Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Born 100 Years Ago Today: Satirist and "Bad Boy Of Broadcasting" Henry Morgan

"If Fred Allen bit the hand that fed him, Henry Morgan tried to bite off the whole arm." Gerald Nachman, from Raised On Radio

"Henry's 1/2 hour radio shows with sketches, an orchestra, supporting cast and studio audience were good, but they were nowhere near as funny as the early Here's Morgan shows where Henry sat by himself in front of a microphone and just basically bitched for 15 minutes." Gerry Orlando

"He was ahead of his time, but he was also hurt by his own disposition. He was very difficult. He was so brilliant that he'd get exasperated and he'd sulk. He was a great mind who never achieved the success he should have." Ed Herlihy

"Whenever it is quiet in Washington, you can count on the Un-American committee to issue a report. Maybe sometime later, when it has a chance, it will start gathering the facts." Henry Morgan (1915-1994)

Today is the centenary of the birth of humorist Henry Morgan. A supreme irony remains that, although his primary claim to fame was as panelist for the popular TV game show I've Got a Secret, Morgan's enduring legacy is as a biting social critic. His sensibility followed the gentle but prescient comedian-actor-commentator Will Rogers by two decades and preceded the take-no-prisoners (and even more prescient) political satirist and "standup philosopher" Bill Hicks by four decades.

There were amazing, innovative, brilliant and creative artists working in radio, from dramatist Norman Corwin to (the topic of yesterday's post) Bob & Ray to, a bit later, Stan Freberg and even, on WABC-New York, the great Ernie Kovacs.

First and foremost, let's hear a little of Henry's work as a radio writer-performer. In an era of disposable, transitory entertainment, Morgan's essential edge, intelligence and love of language still hold.

Author and pop culture historian Kliph Nesteroff wrote a dead-on article (including the following graphic), Henry Morgan: Fuck The Sponsor, posted in July 2007 on WFMU's Beware Of The Blog. In something akin to the W.C. Fields tradition, Morgan was bilious, curmudgeonly, cranky, had no use for American culture in general, really did not respect authority and teed off on women even more than Sam Kinison when given the opportunity. . . and, not surprisingly, regarded the brass ring of media stardom with contempt.

The piece by Nesteroff of the Classic Television Showbiz blog succinctly zeroes in on Morgan's career as a wit, intellect, iconoclast and shit disturber from a time - The McCarthy Era - generally not known for such things (at least outside The Four M's of Modern Jazz at the time - Miles, Mingus, Monk and Max Roach).

Morgan explored the terrain broken by the previous generation of radio comics - ESPECIALLY Fred Allen - and could also be considered a dyspeptic, rather Oscar Levant-like take on such "guy, a studio and a microphone" broadcasting staples as Arthur Godfrey. Radio and animation expert Don M. Wowp wrote about Morgan on his Tralfaz blog in an August 2012 post, Good Evening Anybody.

One trait we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog love the most about Henry Morgan was his willingness to razz and humiliate the sponsor - always with rapier-like wit - at all times.

His swan song, after several showbiz comebacks, each ending with him walking off a program in disgust and usually insulting someone in the process, would be the 1994 memoir Here's Morgan! The Original Bad Boy of Broadcasting, which presents Henry's numerous stories and escapades, of course, with delightful trademark vitriol.

One imagines Morgan and Corwin collaborating on just such a radio series: The Life And Times Of Henry Morgan, Bad Boy Of Broadcasting, a careening travelog filled with one-liners worthy of S.J. Perelman.

Several sarcasm-packed Henry Morgan radio shows are available for download on archive.org. These would include three episodes of Here's Morgan, as well as The Henry Morgan Show. More examples of The Henry Morgan Show from the 1947 season can be found on the Old Time Radio Downloads website. The CD seen at the top of this post can be ordered through Radio Spirits or from the Hamilton Book website.

Indeed, it is a fitting epitaph that - and, yes, this is a stretch - one could also draw parallels between Morgan, in his wonderfully caustic 1940's and early 1950's heydey, and the defiantly cantankerous Mark Twain.

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