, so Cantor got tangled in world affairs and extracted comedy out of all the big problems that confronted the nation.

In addition to the character, we also invented comedy sounds that would take the place of his running up and down the stage, darting glances and clapping his hands. The ear has as great a sense of comedy as the eye if you tickle it properly.

A scene in an aeroplane where he talked faster if the plane went faster and talked slower when the plane slowed down gave the complete illusion of an air adventure to the listeners in the home. When he flew to great heights his voice became shrill and when he descended, it grew bass. These were sound tricks that could not have meant much on the stage, but on the radio created a complete comedy illusion.

I could give any number of such examples. In a mock parting between Cantor and Jimmy Wallington they both became so overcome by emotion that they cried. Finally Wallington pretended to become so hysterical that Cantor had to read the commercial advertisement for him and he read the entire announcement in a sobbing broken voice choked with tears.

If you saw the scene it would have spoiled the illusion -- but listening to it over the radio, it proved to be hilarious fun.

David Freedman in Radio Guide, August 12, 1933

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