The Late, Great Goodman Ace
Attributed to Goodman Ace, by Robert Metz (in CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye), a relative wired him: "Send $10,000 or I'll jump from the fourteenth floor of my building." Ace is said to have replied, "Jump from seven—I’ll send $5,000." Some might imagine that answer changing the relative's mood from suicidal to homicidal. Others might imagine that answer had the relative laughing hard enough to fall out the window anyway, landing cartoon style on or through an awning or a trash heap.
Is Ace is remembered much today, beyond radio nostalgists who have succeeded somehow in passing the affliction to their children and grandchildren? Beyond television nostalgists, who remember him as Perry Como’s head writer? (About that, he once observed it was strange getting paid to write, “Ladies and gentlemen, we take you now to exotic Brazil.”)
Once, in his newspaper days, as film and drama critic for the ancient Kansas City Journal-Post, Jack Benny invited him to send a joke or three. Then a vaudevillian, Benny loved the jokes and wired Ace a $50 check, saying, “Your jokes got a lot of laughs. If you have more, please send them.” Ace wired back the check with his own message: “Your check got a lot of laughs. If you have more, please send them.”
As it happened, he slithered into radio comedy by mistake. During his newspapering days, he landed a radio gig reading the Sunday comics on one slot for Kansas City KMBC, added another slot reading his Journal-Post and other reviews. He drolled merrily along until the 1930 night his wife, Jane, turned up at the station with him, but the fifteen-minute show scheduled to follow his program didn’t.
That left Ace to fill in the air time. He started ad-libbing about a bridge game he and his wife played the previous weekend, interjecting chatter about a local murder case said to have begun with a row over a bridge game. (Jane: “Would you like to shoot a game of bridge, dear?”) KMBC listeners hardly missed the regularly-scheduled program for laughing at the Aces. And KMBC hardly missed the message, inviting the critic to develop his own regular new fifteen-minute domestic comedy.
He wrote and cast himself as a put-upon realtor and his wife a deceptively scatterbrained language molester ("That was a story, not like this book. ‘Moving forces abroad in the world today’—what kind of talk is that for a fella with a girl, especially when they're alone?"). This low-volume, conversational, serial absurdism would provoke laughs enough that times would surely come in the following decade and a half when more than a few thought it appropriate that Easy Aces’ longest-serving sponsor was Anacin.
In due course Goodman Ace (his non de plume was an altered inversion of his first pseudonym; he was born Goodman Aiskowitz) became an employably respected writer for others' radio and television exercises; Tallulah Bankhead’s The Big Show, Jack Benny (for whom Ace, having struck a friendship with that ancient packet, wrote jokes on the house for years), Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Perry Como, Danny Kaye, Robert Q. Lewis, and Bob Newhart were among Ace's actual or reputed victims. So was Ace himself, apparently, as he once described from somewhere amidst his later long service as a Saturday Review columnist.
For fourteen years long years I was a cobalt addict. My television set was on from the moment I came home from work . . . I watched ten or twelve shows every night. The effect was an exhilaration that defies description. I floated on cloud two and four and five and seven and nine and eleven and sometimes thirteen . . .
Then came the great awakening . . . The drabness of the entertainment had begun to seep throgh even to my befogged mind. But strangely enough color was the catalyst that brought on my agnonizing period of withdrawal. Color did not change one stilted line of the dialogue we heard or wring one twist to a predictable plot we watched. Color only pointed up their shoddy banalities . . .
. . . Racked as I was, a Machiavellian plan obsessed me. I could beat this set at its own game. I quickly turned on Channel 3. No program. Just a light. And I sat to read a newspaper. One nefarious notion leads to another. I turned to the amusement page. Movie ads were in full bloom. I made a list of the current pictures in the cinema theaters—The Ipcress File, Dr. Zhivago, Life at the Top, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, That Darn Cat. Opposite this I listed the TV fare for that evening—Gilligan's Island, My Three Sons, Donna Reed, and the ever-popular Mona McCluskey. It wasn't even close. I went to a movie.
Switch "cable" for "colour" and you have the likely scenario if Goodman Ace lived today. Unfortunately, switch Doom, Jarhead, Bee Season, Saw II, or North Country for The Ipcress File, Dr. Zhivago, Life at the Top, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and That Darn Cat, and you might be tempted to stay home for That 70s Show, How I Met Your Mother, My Name is Earl, and the ever-popular Joey. Tempting Jesus Christ of Ol' Splitfoot himself wasn't that satanic.
The aforequoted column ("Where the Reaction Is," granted that the pun is comprehensible to few beyond Sixties brats who insisted upon watching any and everything with Dick Clark's name on it) survived long enough for collection in The Fine Art of Hypochondria, or How Are You, one of a pair of collections (The Better of Goodman Ace is the other) on which I pounced when spotting them side by side, in a favourite used book store, the asking price six dollars each. If you don’t count the negative blood test, they were the funniest reading I had last summer.
Any man can treat a sacred cow as though it is worth but one thing (steak). Any man can treat a contemporary obsession as though it ought to be curable and the sooner, the better. Ace treated the sacred cow as due for a cure and made mincemeat of the contemporary obsession, with the fact of the cow or obsession once or then signing an Ace paycheck entirely coincidental.
"I run into a lot of people who say they were in their doctors' offices the other day and while waiting they picked up a copy of Saturday Review and read this or that column of mine," he wrote, in "What's Old?", precise date unknown, the particularly annoying 1960s practise being that collections of newspaper or magazine columns often as not lacked the columns' publication dates. "Of course, that's one way to subscribe to Saturday Review, the cowardly way."
Not so simply, Ace understood the absurd sides of his profession and his customary employers, and he understood concurrently that exposing them was more survivable if you did it without becoming a harrumphing troll.
Newspaper television critics seem to have a morbid and unfriendly preoccupation with money. "Is it true," they invariably ask, "that you get ten thousand dollars a week for writing that program?" And in their eyes you read the rest of the question: " . . . And they're not eating in Cambodia?" . . . [A]s I swim through this Sargasso Sea of TV critique of our program last week, I notice that with some cleverly conceived convolutions the writer always winds up with the money question. Harriet Van Horne, who writes a distinguished column for the New York World-Telegram & Sun, did it most gently: "Surely television's highest paid writer could have come up with a better finish for the sketch." There is, of course, an assumption here that the same finish would have seemed better if the writer hadn't been paid so much."
I can guess reasonably enough that Ace wrote that passage between 1963 and 1965, and surviving those years certainly required good humour to dissolve bad blood. In those years Lee Harvey Oswald turned John F. Kennedy from charismatic incompetent into God, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson turned Barry Goldwater into the Creature from the Black Lagoon, civil rights got turned into nanny largesse, and a non-existent military attack got twisted with a lost less fun than Johnson twisted any arm not attached to Whitey Ford during a long career making Capitol Hill his personal ranch club.
Neither did it hurt to have a sense of humour when dealing with the subsequent fooleries of the post-Kennedy/Johnson era. Let Richard Nixon think aloud about what was right with America (however constipated he looked doing it, even as Ronald Reagan looked completely natural doing it), and all Goodman Ace could think about was that he was dreaming the implausible dream, as it was put in the name of a column collected in The Better of Goodman Ace.
Maybe dreams worked in early America. So I went back to my early American Dream. What was right about America those days was Josie—the girl in high school. What is wrong about Josie these nights is that she is still quite contradictory and antagonistic to my own particular American Dream.
That may be the perfect dream to dream, when you spend the previous night dreaming of a hijacking from between Paris and London to Lester Maddox's restaurant—the one that preferred serving a Negro an ax handle upon his head instead of a chicken dinner upon his tongue. Not to mention a session of Congress and a visit with your banker. (I suggested that 25 percent [interest] was a little high. "But wait," he said, "you haven't heard the best part. Every American has dreamed that someday he would own a toaster or an alarm clock. We offer you a freedom of choice—free—a toaster or an alarm clock." I chose the toaster. I wouldn't need an alarm clock to wake me out of that one.)
And, after having as much fun with name-yours liberation movements as you could get away with, before political correctness made fun subject to grievance hearings and bills before the House Committee on Kissing the Bruises and Binding Them With Booty, Ace opened his none-too-small satchel of spare snickers for the liberation of a group of second class citizens to which he was himself a pledge.
. . . the elderly who are fighting for more day- and night-care nursing homes for the aged and struggling for a haven during the time of life that is euphemistically referred to as "When you reach December."
A cruel metaphor. Men and women, aged seventy, would be better served, and better able to cope with the frightening and eroding processes, if they were referred to as having reached September. Psychologically, they could better survive if they have reached October at eighty, November at ninety, and December at 100. In January, they are on their own.
That would make sixty August and fifty July, so as of 18 November 2005 you could call me July, and since this is now July you can call me, period.
Before then I was busy reading Ace's analysis of newborns, the kind too many thought were born geniuses and made it manifest from the moment they wrapped the cords around their mothers' necks and slapped the doctors, the better to shut them all the hell up and listen to their translations of "Howl."
Infants aren't born with a gift for comedy. I have known four- and five-week-olds who couldn't ad-lib a burp after a bottle of formula without being savagely pummeled on the back. As for those who, now and then, do come up with a big yak, I'm of the opinion that they have writers.
You wish Ace had lived long enough to meet today's four- and five-week-olds. He would miss only his wife (she died eight years ahead of her husband) more than he would miss the days when the little cherubs merely came out, wrapped their mother's necks, slapped the doctors, and started reciting their translations of "Howl." It would be a huge improvement over what today's four- and five-week-olds are probably reciting, with or without Death Row Records recording contracts, and probably after a drive-by guerney shooting. If any of them came up with a big yak, Ace would figure that the Writers' Guild of America had a new president for life—Figaro.
The funniest reading I have this summer belongs thus far to two more Ace drolleries: The Book of Little Knowledge: More Than You Want to Know About Television, a 1955 anthology of his earlier Saturday Review television criticism; and, Ladies and Gentlemen—Easy Aces, his 1970 anthology of eight choice scripts from what Jane would have called that impeachable domestic calamity. I’d write about them now but I thought it would be a splendid idea to read them first.
Personally, I have always hoped that that relative laughed hard enough to fall out the window, anyway, landing to find a stray $10,000, left behind forgotten by some gangster with more important things on his mind—like his back-alley execution.
In slightly altered form, this essay first appeared in January 2006.