Husband-and-wife situation comedies were popular during radio's hey-day: Fibber McGee and Molly, Vic and Sade, George and Gracie, Ethel and Albert, the Bickersons, and, perhaps the wittiest of the lot, Easy Aces. Not all of these radio couples were real-life marital duos. Mr. Ace (a first name was never used on the show) and Jane most certainly were!
Goodman Ace was born Asa Goodman in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1899. He was the son of a haberdasher; consequently, his first job was as a hat salesman. He soon switched to newspapering and became a columnist on the Kansas City Journal Post. Jane Sherwood (born Jane Epstein) saw the light of day in the same city one year later.
The two were married in Kansas City on November 16, 1924. By 1928 we know that Goodman Ace was earning his living as a movie and drama critic for the Journal-Post. According to John Dunning in his excellent book Tune In Yesterday, 1928 marked Ace's foray into local radio broadcasting. Over KMBC (the local CBS affiliate) he begain reading the Sunday comics at ten dollars per show. He soon added another feature "The Movie Man" during which he read his reviews of films for another $10. Dunning's story of what happened next reads like one of their later improbable episodes. The principals in a 15-minute show which was to follow Ace's "The Movie Man" never showed up, and he was recruited to ad-lib for the fifteen minute time period. Luckily (for him and for us!) wife Jane was standing by and joined in the impromptu discussion of their bridge game the night before and a local unsolved murder. Listener reaction was favorable, and a radio institution was born -- first on KMBC. In two years time the local program had attracted network attention, and in October 1931 "Easy Aces" began a 13-week trial period on the CBS network at 10:15 AM out of Chicago. Audience response to a write-in appeal was so overwhelming (100,000 letters) that the program remained a network feature for 15 years -- not, however, always at the same time or the same network.
In 1935 the show moved to NBC's blue network at 7:30 PM on Mondays and Wednesdays sponsored by Anacin. In 1942 the Aces went back to CBS at the same time slot on Wednesdays and Fridays, and on November 24, 1943, "Easy Aces" became a one-half-hour-per-week broadcast at 7:30 PM where it remained until January 10, 1945. The "honeymoon" with sponsor Anacin ended abruptly when a minor executive complained about a musical bridge on the show, which prompted Ace to suggest how Anacin could better package its product! Dunning notes in his account that the "broadcasts were informal, the principals sitting around an old card table with a built-in, concealed microphone. NBC built the table to Ace's specifications early in the run...(p. 176)." The show returned to the airwaves briefly in February, 1948, in the half-hour format under the title mr. ace and Jane. Apparently Goodman Ace learned to use unorthodox capitalization practices from the modern poet e .e. cummings! He had also learned how to re-package his earlier scripts in a more sophisticated format using himself as the host and commentator with live audience reaction taking the place of Marge. Unfortunately the actor who plays Jane's brother Paul in these 1948 programs has voice characteristics very similar to those of Ace himself.
The "plots" for the earlier "Easy Aces" episodes ranged from single incidents of an evening in their bungalow (Jane -- writing a letter to her mother -- can't understand why there is more than one spelling for the word "right/write/rite") to extended incidents requiring two weeks or more to play out the chain of events. Jane and Goodman Ace are the pivotal characters throughout the series. Why the watchdogs of "political correctness" or certain feminist groups haven't tried to ban the distribution of "Easy Aces" shows is-- as Jane would say -- "behind me!" Jane Ace is everything feminist extremists abhor. On the surface she is the "ditsy" housewife who ventures forth into a "man's world" with hilarious [if not disasterous) results. Her speech patterns were a Midwestern prototype for the much later Edith Bunker with a whining, infantile voice which wasn't for all tastes. This writer remembers being forbidden to listen to the show on the big Philco in the living room because the adults in the family considered Jane's voice on a par with scraping fingernails on a chalkboard. Consequently he sneaked next door whenever possible to listen with the Hubbards who were also ardent fans.
Goodman Ace (for those who haven't heard the show) sounded very much like the voice of a disgruntled Tom Bodett on the current Motel 6 radio commercials. He was the long-suffering, hard-working real estate sales executive (later an advertizing executive] who groaned "Isn't that awful!" when Jane tossed off her fractured epigrams or revealed her hairbrained schemes.
There are regulars on the show. Marge Hale (Mary Hunter) was a school-girl chum of Jane's who lives with the Aces (no one knows why!) and acts as a Greek Chorus. Marge laughs a lot, never initiates any activity except to refuse stubbornly to be a part of Jane's schemes, and generally holds herself above and apart from the festivities. You either accept her classical function as commentator who lets you know when to laugh or you find her sort of a "creep" who wouldn't last in your household for five minutes. As a child I never questioned Marge as an integral part of the show. As an adult I find her less acceptible and I'm not sure why. Perhaps the stereotype of the "spinster" no longer has a place in our society.
The "Easy Aces" have no children (nor did they in real life), but Jane's brother Johnny Sherwood (Paul Stewart) features prominently in early episodes. Johnny is a lazy, good-for-nothing who has been sponging off the Aces for years. His marriage to Alice Everett, the daughter of a wealthy tycoon, doesn't stop his billing two suits plus accessories to his brother-in-law's charge account. Jane loyally defends Johnny through thick and thin. Although her brother has been loafing for twelve years she explains that Johnny is waiting for the dollar to stabilize before he goes to work. He is convinced that taking even temporary employment might set a precedent! Johnny is one of those radio relatives you love to hate. Characters move into and out of the plot lines as needed. One of the other outrageous temporary residents was the maid Laura (Helene Dumas). Ford Bond served as the program's announcer and "scene setter" for many years, later replaced by Ken Roberts
Humor in the form of a "situation comedy" is difficult to explain, partly because what is "funny" or "delightfully sophisticated" to some listeners may prove "offensive" and "stupid" -- or even downright "incomprenensible" -- to others. If humor is the "playful overthrow of authority," then a situation comedy makes light of the mores, the prejudices, the foibles of society along with its movers and shakers People who don't find some of these social and political practices a bit frightening or awesome probably will not find their "overthrow" a happy release. For example, a man who is a bit intimidated by his mother-in-law in real life will probably find jokes about mothers-in-law hilarious. On the other hand, if you happen to be the mother-in-law, the humor will be lost to you. A psychiatrist friend once declared, "Tell me what you poke fun at, and I'll tell you what your secret fears are!"
The psychology of verbal wit may be described differently. An English professor from college days noted that "wit is the shocking discrepancy between the expected and the actual." The old joke which begins "Why does the chicken cross the road?" isn't funny if you get the answer you've heard a dozen times before: "Because it wants to get to the other side!" But it may get a laugh with the snappy comeback "That was no chicken, that was my wife!" You expected an old chestnut, but you actually got an unexpected mixture of TWO old jokes! The outlandish plots on "Easy Aces" were not what kept most fans listening, although there were many nights when Jane did not utter a single witticism. However, what people remember about "Easy Aces" was the verbal humor of Jane Ace.
Jane's often quoted laugh lines have been referred to over and over in various critiques -- including those of her husband who wrote them -- as "malapropisms." Actually the character Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play The Rivals gets her laughs from a very limited form of word play. She substitutes a big word which sounds similar to a target word but which has an entirely different, unrelated meaning. Early in Sheridan's play Mrs. Malaprop says to a young maiden in love,
The New Malapropisms
"promise to forget this fellow -- to illiterate him from your memory!"
On another occasion she threatens,
"you forfeit my malevolence [she means 'benevolence'] forever!"
Or she advises, "Don't attempt to extirpate [she means 'extricate'] yourself!"
Goodman Ace, who is said to have written all of their scripts, did in fact have Jane use traditional malapropisms on occasion. She says to Marge who refuses to go on vacation with her, "You're so obsolete, [meaning "obstinate"] Marge!" We know from the context what Jane means -- so we laugh. Other straight malapropisms include "You look stunned [meaning 'stunning']!" But Jane's malapropisms take on a more complex dimension when she diagnoses Johnny's "intentional flu." Here Jane not only uses a substitute word for "intestinal" she use a word which gives entirely new meaning to the diagnosis. This added dimension of wit is not in the intellectual bunglings of the original Mrs. Malaprop. Mrs.Malaprop is laughably ignorant. Jane, on the other hand, is "crazy like a fox!"
But the verbal humor of "Easy Aces" goes way beyond Jane's new-and-improved malapropisms. It is far richer and more complex. Jane takes truisms and epigrams and hackneyed phrases that are an integral part of our modern oral repertory and alters them in ways that make a special kind of fractured "sense." Much of this process is similar to what the psychiatrist Silvano Arieti called "paleologic thought." Paleologic thought is a primative, childlike form of reasoning which doesn't conform to Aristotelian logic but which is emotionally driven by wishful thinking. We chuckle when a toddler mistakes a lanky teenager for his "daddy." For the child the logic is elementary:
In adult logical syllogisms (in Aristotelian logic) the subjects of the major and minor premises must be identical for the conclusion to be true. In infantile logic (i.e., paleologic thought) only the predicates of the major and minor premises must be true for the conclusion to be correct. But there is a connection -- no matter how tenuous. For it to be funny, the tenuous connection must contain some truth and be a surprise. Example:
- Major Premise: "My daddy is a big man."
- Minor Premise: "This guy is a big man."
- Conclusion: "Therefore, he must be my daddy!"
The teacher asks the question, "Who was the first President of the United States?"
Johnny answers, "Abraham Lincoln." The answer is wrong but it is a clinically logical mistake. It isn't particularly funny -- just embarassing.
But Billy answers the same question, "White House!" and the class howls with glee. True, the answer is wrong; but there is a tenuous connection to the orginal question. The "logic" is childlike and a complete surprise. The point I'm trying to make here is that Jane Ace was much funnier than Mrs. Malaprop because the logic of her twisted sayings makes sense at the paleologic level (the childlike level). Perhaps some real-life examples will make this clearer.
On a primative level we recognize a startling, unexpected logic behind the "mistakes" of children, and this releases laughter. We repeat the same "mistakes" along with the circumstances leading up to the punch lines and others laugh with us -- if they are sufficiently surprised as well. There is no name for these witticisms. They are not really "Spoonerisms" or slips of the tongue. They are semantic slips. For want of a better label, let's use the New York Times critic's "Jane-isms." Jane takes common proverbs, epigrams, hackneyed sayings and distorts them in a surprising way which changes their meaning:
- A child knows that his father commutes into New York City every day by train. So when the child learns the "Lord's Prayer" in Sunday School he recites, "Deliver us not into Penn Station... ['temptation' isn't in his vocabulary; 'Penn Station' is!]." Adults find this tenuous connection hilarious.
- There was also a child in the speech and hearing clinic the writer once supervised who ended the "Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag" with the promise, "with liver, tea, and justice for all!" ["liberty" wasn't in his vocabulary so he substituted objects that made sense to him].
And what this writer considers the supremely funny "Jane-ism" of them all:
- "familiarity breeds attempt"
- "take the bitter with the better"
- "you could've knocked me down with a fender"
- "up at the crank of dawn"
- "the laughs on the other foot"
Many other "Jane-isms" will be included later -- but if you can't wait, click here.
- "time wounds all heels"
Fortunately for us, Goodman Ace turned over electrical transcriptions of their shows prior to 1945 for syndication by ZIV, which is probably why we still have hundreds of their programs available and in excellent condition. Don't expect the programs to be complete with openings, closings and commercials because these elements were removed for syndication. Copies of many programs are available through this web site as well as through many commercial supplies of OTR.
Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh report that "Easy Aces" was briefly a 15-minute program on Dumont TV beginning December 14, 1949 and ending June 14, 1950. The show was aired from 7:45 PM to 8:00 PM on Wednesdays. The compilers assert "As on radio, 'Ace' was his witty, intelligent self, and his wife, Jane, was a charming bundle of malapropisms." Actress Betty Garde appeared as Jane's friend, Dorothy. "Easy Aces" was filmed, and was syndicated to other local stations even while it was on the Dumont network." Roy Waite, another "Easy Aces" enthusiast in Tokyo, is convinced that there was also a motion picture "Dumb Dora" which featured Jane Ace. Attemts to date to track down the movie or any official mention of it have failed this writer!
Ace went on to write for the Danny Kaye program, the Robert Q. Lewis show, and many of the early TV hit shows including Milton Berle and Bob Newhart. In 1952 he helped "Uncle Miltie" turn his variety show into an equally successful situation comedy. Three years later he switched to write for the relaxed style of Perry Como. That show jumped to the top of the ratings in its first season. Beginning in the 1960's "Goody" Ace also wrote a regular column for Saturday Review called "Top Of My Head." Many of these columns were collected into three books published by Simon & Schuster and Doubleday. One additional book Ladies and Gentlemen -- "Easy Aces" published in 1970 includes many of his best radio scripts.
Roy Waite, another fan of "Easy Aces" tells this writer that the Aces The Aces were living at the Ritz Towers Hotel in New York when Jane died at Doctors Hospital on Monday, November 11, 1974, just five days before they would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Services were held in Kansas City for immediate family members only where her two brothers were living. Goodman Ace claimed that his wife had a natural affinity for "Jane-isms." Arnold Stang, who worked in radio with the Aces, told this writer that Jane was as "ditsy" in real life as she was on the radio; so "Goody" may not have been exaggerating when he said his wife was "addicted" to them in later years. In the February 8, 1975 issue of Saturday Review her husband devoted his "Top of My Head" column to Jane. In a heart-breaking tribute he pulls no punches. For at least three years she had been in no condition to respond to the reality around her. Ace describes the days following her death as though in a dream:
"...now alone at a funeral home...the questions...the softly spoken suggestions...repeated, and repeated... because ...because during all the arrangements, through my mind there ran a constant rerun, a line she spoke on radio...on the brotherhood of man ...in her casual, malapropian style ... "we are all cremated equal" ... they kept urging for an answer...a wooden casket? ... a metal casket? ...it's the name of their game ... a tisket a casket...and then transporting it to Kansas City, Mo. ...the plane ride..."smoking or non-smoking section?" somebody asked ... the non-thinking section was what I wanted....
...a soft sprinkle of snow as we huddled around her...the first of the season, they told me ... lasted only through the short service ...snow stopped the instandt the last words were spoken. He had the grace to celebrate her arrival with a handful of His confetti .."
Hundreds and hundreds of "Easy Aces" radio listeners wrote telling how much joy Jane Ace had brought into their lives. "Your loss is our loss," they said. "She will be remembered in our prayers."
Goodman Ace lived for eight more years, dying at his home in New York City on March 25, 1982. New York Times printed an obituary written by David Bird two days later. Bird noted, "Mr. Ace liked to scoff at ratings. He said that neither the writer nor a star alone could make or break a comedy show. It took, he said, a good time spot and teamwork. 'The whole thing has to be a kind of partnership -- a marriage between writer and performe,.' he explained, 'If there is no marriage -- well you know what the brainchild has to be'."
Editor Norman Cousins wrote a fitting tribute which was published in Saturday Review three months later. Cousins noted "...he [Goody Ace] was a constant source of nourishment. He knew the value of joy. Even in his deepening illness he would attend to the craving of others for comic relief from a world tormented as much by its inadequacies as by its complexities."
The Saturday Review editorial goes on to quote one of the stories which circulated around the magazine staff about a telephone call a few years prior to "Goody's" death:"Excuse me, madam," he told the caller. "I can hardly hear you; it almost sounded as though you were inviting me to speak at a dog show."Editor Cousins makes the point that Goodman Ace was "much more than a gagsmith, however, just as he was much more than a wordsmith. Beneath the humor was a view of life as something not merely to be sustained but cherished. He was funny, but he never made fun of people. He made use of their foibles but never made them look stupid."
"Mr. Ace, that's exactly what I was saying. I represent the Westminster Dog Show at Madison Square Garden, and we want you to speak."
"That's very kind of you," Goody replied. "But, honestly, madam, I've had very little to do with dogs in my long lifetime. There's nothing I could say."
"Well, Mr. Ace," she continued, "we weren't exactly expecting you to talk about dogs. We have a modest honorarium of $2,500."
"Madam," he said, "some of my best friends have been dogs. I am delighted to accept."
"When the day of the dog show came, Goody prepared to leave his apartment in New York. Jane called out to him in the hallway and asked where he was going. "The dog show," he said. "That's all right, Goody," she replied. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."
At Madison Square Garden, Goody gave one of his typical droll performances. After about 45 minutes...Goody completed his talk, received sustained applause, and then stepped down from the platform.
"Mr. Ace," someone cried out, "Aren't we going to have a question period? Speakers always have question periods." General applause indicated wide support for the request. Goody returned.
"It seems that you would like a question period," he said. "Very well, my first question is: Why don't you leave these poor dogs alone?"
Could the comedy writer who had conquored radio, TV, and movies take himself seriously? Let the reader finish this paragraph and then judge. When Saturday Review conducted a poll asking famous Americans to nominate candidates for a contemporary Hall of Fame, Goody Ace wrote these words: "I respectfully suggest the name of Goodman Ace...if he's still around....If he isn't, I wouldn't dig him up just for this."