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.
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.
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.
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.
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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