Fred Allen was an American comedian whose absurdist, topically pointed radio show made him one of the most popular and forward-looking humorists in the so-called classic era of American radio.
His best-remembered gag was his long-running mock feud with friend and fellow comedian Jack Benny, but it was only part of his appeal; radio historian John Dunning wrote that Allen was radio’s most admired comedian and most frequently censored. A master adlibber, Allen often tangled with his network’s executives, while developing routines the style and substance of which influenced contemporaries and futures among comic talents, including Groucho Marx, Stan Freberg, Henry Morgan and Johnny Carson, but his fans also included President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and novelists William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Herman Wouk. Ironically, in view of his often barbed observations of the medium, Fred Allen was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for contributions to television.
Born as John Florence Sullivan in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Irish Catholic parents, Allen barely knew his mother, Cecilia Herlihy Sullivan, who died of pneumonia when he was not quite three years old. His father, James Henry Sullivan, and his infant brother, Robert, were taken in by one of his mother’s sisters, “my Aunt Lizzie”, around whom he focused the first chapter of his second memoir, Much Ado About Me. The father was so shattered by the mother’s death that, according to his son, he drank more heavily. His aunt suffered as well: her husband Michael was partially paralyzed by lead poisoning shortly after they married, leaving him mostly unable to work, something Allen remembered as causing contention among Lizzie’s sisters. Eventually, Allen’s father remarried and offered his sons the choice between coming with him and his new wife or staying with Aunt Lizzie. Allen’s younger brother chose to go with their father, but Allen decided to stay with his aunt. “I never regretted it,” he wrote.