Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Stop Me If You Can You Top This

The man known as Senator Ford was actually Edward Hastings Ford, a vaudeville comedian and no Senator of any kind. Born in 1887, the man lived to the ripe old age of 83 and so far as I know, never even ran for office. He added the prefix "Senator" to his name in his 20s just for a hoot. But he was a radio man for a time. He gets credit in most radio books for starting the comedy radio program "Can You Top This?" on WOR-AM.  As usual, it's a lot more complicated than that.

First of all, as comedy shows go it was more like Whose Line Is It Anyway, and less like the Daily Show. It was a joke-telling show. Mr. Ford was permanent member of the show's panel of joke-tellers, along with Joe Laurie Jr, and Harry Hersfield. These guys were the kings of vaudeville comedy. Joe Laurie Jr wrote an excellent auto biography in 1953, Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace. Hersfield was a comedian, author, cartoonist and columnist for the New York Daily Mirror.

Harry Hersfield was a cartoonist first. he went to art school, and was a manager at MGM. His entry to radio seems to be another radio comedy program "Stop Me If You've Heard This One" which debuted on NBC in 1939... a year prior to Can You Top This? It was out of this Quaker Oats-sponsored program that the classic Can You Top This? line up sprang.

The premise of "Stop Me If You've Heard This One" was that listeners submitted jokes to the program. The show's list of guest panelists included Cal Tinney, Peter Arno, Harry McNaughton, Lionel Stander, Ward Wilson, Harry Hershfield and Jay C. Flippen. Their job was to recognize the joke and interrupt host Milton Berle to finish telling the joke. Somehow this resulted in guests getting prizes. That part loses me. But before the series ended in February of 1940, Hershfield was replaced by "Senator" Ed Ford. That was the genesis of the new program.

Nine months later, Ford, Hershfield and Wilson became panelists on Can You Top This?The show ended up running from 1940-1954; a total of 14 years! Later Joe Laurie Jr replaced Wilson. Of the trio Ford was sort of a straight-man. He was droll and witty even dour.Just like the prior program listeners contributed jokes. But here the panelists just tried to top the listeners. The format was simpler and it worked.  NBC picked up the show in 1942 and ABC even tried unsuccessfully to move it to television in 1950. CBS tried to reboot it in 1970 also for naught.

In 1947, the Mutual Network tried to revive  "Stop Me If You've Heard This One." But their panelists weren't as strong: panelists Tinney, Lew Lehr, George Givot and Morey Amsterdam. It didn't last. They should have invited Senator Ford. He died in 1970 of lung and throat cancer.  His personal papers were donated to Stonybrook University near his home in Greenport, Long Island, NY.  More here.