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I’ll admit right out of the gate that I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia kick lately, something that can probably be blamed on not having seen home since January, and having been in lockdown alone since March. Things may have occasionally come to the ‘rocking out to metal songs sung by Christopher Lee about Charlemagne at 11 pm while washing dishes in llama pajamas’ point of solitary living. Maybe. Either way, when I’m not working or doing something useful, I find myself more and more seeking out the comfortingly old fashioned. It should be acknowledged that most of the cultural products I associate with nostalgia aren’t ‘personally nostalgic’ for me, in the sense that I had or have a contemporary connection (only post-1999 things could be such). One of the biggest parts of this recent obsession has been old radio comedians, mostly Jack Benny and Fred Allen.
Readers of a certain age will probably have at least some memory of Benny, who dominated radio and television from the ‘30s almost until his death in 1974. My mother absolutely and completely despises him, and threatens homicide if I listen to his ‘40s broadcasts in the car, so he played no great role in my early life. Allen, meanwhile, is a largely forgotten figure, mentioned, if at all, as a “comedian’s comedian” and witty satirist who failed to make the transition to television, a contrast to his arch-nemesis. I could, I think rightfully, laud their comedy chops, their innovativeness, and their lasting impact on American popular culture. These certainly all deserve praise, but what has struck me most in listening to and watching their performances in the last few weeks is who they were and who they became.More