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Radio / The Burns and Allen Show

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George Burns and Gracie Allen

One of the defining series of the nascent medium of television, this Sitcom/DomCom debuted in 1950 when it was transferred from CBS Radio to CBS Television. The main setting of the series was the Beverly Hills home of comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen, who stared as versions of themselves. The main supporting characters in the series were their next-door neighbors, Blanche and Harry Morton; the show's announcers, Bill Goodwin (first season) and Harry Von Zell (subsequent seasons, 1951-58); and their real-life adopted son, Ronnie.

Burns and Allen had been a comedy team since 1922, in the waning days of vaudeville. Their act was fairly simple. George, the straight man, would ask Gracie a question. Gracie, who was one of the best practitioners of Irish bull in show business history, would give a rambling, mind-twisting answer that could only be described as "illogical logic." George would then calmly ask for clarification, and Gracie would go off on another riff.

In the 1930s and 40s, they made several feature films and short subjects, but focused mainly on their radio series. During their sixteen years on radio, their characters evolved from a flighty dating couple (although they had married in 1926) to a solid married couple by the time the TV series was in development in 1949. The radio series had also expanded their characters' world. No longer was it just the two of them talking to each other. They began interacting with other characters. This was important because, as their characters matured, it seemed that George was the only one capable of following Gracie's train of thought. This eventually limited the impact of their routines.

In a typical radio episode, Gracie sent George to the post office to mail a very heavy package. George got bumped out of line several times and ended up having to go to the back of the line each time. After a few hours, he finally mailed the package. When he got home, he found out that the package was actually a box of rocks. Gracie was sending them to a neighbor who was building a rock garden. A neighbor whom Gracie had talked to while George was at the post office.

In a famous stunt on their radio series, Gracie ran for president in 1940 on the "Surprise Party" ticket, predating by 28 years the run made by Pat Paulson on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

As popular and well-written as the radio series was, their comedy routines were improved by the addition of video. Although Burns and Allen were not physical comedians, there was something wonderful about seeing the placid, patient look on George's face as he listened to one of Gracie's spiels; Gracie's wide-eyed, full-throttle intensity; the worried expression on Blanche's face with regards to Gracie; Harry Morton's annoyance with everyone, especially Gracie; and Harry Von Zell's befuddlement in general.

And with the transition to TV came the leap from mere absurdist humor to the occasional all-out foray into Surrealism. Where else could you hear one character ask why some situation was occurring, only to be told by George that that was all the writers could come up with that week? Or see a character change actors in the middle of a scene? (Although Roseanne came close with the two Beckys.)

The series ended in 1958 when Gracie was weakened after having a couple of mild heart attacks. She died six years later at the age of 69. (In a footnote that seems typical of this couple, Gracie's birth certificate had been lost in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. People thought she was younger than George, but the 1900 U.S. Census data showed that she was actually six months older.)

When asked in an interview what the secret of her character was, Gracie said that her character thoroughly believed that she was the smart one and that it was everybody else who was out of whack.

See also the 1929 short Lambchops, which features George and Gracie doing eight minutes of the kind of routine that eventually developed into this show.

This work provides examples of:

  • After Show:
    • After Gracie retired from showbusiness following a minor heart attack, George tried to go it alone (with the supporting cast intact) in The George Burns Show; but it wasn't the same and only lasted one season. And you wonder why he always credits Gracie as the reason for the show's success.
    • There was also Wendy and Me, which took the basic formula of this show and retooled the premise into Burns fictionalized as a landlord getting roped into wacky situations by his Ditz tenant Wendy (Connie Stevens). Debuting shortly after Allen died, it also only lasted one season (1964-65).
  • Appeal to Obscurity: Gracie, when encouraging a young aspiring actress not to give up on her dreams: "Just look at what happened to (name)." "I've never heard of her..." "Of course you haven't! She gave up!"
    • In another instance she added her own spin to it:
    Gracie: Great women never quit! [...] Have you ever heard of Nina Jones?
    Blanche: No.
    Gracie: Neither have I! Because she quit!
  • Aren't You Forgetting Someone?: One episode ends with George Burns calling up guest star Ned Wever, who plays a General in the episode. The guest star drops character, saying about what an honor it is to appear on the show and goes on to say how professional everyone is, naming each person one by one ... except for George.
    George Burns: Say, next week I, I, I need a fella to play a doctor on my show, are you working?
    Ned Wever: [anticipation in his voice] No!
    George Burns: You said it! [hangs up, smiles to camera]
  • Beautiful All Along: In "Ugly Duckling", Gracie decides to give Ronnie's Hollywood Homely brainy friend Mildred a makeover and send them to the prom together.
  • Big Eater: Harry Morton
    Von Zell: Oh, I'm sorry...I seem to always arrive just as Mr Morton is sitting down to eat.
    Blanche: Mr Von Zell, if you came in at 4 in the morning you could make that very same statement.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: And then some! George Burns did some crazy things on this show that have rarely (if ever) been replicated.
    • Not only does George speak to the audience, he has a TV in his den that lets him watch the characters in their scenes without him!
    • In the first two seasons of the series, the show looked like an odd hybrid of a radio show and a stage play. Because TV was still new and experimental — not to mention live — Burns and his production partners decided to broadcast the show from an actual theater where a mockup of a house had been built on stage. The house set looked like an artillery shell had hit it, wiping out the fourth wall and one corner of the house. Rather than watch scenes of the show on the TV set in his office — that wouldn't start until the show was shot on film starting in the 1952-53 season — George would lean against the proscenium arch and comment directly to the theater audience about the goings-on inside the house. See for yourself. Here's a sample episode titled "Rumba Lessons" that aired on December 28, 1950.
    • In the first episode of the 1953-54 season Fred Clark (who played Harry Morton) left the series in part because he had demanded a higher salary. As Harry Keating entered, George stopped the action, turned to the audience and introduced the actors. They chatted briefly, and the action resumed.
    • In the episode "Appearances Are Deceiving" the story takes place upstairs as George is downstairs answering fan mail for his book. He says, "I don't mind the writers writing me out of tonight's story so much, I just wish they'd send someone to let me know what's going on." Cue Harry Morton storming in to talk to George. However once Harry starts throwing around his trademark three dollar words, George says "Fellas, you sent the wrong guy, I still don't know what's going on!"
    • Once it got turned back on George, in an episode where Gracie claimed an elephant sat on her car. George promised her a mink coat if she could prove it. Gracie gathers a roomful of witnesses who individually confirm her story. George's only line in the scene is to the last "witness":
      George: Who are you?
      Man: I'm from Beverly Hills Furs. I was watching the show and knew you would lose. (Holds up a mink coat, which Gracie grabs gleefully.)
  • Closet Shuffle: In the episode "Silky Thompson; Gracie Writes 'My Life with George Burns'", Gangster Silky Thompson is hidden in the closet to avoid the police. Just then Harry Morton comes in looking to hide from a man he sold a swamp to.
    Gracie: That's a shame, Harry. Had you come only a minute sooner you could have had a nice spacious closet, now you'll have to make do with the bedroom upstairs.
    George: Make a reservation next time!
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Three guesses, no hints.
  • Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: George Burns and Blanche Morton.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: In both appearances of Johnny Velvet (played by Sheldon Leonard, in which he tries to prevent Gracie from testifying against him, only to be fed up with her, sees him getting sentenced to having to spend time with Gracie.
  • Crossover:
    • With The Jack Benny Program. Jack and George were lifelong friends and appeared on each others shows often. In one episode George gets Jack on his special television which Jack lampshades with "You're not watching me on your silly TV are you? I'm not on until Sunday Night!". After Jack then starts to quote his appearance fee, George turns off the TV. In another episode George threatens Von Zell by pondering, "I wonder what Don Wilson (Jack's announcer) is doing next year..."
    • Also, during their radio years, there was a long-running storyline about Gracie searching for her missing brother. It got so popular it became an early form of Memetic Mutation, and the joke got so extensive that Gracie would pop up on other radio shows like Eddie Cantor's and Guy Lombardo's looking for him.
  • The Ditz: Gracie could be the poster girl for the trope.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: In some of their early short films, George and Gracie's characters would be encountering each other for the first time, and George would grow steadily more frustrated and steamed by Gracie's spaced-out babble. By the time of the radio show, they'd decided it worked better if George clearly loved Gracie the way she was and remained unperturbed by her eccentricies.
  • End-of-Episode Silliness: George Burns has said he had the greatest job in the world. All he needed to do was ask "So Gracie, what's new with your Uncle Charlie" and sit back and react while Gracie spoke for three minutes.
  • Fourth-Wall Observer: George, of course.
  • Game Show Appearance: While hypnotized into being the smartest woman alive, Gracie appears (and wins) on an Expy of The $64,000 Question.
  • Genre Savvy: Sometimes people try to out think Gracie. Doesn't work too well.
    Man #1: I can't wait to get home and sit by the fireplace. My dog at my feet, smoking a pipe, reading the paper.
    Man #2: (After a pause) Mrs Allen....aren't you going to ask him why he lets his dog smoke a pipe?
    Gracie Allen: Heavens, no! (The men nod and go back to what they were doing) After all, if his dog is smart enough to read the paper, why shouldn't he be allowed to smoke a pipe?
  • George Jetson Job Security: George Burns fired his announcer Harry Von Zell so often that 'Harry, You're fired.' could almost be considered a Catchphrase.
    Harry Morton: You seem to understand George's psychological make up.
    Harry Von Zell: Well you don't get fired 3 or 4 times a day without getting to know the man.
  • How We Got Here: One Christmas Episode starts out with George talking to us from a jail cell on Christmas Eve, then goes into the story of how he got there.
  • Hypno Fool: In one two part episode, Gracie bumps into a Hypnotist who later hypnotizes her into being the smartest woman alive. Later, as George tries to reverse the situation, Blanche is accidentally turned into 'the old Gracie Allen'.
  • Jury Duty: One episode subverts the troupe by having both Blanche and Harry happy at the prospect of her being called (Blanche looking forward to doing her civic duty, and Harry looking forward to the free time and non-burned food he'll get with her gone).
  • Light Is Not Good: The one time in her career that Gracie froze on stage came during a dress rehearsal of the pilot episode. She happened to be looking at one of the cameras when the red tally light came on. Startled, she froze until it went off. George had the technical director remove the tally lights from all of the cameras.
  • The Masochism Tango: Blanche and Harry Morton: constantly fighting, yelling, and insulting each other. They only team up when something happens that they both want to condemn more than each other, usually involving a mistaken impression that George has done something terrible.
  • One-Hour Work Week: George
  • One-Steve Limit: Subverted with Harry Morton and Harry Von Zell. Of course this helps Gracie mistake someone talking about one Harry for the other Harry.
  • Only Sane Man: George Burns, and less often, Ronnie Burns.
  • Product Placement: TV episodes sponsored by Carnation Evaporated Milk, "the milk from contented cows". In a legacy of the show's radio origins, it was left to the announcer (Harry Von Zell) to do most of the shilling.
    • In one episode Blanche says she should use A1 Sauce instead of perfume behind her ears to get Harry's attention. Not likely a paid placement, but still odd that she didn't just say 'steak sauce' instead of the brand name.
    • Multiple episodes featuring George's real life book I Love Her, That's Why!. For example, in the episode "Harry Morton's Cocktail Party", Gracie becomes a bookstore salesclerk to help sales. As with everything else this is lampshaded by George.
      George Burns: (to the audience) Remember last week when my publisher Simon and Schuster suggested I show a copy of my book I Love Her, That's Why! on the show to help sales, and I thought it was a bad idea? (He holds up a copy of the book.) I still do.
    • On the radio show, Bill Goodwin would give an incredibly intrusive pitch for Swan Soap, which was often lampshaded, and the other characters often treated him like he was an obsessed loon.
    "Swan Soap, the new white floating soap that's purer than the finest castiles. With a twist of the wrist, you can break it in half, and use one in the toilet and one in the kitchen." He would then twist the conversation in some way toward babies in order to discuss how gentle the soap was on skin.
  • Running Gag:
    • Gracie has a closet full of hats of visitors who come into the house, take off their hat, and get confused by Gracie so much they leave without it.
    • Gracie's loopy logic and even loopier relatives.
    • George's singing ability (or lack of same).
    • George more or less riding Gracie's coattails in their act and tv/radio shows.
  • Satchel Switcheroo: In the episode "A Paris Creation", the trope is invoked with two briefcases marked G.B. - one belonging to George and the other a nuclear scientist. Of course, as with everything else on the show, George is aware of the switch and lampshades it heavily to the audience.
  • Self-Deprecation: George happily agrees with his friends and neighbors that he'd be nowhere without Gracie.
    George: I don't need a financial advisor. 20 years ago I took $2 and made an investment that's paid out a million times over since. (Pause, puff on cigar) I bought a marriage license.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Harry Morton.
  • Signing-Off Catchphrase:
    Gracie: [tells some bizarre non-sequitur story]
    George: Say goodnight, Gracie.
    Gracie: Goodnight.
  • Story Arc: The Mortons and Burns' go to New York to promote George's (real life) book I Love Her, That's Why.. While there, a few of the episodes deal with Ronnie wanting to be a dramatic actor instead of a comic following in his parent's footsteps.
  • Too Dumb to Fool: Gracie, who could confuse the sharpest con artist.
  • TV Genius: Harry Morton.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: Blanche and her mother.
    George Burns: See, everyone has a happy ending in this episode. Especially Blanche — She gets two checks this week, one for playing herself and one for playing her mother. Come to think of it, I don't get a happy ending....I have to pay her!

''"Say goodnight, Gracie." "Goodnight, Gracie!"''

Alternative Title(s): The Burns And Allen Show