Category: Golden Age Article

A Look at the Alan Young Show

Baby Boomers will remember Alan Young as a mild-mannered Wilbur Post on Mr. Ed. Generation X and Millennials are more likely to have encountered his work as Scrooge McDuck in Duck Tales and as Jack Allen on Adventures in Odyssey.

Before all that, he was a young comedian who held a spot on radio, first as a 1944 Summer replacement over NBC, then with an ongoing series over ABC from 1944-46, and then back to NBC from 1946-47, and returning again to NBC for six months 1949.

What was the series? Was it any good? I’ll offer my answers based on the existing episodes. We don’t have any surviving episodes from the 1944 Summer Run or the 1949 series. We do have more than 20 episodes from 1944-46 run, and we have the entire 1946-47 series and that’s what this review will be about.

Concept

The concept of this series is fluid. Consistently, Alan Young plays Alan Young, a young man living in Van Nuys, California. Throughout much of the series, he’s trying to win the favor of his girlfriend Betty’s father. The week after he finally seemed to succeed, both Betty and her father were written out of the series. While some episodes of the second season of the ABC run reference Alan running a sign painting business, there are relatively few references to his work, or what Betty’s father did for that matter, which is quite odd.

The plots are superficial, the continuity inconsistent, with characters occasionally behaving in ways and saying things that make no sense to justify a joke. Like many other programs, it has characters whose performances center on one joke: the department store salesman who will mirror what a customer says even at the point of reversing himself, a newspaperman who is frantically busy and confused. Most of more significant characters have multiple catchphrases which are delivered often for comedic effect.

In many ways, the show resembles the Mel Blanc Show (which I reviewed several years back.) Both are somewhat born loser characters, and Mel Blanc also had a girlfriend named Betty who had a father who didn’t like him. Blanc’s show also copied so many of the tropes of Young, but not nearly as effectively. It’s disappointingly bad given the voice talent on it, but it serves as a helpful comparison in showing how Young’s show was different.

The Alan Young show benefited from better written stories. Alan could win some and he could lose some, and the endings of the episodes were usually wonderfully zany and surprising in how things turned out.

The Performances

While Alan Young’s character could feel a bit like a loser, I don’t think the character ever felt pathetic. Young played his character with a great sense of charm, charisma, and good humor. His delivery got laughs for jokes that probably wouldn’t have worked otherwise. His performance was likable, and did a good job running up and down the comedic scale of emotions. He was twenty-five when he got his own sitcom and brought a lot of youthful energy that you just didn’t hear from the middle-aged leads on most other programs.

The supporting players were mostly okay. Again, we get a lot of one note characters who provide the same sort of material week after week. The only character I thought was probably a waste of time was Lulabell. Lulabell shows interest in Alan during the post-Betty shows but never becomes his girl. She’s a Southern Belle meant to deliver Southern stereotypes and say a version of, “ya’ll” and allow Alan a chance to mock her for it. It’s probably the most tedious part of the series.

The characterization of Betty as well as Alan’s later girlfriends is weak. Essentially, they want kissed, they want to get married, and they want Alan to act in ways that are attractive to them and get offended when he doesn’t. That’s pretty much the whole part.

Other than that, all the characters were okay.I laughed at some more than others, but most were well-conceived and worked. Plus, the show rotated the characters and the writers had a good sense of how not to overplay a joke and they rotated many of these characters on and off the program so they didn’t get tiresome. My favorite of these side characters is Mr. Busby, the newspaper editor. He’s just an incredibly manic character and I always laugh during his scenes.

However, the best thing about the Alan Young show is the show’s primary antagonist, Hubert Updike III, played by Jim Backus. Updike is the insanely rich scion of a family with extreme amounts of wealth which Updike boasts about, such as claiming to own entire states, among other constant exaggerations. Updike has an exalted opinion of himself as the most beautiful creature on Earth, and is constantly trying to foil Alan’s plans. Initially, this is because Updike is Alan’s rival for Betty’s affection, but he continues this after Betty’s disappearance. Add to Updike’s other qualities a tendency towards childish petulance when he doesn’t get his way, and you’ve got the makings of comedy gold with the right man in the role.

Backus is definitely the right man. His delivery and timing is superb. The most wonderful part of nearly every episode is the times that Hubert Updike’s on. He was a superb foil for Young, playing beautifully off him. No one has more catchphrases than Backus and somehow he managed to make most of them funny every time he said them, and Young borrows a few of the lines and gets plenty of laughs himself.

It’s worth noting the co-writer of the series was Sherwood Schwartz, who created Gilligan’s Island. Not coincidentally, Backus was cast to play the millionaire, Thurston Howell III. In many ways, what you get to hear on the Alan Show is a younger, more over the top version of Thurston Howell.

Other Factors

It was a post-War program from the era when it wasn’t enough to give you a sitcom, you also got a number or two from the orchestra in most episodes. These are enjoyable,were popular hits, and are mostly well-performed with just a slip up or two in the process to keep things interests. The commercials don’t stand out, but they’re not annoying either.

Overall

Is this one of the great old time radio comedies? No. It’s too formulaic and other than Hubert Updike, there’s not a whole lot outstanding about the series, but it’s also not a comedic dud like the Harold Perry or Mel Blanc programs. Obviously, if you’re a fan of Mr. Young or of Gilligan’s Island, it’s worth a listen. It’s also not a bad choice if you just want to listen to a comedy program. There are better programs, but there are far worst things you could listen to both golden age and modern entertainment.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

Episodes of the Alan Young show can be found at the OTRR Library 

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Review: Elementary, Season Two

Season 2 of Elementary saw the modern-day Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) continuing to consult for the New York Police Department, with Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) as his junior partner who he is training in being a detective.

This season has them returning to London for one case and running into Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans) who becomes a recurring character throughout the season.

The mysteries are solid, although they tend to take a fairly predictable turn of Holmes getting one or two incorrect solutions before arriving at the truth. The mysteries have a strong tendency towards intrigue and deep conspiracies as plot elements.

Probably the highlight of the season was their take on Inspector Lestrade (Sean Pertwee). In this story, Holmes’ assistance of Lestrade led to national notoriety. However, when that assistance ended due to Holmes’ drug use, Lestrade ended up on the downswing unable to cope with the unreasonable expectations set. It’s interesting exploration and Lestrade is a fun character with a nice little arc.

The series struggles on several fronts though. Of all modern Holmes adaptations, Elementary’s First Season featured the strongest supporting cast in Captain Gregson (Aiden Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill.) It really felt like we saw less of them, particularly Captain Gregson. Bell had a mini-arc in the season where Holmes’ arrogance caused an injury which nearly ended Bell’s career. This arc was interesting, although the resolution wasn’t particularly satisfying.

The biggest problem is the relationship dynamic between Holmes and Watson. In the traditional Holmes and Watson relationship, Holmes is exceedingly brilliant compared to Watson. Watson’s no fool, but he lacks the pure brilliance of Holmes. What Watson typically contributes is determination, physical courage, and a better understanding of how human beings work. He also has a great awe for his friend’s power.

This is where the decision to gender-swap the role of Watson becomes problematic. To have a woman as in awe of Holmes, and to have Holmes as superior to a woman partner, would be seen in today’s era as sexist.So the writers made Joan Watson a novice detective to become almost Holmes’ equal in deductive ability by the end of the season.

The problem with this approach is, for the Holmes/Watson dynamic to work, Holmes must be head and shoulder above all his compatriots, considering how hard he can be to work with. With difficult detectives of any gender, if they are just slightly above average compared to other detectives, why put up with the headaches of working with them?

To be honest, Holmes is often insufferable throughout this second season. He remains manipulative and self-absorbed. He harasses the family of a friend who died of a drug overdose after decades of sobriety and raises the possibility of foul play because he’s afraid of eventually relapsing himself. He’s rude with a lot of people who clearly didn’t deserve such mistreatment. (Editor’s note: no one deserves mistreated.) His story line this season is one of trying to keep Watson close, because he needs her for his well being and equilibrium.

What the season seems to show is she has no need for him. She is a strong, independent woman who makes her own choices, is her own person, and has no need for anyone. She needs the work but is perfectly capable of doing it without him by the season’s end.

The original Holmes and Watson dynamic was interdependent. They needed each other, and that’s the key to any dynamic joint detective program. Failing to capture this hurts the series.

Not helping it was a story arc woven through the season that seemed more Soap Opera than Sherlock Holmes where Watson had a relationship with Holmes’ brother because they could. The plot twists and turns were outrageous and seemed to be trying to compete with the bizarre and wild plot turns on the BBC Series Sherlock. While I’ve criticized many things about Sherlock, the series has an undeniable sense of style that allows it to pull of most of its wild plot turns. Elementary lacks that and so many of these plot ideas fall flat.

The series isn’t bad, particularly when it comes to its mysteries. Yet, Season 2’s fundamental problems with characters and characterization make it okay at best.

Rating: 3.0 outof 5.0

 

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Book Review: The Uncomplaining Corpses

The Uncomplaining Corpses is the third Michael Shayne novel and finds him having married the nineteen-year-old Phyllis he’d helped in the previous two novels. A rich man asks him to send a man to steal his wife’s jewel case in exchange for a thousand dollars that will be inside the case, so the rich man can keep the jewels and collect the insurance money. Shayne isn’t interested in participating in insurance fraud, but an ex-con needing money comes by. Shayne has the idea of sending the ex-con out to steal the $1000 without taking the jewel case, thus ripping off the unscrupulous rich man.

However, things go horribly wrong. The ex-con is shot by the husband who claims he found him standing over his wife’s body. Now Shayne’s license is at risk and to save it he has to find the killer.

While I thought in the first Shayne book, Halliday was trying to create a knock off of Sam Spade, this feels like a different spin on the Thin Man. Halliday is pretty effective. Phyllis is likable and precocious and willing to do what it takes to get her husband, including putting herself in harms way, perfectly consistent with the way she was written in the previous book. Shayne is perfectly relatable as a newly married man getting accustomed to married life and happy with his life. He’s not a caricature nor does he have that, “Newlywed but steadfastly refusing to be happy” feeling of Philip Marlowe in Poodle Springs. The book also has some fun moments and zaniness in the solution.

However, the book’s failing is that it’s cast of suspects are completely forgettable stock characters. The mystery is not one of Shayne’s smartest, and Shayne behaves too much like a cartoon, particularly when he’s manhandling the Miami Chief of Police Peter Painter.

Still, this is an enjoyable little mystery that, despite its failings, offers a satisfying conclusion.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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A Look at the Red Panda Adventures, Season 1

The Red Panda Adventures by Decoder Ring Theater was one of the earliest of the new podcast audio dramas to be released in recent years. It launched for the first time in October 2005 with a new episode airing every two weeks until December with the second half of the series airing every two weeks beginning in April 2006.

The Red Panda Adventures is set in the 1930s in Canada (where the series was produced.) The series is a mash up between the Green Hornet and the Shadow radio series, while adding its own unique improvements.

It’s like the both series in that the hero is a wealthy young man, though it leans more towards the Shadow in that the Red Panda (Greg Taylor) has no active business concerns in his dual identity that we’re told about.

The Red Panda is like the Shadow in that he has strange hypnotic powers. However, unlike the Shadow, he doesn’t limit his mind-control powers to a single trick of invisibility. He creates all manner of elaborate mental illusions, such as making the villain see multiple versions of himself. It’s a much more imaginative take on the idea. The villains also bare a strong resemblance to the Shadow’s big, over the top megalomaniacs.

The Green Hornet influences can be seen in the hero’s super-fast car and crime-fighting gadgets as well as the suspicious attitude by which he’s viewed by police. However, unlike the Green Hornet, the Red Panda doesn’t try to pass himself off as a criminal mastermind.

Of course, the Red Panda goes beyond what the original mystery men of the 1930s did on radio with a greater sense of superheroics and the series intro actually references him as Canada’s greatest superhero.

Perhaps the most unique thing about the Red Panda is his sidekick Kit Baxter (aka. The Flying Squirrel) played by Clarissa Der Nederlanden Taylor. She’s a very well-written and well-rounded character. She’s a tough character and more prone to using physical violence than the Red Panda, occasionally getting carried away with it.

Her relationship with the Red Panda is complicated. Like the female assistants of many golden age heroes, she pines for him, while he feigns cluelessness about her feelings in this first season. Yet you also get a strong sense of the Red Panda being a mentor figure to her and also being protective of her without being smothering. The dynamic between the two is probably the strength of the series.

In terms of the plots, this first series has a lot of standard boilerplate stories. There’s the episode with someone impersonating the Red Panda, there’s the episode with a mysterious ghost ship, and the episode with the cursed house, and the one where a hunter decides to hunt the most deadly game of all: The Red Panda. Probably the most interesting and original episode was, “The Devil’s Due,” where the Red Panda investigates a series of deaths where the victims sold their soul to the Devil and he’s here to collect…or is he?  Even though most of the plots are well-worn, they’re also well-executed and the strength of the characterization helps the stories to work. While later seasons would be more innovative, this season really serves to establishes the characters and their world.

The tone of this first season is relatively light. While there are some scary moments, as well as a few violent ones, the series doesn’t try for the constant dark and foreboding feel of The Shadow. It also isn’t designed in such way that you’re likely to forget that you’re listening to a production made in the twenty-first century rather than one in the 1930s like many of the early episodes of Harry Nile. It’s a clear homage to the Golden Age of Radio, but it is also a modern production. At the same time, it’s not goofy or a parody like the original Red Panda Universe (a topic for another time.)

If the first season had any weakness, it was the sound design which on occasion didn’t support the show, though, the epic scale of the adventures was portrayed. Further, it doesn’t detract too much from the series because of the strong characterization and also because it played off Golden Age Radio Dramas where the quality of sound effects and sound design really could vary.

Overall, this is a very strong start to a much beloved Internet series.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

The first season of the Red Panda Adventures is available for free on the Decoder Ring Theatre website.

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The Top Ten Jago and Litefoot Episodes

Having given an overview of Jago and Litefoot, I wanted to do one last post quickly summarizing what I think are the top 10 episodes.

This a hard list and it’s one of those franchises where there are so many great episodes to choose from. For the purposes of this list, I’m using the episodes of any show in which they were primary stars or co-stars for that episode.. So I considered the entire run of Jago and Litefoot, the Jago, Litefoot and Strax Specials, their Doctor Who Short Trips and Companion Chronicles appearances, their appearance in the Worlds of Doctor Who, and the two stories where they were the co-stars of a Doctor Who story as the Sixth Doctor’s Companion. I didn’t consider their guest appearances in either the Fourth Doctor Adventures or the Sixth Doctor: While there were some great stories, they were truly secondary characters.

10) Swan Song (Series 3, Episode 3)

This story finds Jago and Litefoot joining Leela in her quest to address some dangerous time anomalies that have our heroes dealing with ghosts–from the future. The story has a clever Science Fiction/Fantasy plot, but it doesn’t become lost in it. It’s also a beautifully emotional story and you don’t see that combination often.

9) The Hourglass Killers (Series 4, Episode 4):

Series 4 has big reveals, and brings a character arc for Jago to a very satisfactory conclusion. It’s an exciting, fun ride, and one of the best closing stories for a Jago and Litefoot box set.

8) How the Other Half Lives (Series 13, Episode 3):

This alternate universe tale examines what might have been for our two heroes. I appreciated the thoughtfulness the author put into the choices. That this is one of the last stories they did is a testament to the fact Jago and Litefoot really never lost steam as a great series.

7) Voyage to the New World (Doctor Who story set between Series 4 and 5);

A bit underrated. It takes a great historical mystery (What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke) and adds in some great sci fi and time travel elements. There’s also a great bit of poetry to the way the story plays out and the ending is beautiful.

6) Encore of the Scorchies (Series 8, Episode 1):

This Jago and Litefoot musical episode features insane alien killer puppets with an evil plan. The music’s great, the story has some great comedic moments but doesn’t become a farce in the process. It sets up a different structure for the Eighth series as this doesn’t tie to any of the other stories, but as this episode proves, different can be good.

5) The Man at the End of the Garden (Series 3, Episode 2):

Jago and Litefoot investigate the disappearance of a fantasy author and find themselves involved in a fantasy story of their own as a daughter holds the key to her mother’s disappearance. A solid child acting performance is a highlight of this along with a superb conclusion.

4) The Monstrous Menagerie (Series 7, Episode 1):

This absolute best beginning to a Jago and Litefoot box set finds them on the run, falsely accused of attempting to assassinate Queen Victoria, and hiding out on Baker Street. They’re hired by Arthur Conan Doyle to impersonate Holmes and Watson to a fan who believes the detectives are real. This is an amazing premise and it pays off with an exciting story stuffed with references to Holmes, as well as Doyle’s other work. An absolute delight.

3) Museum of Curiosities (Series 10, Episode 4)

The conclusion of Series 10 finds Jago and Litefoot working through the case in their own way to find the solution of the series mystery and they end up in a unique museum set up to record their exploits but with a sinister purpose behind it. It’s a wonderful story that also becomes a celebration of their first ten series.

2) The Mahogany Murderers (Companion Chronicles):

Listening to it, you wouldn’t know these people haven’t worked together or seen each other in the past thirty years. They pick up as if they never left. The episode launched the entire Jago and Litefoot franchise because it showed how marvelous they were working together while at the same time whetting listeners’ appetite for a series about strange goings on in Victorian London.

1) The Similarity Engine (Series 1, Episode 4):

Their first series of investigations comes to a brilliant conclusion as we learn the mad plan and methods of the villain they’ve been fighting throughout the box set. It’s a truly mad plot but well thought-out. This solution cements the strength of the Jago and Litefoot as a team. This isn’t a case of a smart character and a dumb character, or a strong character and a weak character. Rather Jago and Litefoot are two strong characters whose strengths are very different. Both show their methods and what each contributes to the team and it sets the tone for all the episodes ahead.

Honorable mentions: Too many to list. There are dozens of great Jago and Litefoot stories. You could make a list with an entirely different set of episodes and I wouldn’t argue much.

If you’re curious about the series, there are many ways to listen. You can listen for free on Spotify where the first Five Series are available for streaming. If you’re an Audible member, you can get the first Eight Series there. You can also check out the Big Finish website for all released Jago and Litefoot material.