CLOWNS IN DECLINE
"... [Some] say the twilight of comedians on television is at hand." – Long Island Newsday
"… 'That little box!' Mr. [Jimmy] Durante exclaimed earnestly. 'That box could be the death of us. They're going to hate us if we stay on too long.' – New York Times
Unfortunately, Mr. Durante was more right than wrong. As TV columnist Jack Gould put it in March, 1957 for the New York Times: "After thirty years of unchallenged dominance it now seems generally conceded that comedians no longer are the mainstay of broadcasting. The inexorable law of overexposure has caught up with the majority of clowns. Today, as a class, they are not as important as Western dramas....”
(Indeed, Westerns were becoming epidemic on TV. In 1958-59, an amazing seven out of the top ten shows fell into that category.)
"... The very power of TV—to make a person a recognizable face in the home—is also the comedian's constant handicap. At the very time the comic is trying to make people laugh he must do battle against humor's deadly enemy, familiarity. It is not an enviable lot.”
Almost since the beginning of the medium, commentators had wondered how long comedians could endure on live TV. The great stage comedian, Bert Lahr, told what Sid Caesar had to do every week to put on his show, reportedly said, “It's impossible.”
Understandably, many comics sidestepped the weekly grind. Jack Benny at first did shows occasionally, then monthly, then bi-weekly-- not presenting a program every seven days until 1960. Bob Hope only did specials. Some early shows like The Colgate Comedy Hour and Four Star Revue rotated their performers, allowing comedians to do shows monthly or even less often. (Stars on these series included Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, Jack Carson, Jimmy Durante, Martha Raye, Bobby Clark and Fred Allen.) This helped, but it was an expensive way to do business.
For those comics who did front a weekly live program, the strain could be debilitating: In December of 1954, Variety noted that, in the space of one week, not one but two top comedians “were simultaneously floored by illness brought on by fatigue and overwork.” Milton Berle collapsed after his weekly show signed off; Red Buttons was sent to the hospital after falling ill during rehearsal. Truly, as Variety headlined, “Live Is a Killer”!
In 1955, comedians ruled the roost; by 1957, they were disappearing at an alarming rate: Martha Raye, Johnny Carson, Jimmy Durante, Herb Shriner, Buddy Hackett, Imogene Coca and Milton Berle lost or gave up their shows. Gleason went on hiatus. Lucille Ball discontinued her weekly series. Gracie Allen would retire in 1958 and her husband's subsequent solo show flopped. Billboard also reported: "[V]irtually certain to be canceled are Danny Thomas [who wasn't] and Wally Cox [who was]....”) Manifestly, the climate was turning against star comedians (unless, perhaps, like Thomas and Phil Silvers they were in filmed sitcoms).
By 1959 the only comedians who were appearing successfully in the variety format every seven days were Red Skelton and Steve Allen. The “golden age” of TV comedy-variety was effectively over.