Ignorant Comedy

Puns can be handled two ways—either in dead earnestness, as if the teller truly thinks they’re funny, or with tongue-glued-in-cheek that the listener can’t help but laugh at the idea anyone would try to get away with foisting tired old corn on them.

The latter can apply to old vaudeville acts, animated cartoons and a quiz show that appeared on both radio and TV. It was called “It Pays to Be Ignorant,” and threw out questions and answers like this—

“How can you tell a Jersey cow?”
“By its license plate.”

“It Pays to Be Ignorant” was welcome relief to some who were bored by the languid stuffiness of the venerable “Information Please” where pretentious questions were asked of highbrow panelists. It parodied intellectual quizzes by being the least intellectual programme on radio, where a question like “Who wrote Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?” would bring about a barrage of groaners from the brain-dead panel on writing, Beethoven, the number nine, phonies and anything remotely connected with them. Much like a Tex Avery cartoon at MGM, the jokes came so fast you didn’t have time to think about them before the next one slapped you.

The show was created by Tom Howard’s daughter Ruth and her husband when she worked in local radio in New Haven, Conn. She took it to her dad, who reworked it and shopped it around. Finally the Mutual station in New York, WOR, debuted “Ignorant” on June 25, 1942 and it ended its radio life on NBC on September 26, 1951, making stops on TV in 1949 and 1951.

The proceedings weren’t too silly for venerable Herald-Tribune syndicate columnist John Crosby. He would have panned the show if he thought it was trying to be seriously funny. It took him about six years to review it. Here’s his column from about November 4, 1948

Radio In Review

The Corn Is Green
IN A medium where corn, as the word is understood in show business, has become a respected and lucrative though non-agricultural industry, “It Pays to Be Ignorant” deserves, and in my case, achieves a great measure of respect simply because the program harvests more per acre than any other.
For the benefit of those —as they say on the radio—who tuned in late, “It Pays to Be Ignorant” is a veteran program both in respect to its age as a show and to the ripeness of its participants.
It is a parody on all quiz programs; its moderator, Tom Howard, and its three experts—Harry McNaughton, Lulu McConnell and George Shelton—are cheerfully ignorant of all rational information but appear to have forgotten nothing ever written by Joe Miller.
AS REGARDS the jokes, no program on the air is more shameless. They tell jokes on this program that would cause even Joe Miller some embarrassment; they tell these ancient wheezes in a self-confident, unceasing roar that ranges from Tom Howard’s fog horn tenor through McNaughton’s bleating mockery of an English accent to Lulu McDonnell’s gravel-voiced screech.
The technique is simple. Howard howls a question at his experts, a really difficult question such as: “In what country is the Bank of England?”
Pandemonium then breaks out. No one ever gets around to answering the question but, for the next three minutes, the air is blue with every joke about banks, about money, about England—each worse than the last one but each exploded at you with such idiotic good humor, with such speed and above all with such mastery of timing and inflection that you haven’t time to examine the joke’s antecedents.
“IN WHAT COUNTRY is the Bank of England?” howls Tom Howard. “Mr. McNaughton, there’s a question you ought to know.”
“Yes, indeed,” squeals that raffish Englishman, McNaughton.
“You mean you know it?”
“No, I mean I ought to.”
“Where is the Bank of England?” repeats Howard, louder than the first time.
“Don’t tell me you’ve lost the Bank of England already!” bellows Shelton.
“HE’S JUST misplaced it,” shrieks McNaughton.
Miss McConnell at this point interposes her voice, which fortunately is inimitable: “I keep my money in a mattress.”
“Why do you keep your money in a mattress?”
“So I have something to fall back on.”
“Miss McConnell,” roars Howard, “you already have something to fall back on.”
“My wife keeps her money in a silk stocking,” screams McNaughton. “It’s a joint account.”
“Let’s get back to the question,” screams Howard. “Where is the . . . ”
“I WISH I HAD enough money to buy an elephant,” whispers Shelton, rattling the chandeliers.
“Why do you want to buy an elephant?”
“I don’t. I just wish I had that much money.”
“I don’t need money,” howls somebody. “I got rich relatives.”
“You got rich relatives?”
“I got a cousin in Arizona who’s worth $10,000.”
“You got a cousin worth $10,000?”
“Well, that’s what the sheriff is offering for him.”
THESE TERRIBLE and wonderful gags hurtle out of your microphone at a speed considerably greater than sound is accustomed to travel; the teamwork of the four veteran comics is extraordinarily good, each one playing straight man when the occasion requires, and, even making generous allowance for my personal idiosyncrasies, I’m forced to conclude they are very funny people.

Let’s see if you can hear the pun-fest. Click on the arrow below and you should hear a show broadcast on the Armed Forces Radio Service on October 5, 1945. The AFRS took network shows, edited out the commercials and dated references, then recorded the edited version onto transcription discs that were sent to military radio stations.

For the Duration Only

Martha Sigall relates in her wonderful autobiography Living Life Inside the Lines that she bucked the system when she became a camera operator at Graphic Films during World War Two. You had to be a man to be in the Cameraman’s Union, period. But because of war-time shortages of men (who were called upon to serve in the armed forces), women were given work permits by the union for the duration and had to surrender them at the end of the war.

Martha wasn’t the first, though. The distinction went to one of her former co-workers at the Leon Schlesinger studio. Daily Variety first reported on it on October 8, 1942. I can’t get access to the full story, but a shorter version was printed in Weekly Variety six days later.

Lady Lenser
For the first time in Hollywood history a gal becomes a cameraman (or camera woman) at the Leon Schlesinger cartoon plant, where Verena Ruegg, who has worked up from a tracer’s job, is lensing animations with full permission of the IATSE. Shortage of manpower, due to the war, is causing a general advance of femmes in all phases of the camera art.

For those of you who want to pick apart sentences, the earlier Daily Variety story made it clear that Ruegg was the first camera-woman in all of Hollywood, not just at Schlesinger’s.

Ruegg had made $1000 in 1939 as an inker.

I tried to find out a bit about her, and it seems she was an art collector. There’s a little biography at this web site, though it mentions nothing about her cartoon career (she was a registered nurse when she got married in 1926). The unsigned drawing you see on this posting came from her collection.

She was born on April 30, 1895 in San Francisco, where her father was a realtor, and survived the 1906 earthquake. She died in Los Angeles on March 7, 1973, an unknown pioneer.

The Golden Age of Fax Radio

Before e-mail became practical, there was another way of sending letters and even pictures to your home. Someone used a fax machine. Some people still do.

Like most technology, faxing was around before most of us ever heard about it, kind of like there was television in the late 1920s but no one thinks of it as being that ancient. But fax technology was around about the same time and is kind of a cousin to broadcasting.

My curiosity was piqued reading some trade journals in the ‘30s and early ‘40s talking not only about the future of not only television, but faxing by broadcasters.

Here’s an interesting story from the New York Sun, January 13, 1934.

Pictures by Radio Near
R. C. A. Asks Permission to Erect Stations to Try Out New System
WASHINGTON, D. C, Jan. 13.—Ready to prove its startling disclosure of exactly a year ago—namely, that its research engineers have devised a means of harnessing the ultra-short radio wave lengths to provide a “picture message” system for the United States—the Radio Corporation of America has just filed with the Federal Radio Commission an application for authority to erect a group of experimental stations as the first links in the proposed system.
A complete revolution in wire and radio telegraphy, and, if cheap enough, even the mails, is forecast as the next great development in radio, if the R. C. A. can substantiate its claims in actual operation. Only those who recalled the claims, first disclosed in January of 1933, saw the true significance attached to the company’s request to the Commission last week. It filed in the usual routine and without any accompanying publicity, and it asked for the right to roam the wide band of wave lengths between 86,000 and 400,000 kilocycles (35 to 75 meters) for experimental operation of a facsimile radio transmission system using its newly developed “repeaters.”
First Station In New York
The first stations would be in New York and Camden. N. J., where R. C. A. has its laboratories. Between them would be two “repeater” stations, one at New Brunswick and the other at Trenton, in New Jersey. Facsimile reproductions of letters, telegrams, pictures, newspaper pages and indeed all form of written and printed matter flashed between cities in a matter of mere seconds—this, in sum, is the promise of the revolutionary new ultra-short wave development which R. C. A. is apparently now ready to prove or disprove if the Radio Commission will grant the necessary authority.
It is manifest that such a system, if successful, may mean a new form of communications that may ultimately displace the code telegraphs and wreak many other changes in our economic and social life. The future day can be envisioned when a business man scribbles a note, or his secretary types a letter, inserts it in an automatic radio-facsimile transmitting machine and knows it will be delivered in a matter of seconds in distant city as an identical reproduction of the original. It may also be possible for a great newspaper to send facsimiles of its printed pages to other cities, there to be recast into type, reprinted and delivered simultaneously with its borne editions.
Looking Ahead.
Looking even further ahead—though such an accomplishment may take several generations to make practical—the reproduction of such facsimiles on cheap radio receiving and reproducing instruments in office and home is a logical and not improbable eventual development.
The chief obstacle to the use of the ultra-short waves has been that they act much like light beams and cannot penetrate beyond the horizon where the curvature of the earth stops them. Nor could they penetrate hills, buildings and other barriers. Accordingly, it has been necessary for the experimenters to conduct, their radiating tests from extremely high points in order to gain as far a horizon as possible.
It is not possible in all cities to secure vantage points as high as the Empire State Building, and the New York-to-Philadelphia links will probably use lower radiating location. The plan is to transmit from New York to New Brunswick, where R. C. A. already has a transatlantic code station; thence to Trenton and thence to Camden. The New Brunswick and Trenton stations will automatically repeat the signals from New York. It is calculated that not much more than sixty seconds will he required to send a facsimile of an ordinary-sized letter-head message from the transmitting point to the receiving city.
Other Developments on Way.
If the first link proves successful similar transmitting and repeating stations will be erected throughout the country, economic conditions warranting. A vast network of radio facsimile stations, flashing “picture messages” through the ether at incredible speeds, is foreseen ultimately. But even the R. C. A. is not placing all its eggs in one basket. It is not going forward with this highly expensive experiment with the sole end of “picture message” transmission. It is also known to be testing a new system of multiplex code transmission whereby one radio wave length can he used to send three code messages automatically and virtually simultaneously, each message at the rate of sixty-five words per minute. This is also a secret, development, and the key to its operation is a new machine designed to take advantage of the split-second lapses between the code impulses and use them to stagger other dots and dashes in between.

Newspaper radio columns followed developments about fax transmission with great interest. The papers, as much as radio stations, had a vested interest. C.E. Butterfield’s Associated Press radio column of February 27, 1938 revealed WTMJ in Milwaukee had begun experimental broadcasts in 1934—the station was owned by the Milwaukee Journal—and listed 12 stations that were doing, or were about to do, the same thing. Facsimile receivers were selling for between $120 and $260, attachments for radios cost less.

Butterfield followed up developments in a 1939 column:

Radio ‘Round The Clock
Facsimile Transmission By Three-Station Network Being Started On Experimental Basis.

Associated Press Radio Editor
(Time is Eastern Standard)
NEW YORK, March 15 — Facsimile transmission by a three-station network is being started on an experimental basis. The schedule opens Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning, to continue weekly.
Stations to carry this form of communication, a means of handling printed and other visual matter such as pictures, maps and etc. will be WOR, New York; WLW, Cincinnati, and WGN, Chicago, of the M.B.S. chain.
Each broadcast is to run an hour and each station will send on the chain for 20 minutes. Time on the air is 2:30 A. M. after the regular sound signoff. A test of the network setup was tried last Saturday night.
Facsimile requires special equipment, although it is possible to use a sound receiver provided a facsimile recorder replaces the loudspeaker. The number of sets within the area of the three stations is estimated at not more than a thousand.

Butterfield reported on April 10th that WHK, the Mutual station in Cleveland, had joined the fax network. Broadcasts were taking place from 2 to 3:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. The Brooklyn Eagle’s radio columnist, Jo Ranson, revealed on November 21st that 20th Century Fox was providing WOR with photos of stars and a gossip column for transmission.

WOR was still carrying out fax broadcasts in 1940. The newspaper PM published a faxed comic strip from WOR on June 20, 1940. Here is a photocopy of it, scanned for the internet, so it would have looked better in the paper.

WOR began regular radio programming overnights starting June 18, 1941, knocking the facsimile broadcasts off the air, though the Brooklyn Eagle of that date reported the experiments would resume in a few months once the FCC granted the company a shortwave license. After World War Two, there was renewed interest in facsimile radio. The A.P. reported on July 31, 1946 that stations in at least a dozen cities were going to experiment with and equipment had been ordered from the General Electric Company. G.E. explained to the paper how the system worked.

The copy to be transmitted is placed on a revolving drum. An electric eye scans each detail and translates each gradation of black into an electrical impulse. This in turn is converted into a sound signal and is put out over the air by an FM radio station. The radio signal is picked up by any standard FM radio receiver and relayed to a facsimile recorder connected to or built into the set.
A chemically treated roll of of white paper feeds through the recorder, the action of the electrical impulse on the paper turning it black. Thus, an exact reproduction is obtained.

This story appeared in PM on February 6, 1948. Fax had now been shunted to FM airwaves, no one really having quite established what to do with them.

Facsimile ‘Times’
The New York “Times,” as traditionally a morning institution as the milkman in our town, enters the afternoon paper field a week from next Monday via a four-page “facsimile” edition which will be prepared at the “Times” office and transmitted via WQXQ to receivers (or “recorders”) installed in the radio departments of a number of New York department stores.
The facsimile “Times” will have two pages of current news and pictures, a woman’s page and a feature page. It will start appearing over the department store recorders at 11:05 a.m. and its news and picture content will be brought up to date hourly in renewed transmissions ending with a final edition at 5:05 p.m. The recorders to be used in the demonstration will look like home console radio sets except that they will turn out newspaper text. All equipment used was designed by John V. L. Hogan, facsimile pioneer and founder of WQXR, which is now owned by the N. Y. Times, along with its FM affiliate, WQXQ, which will handle the facsimile transmission. The receivers are manufactured by General Electric.
The news and feature content of the facsimile Times will be produced by a staff headed by Robert Simpson in the Times offices on West 43d St. At the receiving end, displays will explain in non-technical language what facsimile is, how it works and what its possible future uses are. A four-page leaflet, titled “A Newspaper Delivered by Radio,” will be distributed so you can explain to your friends the scientific wonders of the N. Y. Times boiled down by radio to only four pages.

Hogan, incidentally, had provided WTMJ with its equipment in 1934.

The debut of the fax version of the Times on February 16, 1948 was a success. The AP reported six editions were sent out at five minutes after each hour between 11 A. M. and 4 P. M. over road station WQXR-FM. Each edition contained four pages, 11 1/2 inches long and eight inches wide. But the plan was apparently temporary The wire service said demonstrations would continue for only four weeks.

The Mexico (New York) Independent of April 1, 1948 talked of broadcasting faxes to thousands of northern New York farm homes via a six-station FM network connected to WGHF. The FCC decided in November that year to relax rules around schools operating FM stations, declaring they could fax educational materials to the homes of students. All very intellectual (the FCC didn’t mind looking intellectual on appropriate occasions). But facsimile radio’s days were pretty much done. Who was interested in radio any more? The tidal wave of television was washing across America from east to west. But fax technology, as we know, didn’t die. It was perfected through the 1960s and ‘70s until it became commercially feasible for businesses to tie up a phone line with a fax machine. And, of course, when home computing became practical, modems allowed someone to fax a document to someone (at blinding speeds of 2400 bits per second).

With increased computer memory and faster connections, as well as an expanded internet, the poor fax has been replaced by e-mail and other ways to transmit something from one computer to another. But history shows us it played a little part in the Golden Age of Radio.