Burns and Allen were way ahead of their time. If you’re old enough to know them, you’ll have no trouble conjuring up an image of George Burns: short, suit and tie, cocked eyebrow, ever-present cigar, knowing smile. And right next to him, his brilliant wife and partner in comedic crime, Gracie Allen. A vaudeville team beginning in the 1920s, they went on to work together in radio, movies and television for roughly 40 years. That’s a long time to stay funny.
Together they were hard to beat, with George playing straight man to Gracie’s loveable and hilarious Queen of the Ditzes. Unlike some who would later play the aren’t-I-cute, fluffbrain girly-girl–Goldie Hawn on 1968’s Laugh-In comes to mind, a mostly annoying and sexist performance–Gracie adopted a style that conveyed a certain authority. She was never stupid. She could start up and follow through on a complex and internally (kind of) logical train of thought with ease. She just somehow began with one or two details wrong and threw in a few more along the way for good measure. Her relationship to her husband was never infant-woman to daddy-husband, like that of Lucy Ricardo to Ricky. She was unique. “…Gracie played her (part) as if she were totally sane, as if her answers actually made sense,” Mr. Burns once explained. “We called it illogic-logic.”
Gracie breezed through stage life reorganizing reality for those around her. Five minutes of watching Gracie wield her topsy-turvy logic, not even realizing how she confused, confounded and discombobulated any number of otherwise functional men and women around her, and you had to ask–who has it right, all of them or Gracie?I’m referring here, of course, to her performances on The Burns and Allen Show, which ran from 1950 to ’58 on CBS. I became familiar with the show as a child, after it went to reruns. I always thought it was funny, but I was a lot older before I realized how different that show was from just about everything else on TV. Although every episode ended with George and Gracie stepping out from behind a literal curtain onto a literal stage doing a typical vaudeville routine, the show itself was not only one of the earliest television sitcoms, it was a prime example of metafiction.
The show was filmed on a set built to look like the real Burns and Allen house. They played themselves as did their children. Other actors played either themselves or fictional characters–as in Curb Your Enthusiasm half a century later. George Burns frequently turned to the camera and, cigar in hand, broke the fourth wall. In fact, he smashed it and it never came back for the rest of the episode. He offered up wry comments about the goings on about him, often portraying himself as the only sane adult in the bunch. Sometimes, he told us what he was about to do next, letting us in on the prank he was about to play or the trap he was about to set. It was deliciously satisfying.
Toward the end of the series, George even put a TV into his study. When the plot heated up and the screwball mayhem began, George would go upstairs and tune in to the show. Yep, he would watch the rest of the actors in their scenes, right along with us. I remember as a child thinking this was utterly delightful and not knowing why. But there it was, easily as meta as Arrested Development or It’s Garry Shandling’s Show—just decades earlier.
Burns and Allen were always innovative. Their humor ran pretty far to the absurd side to begin with. I learned recently that Gracie Allen made a fictional run for President of the US on their radio show in 1940. And during the series, they did all kinds of crazy things. The show’s announcer, Harry Von Zell, played himself and George fired him just about every show. “You’re fired” became a catch-phrase, one that Mr Von Zell might say before George got the chance. Early in the series, the actor playing George and Gracie’s next door neighbor quit because he wanted more money. That’s not unusual. What is unusual is the inventive way the show handled it. In the middle of an episode, George interrupted a scene, told the audience the actor was leaving, and the new actor simply came in and took over. That was pretty wild and would be considered so even today.
Now, you can catch Burns and Allen from time to time on one of those stations devoted to vintage shows. Recently, I saw an episode in which George Burns discusses the TV in his study. He muses about what the world would be like if everyone had one of those sets. But then, he points out, it would get dull fast as we all tuned in to watch each other watching each other. Not a good thing. Maybe he was prescient. It’s pretty similar to what TV news has become as we tune in to watch talking heads tell us what we think about things. Those heads can’t get talking soon enough after, say, a President’s speech, to tell us what we just heard and what their snap polls tell us we think about it. It’s pretty unhealthy and I don’t think George would approve. I do think Gracie would add some sense to the self-satisfied nonsense those heads generate in their attempt to be the one to make the most clever or surprising observation, though.
George Burns was the kind of American success story we no longer seem to love as much as we once did. The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants and one of twelve children, George was born Nathan Birnbaum in 1896 on the Lower East side of NYC. He married his Irish-American Gracie and they adopted two children—a classic American melting pot of a family. They became some of the most loved entertainers of their time and were generous with their fortune, endowing hospital wings and supporting charities. Gracie died young, at age 58, but George lived to be 100 and worked well into his 90s. I’d love to hear what he had to say as he flicked his cigar and cocked his brow, commenting on the state of America in 2017. What would he think of the crazy mixed up America using some very unfunny illogic-logic to decide that those “other people”–our grandparents, parents and past heroes–threaten “our” way of life? Especially when it’s the way of life that past immigrants built and shaped for all of us. Well, maybe he’d have a solution. He was famous, after all, for saying “You’re fired!”
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