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Treadmill to Oblivion: My Days in Radio

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Treadmill to Oblivion, first published in 1954, is comedian Fred Allen's account of his career in radio as host of his comedy-variety show (1934-1949). Filled with Allen's wit and humor, the book includes many radio skits featuring Allen, his wife Portland, and stars such as Jack Benny and George Jessel, and provides a fascinating look at radio during its “Golden Age.” Prior to his radio career, Allen was a vaudeville star; those exploits are recounted in his book Much Ado About Me. Fred Allen died in New York City in 1956 at the age of 61.

250 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 1, 1954

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Fred Allen

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Displaying 1 - 21 of 21 reviews
Profile Image for Jim Razinha.
1,261 reviews61 followers
February 26, 2017
I came across this in an obscure reference in an obscure rabbit hole, and found it at Open Library. A brief wait for the two requests in front of me and ...

I understand this was an instant best-seller when published. Fred Allen was quite popular, so that is understandable. More reproduction of some of his scripts than an autobiography, it was still a funny, easy read (I read it in one day...) I was surprised a few times at what they got away with on the radio...
Profile Image for Tom Lee.
187 reviews25 followers
September 10, 2020
I love old time radio and acerbic commentary, so when I learned that Fred Allen's memoir was titled Treadmill to Oblivion I badly wanted to read it. I am not a fan of OTR comedies, really--the dramas age much better, in my opinion--but Allen was a giant of the industry and I hoped his perspective would be interesting.

Alas, this is a book written by an exhausted man. He has a good excuse, at least: the book's description of the grueling schedule behind Allen's show is among its most interesting passages, and makes it immediately clear why he ultimately retired for health reasons (and later collapsed and died in the street at 61).

The rest of the book is filled with complaints about budget, complaints about ad executives, and lots and lots of scripts--not exactly thrilling, but a good way of conveying the show in print and a great way of recycling material. The humor is as dated as I suspected, but at least not particularly troubling by contemporary standards: aside from some brief words admiring Amos & Andy as radio pioneers, the worst of it arrives as caricatures of Southerners. Allen does speak fondly of his cast's great talent for doing various ethnic accents: Mainers were a frequent target, and they apparently got a lot of angry letters from the Irish.

He spares few words for his wife and comedy partner Portland--she's mentioned, but in a strangely distant way. Perhaps I was expecting too much, primed for something warmer by George Burns' decades' worth of post-Gracie interviews. But this is an impersonal and embittered book. Allen thinks that radio was stagnant even before the arrival of TV, embroiled in a race to the bottom thanks to the birth of giveaway shows (which he absolutely detests). His closing sentences:

Whether he knows it or not, the comedian is on a treadmill to oblivion. When a radio comedian's program is finally finished it slinks down Memory Lane into the limbo of yesteryear's happy hours. All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.

I opened this book expecting Allen to amuse me, but by the end the tide of emotion had reversed: I pitied him. Here's hoping he shook it off.

All in all, better to listen to some MP3s.
Profile Image for Carlo Fortunato.
10 reviews1 follower
February 9, 2018
I ADORE this book. Thanks to my parents having old-time radio albums, I was a nine-year-old fan of Fred Allen, and when I saw a book by him in the library, I grabbed it, and kept taking it out again and again.

Fred writes about his radio career, which is in many ways a history of old-time radio, since he had a lot to do with it's development, and was there at its end. It's beefed up with lots of radio scripts, and Fred's razor-sharp sarcastic sense of humor.

"The main thing in radio is to come out on time. If people laugh, the program is longer. The thing to do is to get a nice dull half-hour. Nobody will laugh or applaud. Then, you'll always be right on time, and all of the little emaciated radio executives can dance around their desks in interoffice abandon."

I love Fred Allen.
Profile Image for Michael Ritchie.
513 reviews10 followers
March 12, 2021
I have to agree with many of the criticisms of this that have appeared here on Goodreads--it's all about Allen's radio program with not many personal life details in it, and way too much of the book, nearly half by my reckoning, is taken up with radio show transcripts of comedy bits that have not dated very well. But the subtitle does warn the reader--this is about Fred Allen's radio programs and nothing else. I found his descriptions of life during the radio era (especially his run-ins with sponsors) interesting, but I would have liked a little more autobiography and a lot fewer transcripts. I know Allen mostly from his appearances on the early What's My Line programs so I could hear his deadpan voice in some of his descriptions, and that was kind of fun. Mostly for classic-era radio fans.
Profile Image for Caleb Boyd.
15 reviews1 follower
June 19, 2019
Allen only talks about his radio show. I was hoping to get some information on his personal life and friendships with other celebrities. He inserts a lot (A LOT) of text from scripts of his radio show. I understand that this information wasn't available in the 1950s, but a lot of the old radio shows can be found online. The audio reveals that Allen exaggerates the truth in his book. With one episode, an eagle got loose in the studio and in the book he says this caused nonstop laughter for forty minutes. The audio reveals this was not the case at all.
339 reviews1 follower
June 23, 2021
This is an interesting account of the development of radio shows. Originally it appears that the sponsers' advertising agencies held the power over content that later on would be held by radio and tv executivies, which leads to his making a great many jokes about advertising executives. He discusses why his show among others went from 15 minutes to an hour to a half hour - again because of the sponsers and what they were willing to pay for. They weren't willing to pay for guest stars on his show, which is why he developed his troup of character players.
December 28, 2019
A funny and thoughtful view of the golden age of radio by one of it's stars

Fred Allen is best known today as a guest and panelist on What's My Line, but he became famous as a comic in vaudeville and radio. _Treadmill to Oblivion_ is a memoir of his and others work in radio. Allen had a weekly show on radio from the Fall of 1932 to the Summer of 1949 and it was pretty grueling work. The book is very well written, but still needs some editing.
Profile Image for James.
59 reviews1 follower
June 23, 2017
Longer than it should have been

This book relies too much on filling out the narrative with old scripts. Such long passages weighed down what could have been a truly fantastic book about radio. As it is, Allen is at his best in the last few pages, where he discusses what made radio great, why it died, and what television would mean for comedy and our society.
Profile Image for Peter Landau.
897 reviews55 followers
April 25, 2021
Great look back at the days of radio comedy when humor was funny, chock full of the scripts to prove it.
Profile Image for Garrett Zecker.
Author 7 books53 followers
January 4, 2020
The only reason I picked up this book, honestly, was because I was watching old episodes of “What’s My Line” and every time they introduced Fred Allen as a humorist who just released this book. What I didn’t realize was that this Fred Allen was the exact same Fred Allen that I loved listening to in my old-time-radio shows when I was a little boy. No, not live, I was just a weird kid.

While this book has been out of print for some time and probably deserves to be, the best part of this book is its anecdotal look at the neverending treadmill of the early days of radio. It is fascinating the way Allen climbed up the ladder to success while always on the edges of failure and burnout due to the tremendous demands of his career. I loved that he was born and grew up where I did. I like that the book, while mostly anecdotal and informative contained some really great humorous prose in presenting it, as well as transcripts of many of his favorite scripts from his shows. And as his work went from an hour a week down to fifteen minutes decades later, and the format of live radio seemed to give way to the screen, Allen had an optimistic and joyous appreciation of the career that brought him so much.

A great little book, fun to read but not terribly earth-shattering. Definitely brought me face to face with a career that has all but disappeared, but continues to provide me a lot of joy. I also really loved that the book was illustrated throughout by Hirschfeld.
Profile Image for Christian.
21 reviews6 followers
February 2, 2008
Fred Allen is one of the great American humorists of the 20th century, who gained prominence on the radio. I imagine I liked this book, I just don't recall the whole of the work well enough to rate it. I added it to this bookshelf for two parts that I do remember.

1: Allen is describing the challenge of coming up with fake names for his sketches, since he kept inadvertently coming up with names of real people. He kept creating more and more outlandish names, which seemed to solve the problem, until someone told Allen he heard his name on Allen's show. Allen asked the man's name: Sinbad Brittle.

2: The source of the title, which is the final paragraph of the book. I don't know if I would say a book changed my life but this paragraph came as close as anything.

Whether he knows it or not, the comedian is on a treadmill to oblivion. When a radio comedian’s program is finally finished it slinks down Memory Lane into the limbo of yesteryear’s happy hours. All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.

Allen was a radio comedy icon and yet this is how he felt. It shows that you can't depend on the work alone for long-term fulfillment.
Profile Image for Chasia Lloyd.
699 reviews58 followers
June 12, 2016
Re-read. First read this in print several years ago, and I was so happy to see a digital copy was made!

The book focuses exclusively on Fred Allen's radio career and more than half of it is snippets of scripts. So much of the humor of the scripts is lost without hearing the delivery in your head, so the casual reader might not get much from this book, but avid Fred Allen fans will delight in this.

I had forgotten that Fred Allen was one of the only stars from the golden age of radio who wrote most (if not all) of his scripts by himself. Much of his material was based on topical humor, so the man was constantly reading newspapers and saving clippings to use each week. No wonder he was miserable all the time. ;)

I don't really recall so many typos in the formatting of the scripts in the print edition, and I certainly can't imagine a perfectionist like Fred Allen allowing so many, so I think the transfer to e-book got a little sloppy along the way... Not unreadable by any means! Just noticeable.

Looking forward to re-reading his memoir in the near future - even though it will be a sad reminder of his untimely death.
5,606 reviews51 followers
June 13, 2010
Radio comedian, former vaudevillian Allen wrote and performed on his own weekly show for many years, from the 1930's to the 1950's. It's hard for the connected generation to even faintly realize what the radio meant to people in those days. Allen's humor, while always clean--trust the networks and the sponsors for that--was witty and fairly sophisticated of its type. He presents some samples of segments from his show, which aired under a variety of names. An entertaining look at a time gone by.
Profile Image for Marshall.
222 reviews3 followers
July 9, 2014
The great days of radio as observed by Fred Allen are chronicled here. Allen the writer is just as engaging as Allen the performer. It is fun to learn that his celebrated feud with Jack Benny jazzed up Allen's ratings, as an unintended consequence. Many of Allen's innovations, man in the street interviews, unusual professions (the stupid pet tricks of the day) were the result of a small budget and no way to pay for famous guest stars, at least in the early days. A great summing up!
Profile Image for David.
1,299 reviews24 followers
December 28, 2015
Not sure when I first read this. Second reading in 2004. Reread again in the summer of 2014 after finishing a bio of Allen.

"Treadmill to Oblivion" covers the second portion of Allen's career, his radio days (1932-1949). Quick read and quite funny and incisive on advertising and network execs. Lots of scripts.

Will not re-read "Much Ado About Me," Allen's vaudeville memoir.
Profile Image for Ron.
681 reviews5 followers
June 3, 2016
Funny book about the history of the Fred Allen Show. Lots of humor and interesting tidbits. The book relied heavily on Script Reprint and some of that material was dated and humorous for those who lived during that time. For those of us born after his death, it was not that easy to understand.

Over all, if you want an idea how an old time radio show was put together, this is a good read.
Profile Image for Ronnie Cramer.
1,032 reviews20 followers
August 30, 2016
Fred Allen produced some hilarious radio programs in his day, so this book should have been more fun than it was. It's mostly negative in tone, with MANY complaints broken up with examples of scripts (which are better when heard performed). The last line in the book: 'All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.'
20 reviews
April 1, 2011
I enjoyed this book more than the other because it dealt more with his radio career.
Displaying 1 - 21 of 21 reviews

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