Fred Allen — Radio Comic Genius and Catholic

How one of the greats of the Golden Age of Radio was quietly if faithfully devout

Publicity photo of comedian Fred Allen from his radio program Allen's Alley.
Publicity photo of comedian Fred Allen from his radio program Allen's Alley. (photo: NBC Radio / Public Domain)

There is a story originating in the 19th century of a man who, on account of his profession, was gripped by a depressive sadness. 

When he had completed his professional work at the end of the day he found that he wanted only to be left alone so as to weep, so sensitive was he. In the end, he became so depressed and unwell he decided to consult a doctor. The wise medic knew the presenting symptoms well and told his patient: “Go and see Grimaldi (then London’s most famous stage comedian) and laugh yourself well.”

The man looked at him before replying sadly: “I am Grimaldi.”

Comics are notoriously depressive. Take silent movie star Buster Keaton, who lapsed from alcoholism into depression, until he was admitted to an institution where he used vaudeville tricks to escape from a strait jacket. Or the case of the British comedian Tony Hancock who, the more famous and beloved he became, the more he suffered depression and morbidity. In 1964, aged just 44 years old, at the height of his fame, he killed himself. In more recent times, there is the example of comedian Robin Williams, who also committed suicide. The Hollywood star had said, “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it's like to feel absolutely worthless and they don't want anyone else to feel like that.”

There are, however, exceptions to every rule.

A household name in 1930s and 40s, Fred Allen was a comedian who was also a pioneer in harnessing the power of the new and cutting edge medium of radio. Prior to radio, he had been a moderately successful stage performer. By chance, he stumbled into the then-embryonic medium of radio. Unwittingly, there he discovered his real vocation, and also his true genius.

Allen was neither depressive nor suicidal. He was happily married all his life to one woman — a rare phenomenon in show business. He was pleasant to those with whom he worked, liked by his fellow entertainers, and loved by his audience. He went every Sunday to Holy Mass at St. Malachy’s Church in Manhattan close by where he lived. On occasion, he would serve Mass. His faith was part of who he was, so much so that there seemed nothing exceptional to it. He simply lived and died a faithful Catholic.

Allen was born to Irish parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 31, 1894. His real name was John Sullivan. His mother died when he was three years old. Subsequently raised by an aunt, he left school at 14 to work as a stock boy at Boston Public Library. His job was to fetch and then return the library’s books. It sounds dull; it proved to be the making of Sullivan. He became a voracious reader. Deprived of the benefits of formal education, he became an autodidact. It was during this period Sullivan came across a book on comedy. It intrigued him so much that he began to read everything he could find on the subject.

In his spare time, he entertained others by juggling. By his own admission, he was no juggler though; still he entered a local talent contest and during his performance he chanced upon something else. He noticed that the audience reacted more warmly to his joking around than to his actual juggling. He decided to give comedy a try — thereafter, billing himself as “The World’s Worst Juggler.”

Soon the vaudeville circuits of New York City beckoned. By 1916 he was touring abroad, in Australia and New Zealand. The tours were long but Sullivan put his time to good use — again reading. Many years later he said of this time, “I learned that any joke or story can be told in many forms. … I came to Australia a juggler, and was to return to America a monologist.”

By 1920s, and now with the stage name Fred Allen, he performed more shows and tours but at increasingly better venues. In 1922 he met a chorus girl called Portland Hoffa. They would marry five years later. In time, his wife would become part of his on stage routine. For the next 29 years they were as close professionally as they were privately in their married lives.

In 1932, as America felt the impact of the Depression, the stage show in which Allen was appearing unexpectedly closed, and the next promised show did not materialize. Through necessity, Allen looked to radio as a potential source of work. 

As had been his method when learning a new skill, Allen read and studied as much as he could about the still novel, if increasingly popular, medium of radio. He made his radio debut on Oct. 23, 1932, on the CBS network’s The Fred Allen Radio Show. Under different sponsor names, this radio show would run weekly until 1949. In so doing, it became one of the most listened to radio shows of the Golden Age of Radio. With his humorous view of life, his laconic style of delivery, his ultra dry wit, and above all his superb comedy timing, the man had found his medium. Radio had unearthed a supreme talent in Fred Allen and he would come to dominate the airwaves and influence many other performers who would come later.

Writing most of his own material, Allen’s content was always more than just gags. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Humor can get in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling at the handle.” That could have been the strapline for The Fred Allen Radio Show. His radio shows looked at current events, with a wry smile that seemed never to take anything too seriously. Yet, for all that, the attitude on display in the shows was a healthy one — that all is transitory, even our fears and worries, and they should, therefore, to be looked upon with a smile.

Allen’s wit and verve, both verbal and mental, is what kept his show spinning along on a tide of jokes, puns and nonsense. While, by the end, he manages to have it all coalesce into something that is positive and strong, facing head on what the world throws at it.

Again, Chesterton unwittingly had summed up Allen when he wrote, “Wit is a fighting thing and a working thing. A man may enjoy humor all by himself; he may see a joke when no one else sees it; he may see the point and avoid it. But wit is a sword; it is meant to make people feel the point as well as see it.”

That sword in the hands of a comedian may well be the Scriptural one of Truth, referred to by St. Paul. Wit and humor are supremely human gifts. But like all that makes us human, such gifts can be used to point us either toward our Creator or away from him. Perhaps it is here that the spiritual battle of the comedian lies.

Fittingly for an Irishman, Allen dropped dead from a heart attack on St. Patrick’s Day, 1956, while walking near his home in Manhattan. Fittingly, also, it was in St. Malachy’s Church, where he had been married and where he attended early morning Mass on Sundays, his requiem was held a few days later.

In his 1954 autobiography, Treadmill to Oblivion, Allen wrote, “All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.” 

No doubt, many comics would agree with that statement. But in Allen’s case, we have to divide the man from the comic persona. That line quoted from his autobiography is classic on air comedic Allen — wry, world-weary, embattled if all the time making an ironic joke. However, the Catholic John Sullivan knew that the “echo” rebounds far beyond the stages and music halls of this world and, in so doing, reaches to the only audience that really matters — the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.