Radio’s funniest silent joke ever

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Before there was a peacock, there was a tune played on a chime that indicated your radio dial was tuned to the National Broadcasting Company, and if you didn’t get off the couch to change the station, you were most times assured of hearing a quality program.
We owned a radio set called The Freshman Masterpiece. I have never before or since listened to another one of these masterpieces. It is possible that my father bought the only one the company ever manufactured. If it was a prototype, it wasn’t a lemon. For years and years it brought us myriad hours of great entertainment.
The two NBC programs we never missed were “The Jack Benny Show” and “The Fred Allen Show.” Each had a cast of exemplary second bananas who helped their star shine. Benny and Allen had an ongoing feud, and each week I looked forward to hearing the personal but always funny insults they would hurl at one another. On Sunday, Jack Benny would offer something uncomplimentary about Fred Allen: “The bags under his eyes are so big now that he has to check them before boarding a plane.” On his show, Fred would retaliate with, “Jack Benny is so low he could crawl under a snake’s belly wearing a top hat.” Not the best examples of their insults but the ones that have been lodged in my brain for some 60-odd years.
Also locked away in my mind’s musty memory bin is a routine delivered by Richard Haydn when he guested on NBC’s popular “The Rudy Vallee Hour.” Years later, in the early ’60s, I found myself acting alongside Mr. Haydn in an episode of “Playhouse 90.” I had the pleasure of telling him how some 20 years earlier his performance on “The Rudy Vallee Hour” made me fall down laughing. He had created a character, Edwin Carp, an English-accented professor of ichthyology who did vocal impressions of fish. I started laughing the moment I heard him announce that he was going to demonstrate for us what these fish sounded like.
He informed us that the most difficult impression he did was that of the yellow-bellied sapsucker, “Because,” he said, “the sounds this fish makes are so highly pitched they are inaudible to the human ear.” Dr. Carp then suggested that we might, if we owned a dog, invite him into the room and watch his reaction to the ultra-high-frequency sounds. Before attempting his impression of the sapsucker, he explained how difficult and dangerous it was to do the impression accurately.
“There is a good possibility,” he warned, “that I may injure myself!”
He then asked the studio audience for complete silence. He cleared his throat and took a deep breath.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “the yellow-bellied sapsucker … Listen!”
For the longest time, we heard nothing but a hushed silence. No one dared laugh for fear they would miss hearing what they had been told they were incapable of hearing. (The pause might have been as long as that pause on the Jack Benny radio show when Benny was asked by a stickup man, “Your money or your life?” and the miserly Benny finally responded, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”) Professor Carp finally spoke. In an awed tone he said, “Amazing isn’t it?”
Sitting at home, I, along with hundreds in the studio audience, applauded and screamed with laughter-as did all my friends and schoolmates who had missed the program but appreciated my credible re-creation of Edwin Carp’s impression of the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
After trouping together on “Playhouse 90,” Richard Haydn and I became friends, and a few years later he did me the honor of accepting an invitation to guest star on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” where, in episode No. 89, Professor Edwin Carp can be seen and heard doing his inimitable vocal impression of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Check it out if you are curious to see why, in my teenage years, I laughed so wildly listening to a great moment from the Golden Age of Radio.
Carl Reiner was one of the writers and stars of NBC’s hit TV series “Your Show of Shows,” a live 90-minute comedy-variety program that aired in the early 1950s. Mr. Reiner is also the creator of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and he played Alan Brady in that series. The winner of 12 Emmys, Mr. Reiner is also the recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.