Sunday, May 21, 2017

Serenade To A Duck

Having been propelled (with supercharged turbo jets) by ridiculous current events to the more benign ridiculousness of ducks, vaudeville, cartoons, 1930's movies and radio, we kick off today's post with Gus Visser and his singing duck.

Comedian Buddy Hackett had a few choice works about ducks with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Yes, he kept his act clean in this instance, as difficult as that could be for a legendary "dirty comic" such as Buddy.

Of course, Daffy Duck was duckier, especially in the following cartoons by animation directors Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and Arthur Davis and their respective crews at Warner Brothers.

Duckiest of all, even more than the song I Think You're Ducky, was one of radio's biggest stars of the 1930's, comedian Joe Penner (1904-1941), noted by none other than Carl Reiner on an episode of Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast.

One may not know Penner's name, but certainly comedy and old time radio geeks are familiar with his distinctive voice and catchphrases: "Wanna buy a duck?", "Don't never doooooooo that" and "You naaaaaaasty man" in particular.

After appearing in vaudeville and a series of Vitaphone comedy shorts, Penner hit the big time with a guest appearance on Rudy Vallee's radio show on July 13, 1933. The comedian's catchphrases and duck were already cornerstones of his comedy. Three months later, Penner got his own show, the Baker's Broadcast, soon the biggest program on radio. He was, rather briefly, the most popular comic in showbiz. Joe and his duck sidekick soon received the ultimate tribute, sendups in animated cartoons!

At Warner Brothers, Tex Avery and his production crew created a character named Egghead who was entirely based on Joe Penner.

The rise to fame was so meteoric, Joe and duck sidekick Goo Goo soon inspired official toys.

Although Penner's subsequent radio programs did not duplicate the success of his Baker's Broadcast programs of 1933-1934, his popularity on radio got him signed to appear in movies produced by Paramount Pictures and RKO. Joe had starred in 2-reelers in 1930-1932, but these were actual feature films and not Poverty Row quickies.

This writer finds the following musical interlude from College Rhythm, in which Joe serenades Goo Goo, funny and oddly sweet at the same time; the character genuinely loves his feathered friend and that is what puts the scene over. That said, co-star Lyda Roberti is not exactly thrilled about getting thrown over for a duck!

In the latter 1930's, Joe went on to star in a series of enjoyable comedy programmers for RKO.

We at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog find the lil' duck guy, if supported by a halfway decent script and solid supporting players, likable, funny and weirdly endearing, especially in The Day The Bookies Wept. It's a minority opinion, but we really like him and do not agree with the many who dismiss him as a no talent flash-in-the-pan. Would have liked to see Penner and Frank McHugh appear together in a Warner Bros. film and riff off each other, maybe with Allen Jenkins there as well to make it a trifecta.

Along with The Ritz Brothers and quite a few silent film comics, Joe Penner remains a bit of a Rorschach Test for comedy buffs.

As is the case with silent movie comedians Larry Semon and Harry Langdon (mostly due to their not-of-this-earth appearance), Penner often gets singled out even among comedy fans with such reactions as "he has never made me laugh" and "I don't find him funny at all".

Those who do like him (this writer included) and find Joe's work in radio and movies amusing are hard-pressed to explain just why Penner gets laughs, and for that matter what the heck was funny about another Rorschach Test comedian Penner influenced decades later, Paul Reubens a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman. While Penner's approach to comedy is not easy to describe or categorize, the "wanna buy a duck" man, especially on the Baker's Broadcast series, based on his ultra-cartoony voice and the offbeat nuances and pauses in his comic timing, gets laughs with a musical sensibility.

As the Ritz Brothers get laughs, not with rapid-fire jokes and Groucho Marx style witty repartee, but with the way they dance and move, Penner's humor derived from his sound, dynamics and delivery. This was also also the case with such popular contemporaries on radio as Ed Wynn, Harry Einstein, a.k.a. Parkyakarkus and Jack "Baron Munchausen" Pearl.

It would not be long before humor on radio, stage, screen and nightclubs changed dramatically with the rise of Bob Hope, the beginnings of standup comedy, Jack Benny's character-based radio program (which had just started two years earlier) and the sophisticated and satiric Fred Allen. To some degree, this development left even talented and very funny comics who relied on catchphrases in the dust. Jack Benny and Burns & Allen also got the opportunity to further develop, refine, improve and polish their comedy programs and personas through lengthy runs of success on radio, then television.

It is just as well that Penner's wide-eyed duck lovin' innocent did NOT meet the anarchic and up-to-no-good duo of Bobby Clark & Paul McCullough during his stretch making movies for RKO, as demonstrated by this closing scene from Everything's Ducky (1934), which cements C&McC's rep as the darkest and disturbing of movie comedy teams in talkies, as Kalem's grotesque "Ham & Bud" easily take the "most despicable duo" crown in silents.

For a couple of years, Joe Penner, especially as the star of Baker's Broadcast, was a smash hit, cheering up radio audiences across the country during the darkest days of the Great Depression. For more info on Joe, check out The Joe Penner Project.

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