Henry Morgan (comedian)
Morgan circa late 1940s to early 1950s.
|Birth name||Henry Lerner Van Ost, Jr.|
March 31, 1915|
New York, New York, U.S.
|Died||May 19, 1994
New York, New York, U.S.
|Spouse||Karen Sorensen (1978–1994)|
Henry Morgan (born Henry Lerner Van Ost, Jr. March 31, 1915 – May 19, 1994) was an American humorist. He is remembered best in two modern media: radio, on which he first became familiar as a barbed but often self-deprecating satirist, and on television, where he was a regular and cantankerous panelist for the game show I've Got a Secret. Morgan was a second cousin of Broadway lyricist/librettist Alan Jay Lerner.
His radio career began as a page at New York station WMCA in 1932, after which he held a number of obscure radio jobs, including announcing. He strenuously objected to the professional name "Morgan". What was wrong with his own name, Henry van Ost, Jr.? he asked. Too exotic, too unpronounceable, he was told. "What about the successful announcers Harry von Zell or Westbrook Van Voorhis?" he countered. But it was no use, and the bosses finally told Henry he could take the job or leave it. Thus began a long history of Henry's having arguments with executives.
In 1940, he was offered a daily 15-minute series on Mutual Broadcasting System's flagship station, WOR. This show was a 15-minute comedy, which he opened almost invariably with "Good evening, anybody; here's Morgan." In his memoir Here's Morgan (1994), he wrote that he devised that introduction as a dig at popular singer Kate Smith, who "...started her show with a condescending, 'Hello, everybody.' I, on the other hand, was happy if anybody listened in." He mixed barbed ad libs, satirizing daily life's foibles, with novelty records, including those of Spike Jones. Morgan stated that Jones sent him his newest records in advance of market dates because he played them so often.
Morgan appeared in the December 1944 CBS Radio original broadcast of Norman Corwin's play, The Plot to Overthrow Christmas, taking several minor roles including the narrator, Ivan the Terrible and Simon Legree. He repeated his performance in the December 1944 production of the play.
He also targeted his sponsors freely. One early sponsor had been Adler Shoe Stores, which came close to canceling its account after Morgan started making references to "Old Man Adler" on the air; the chain changed its mind after it was learned business spiked upward, with many new patrons asking to meet Old Man Adler. Morgan had to read an Adler commercial heralding the new fall line of colors; Morgan thought the colors were dreadful, and said he wouldn't wear them to a dogfight, but perhaps the listeners would like them. Old Man Adler demanded a retraction on the air. Morgan obliged: "I would wear them to a dogfight." Morgan later recalled with bemusement, "It made him happy." This incident appears to have later been incorporated, with the names changed, into the 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd, with Andy Griffith playing an iconoclastic radio and television personality.
Later, he moved to ABC (formerly the NBC Blue Network) in a half-hour weekly format that allowed Morgan more room to develop and expand his topical, often ad-libbed satires, hitting popular magazines, soap operas, schools, the BBC, baseball, summer resorts, government snooping, and landlords. His usual signoff was, "Morgan'll be here on the same corner in front of the cigar store next week."
He continued to target sponsors whose advertising copy rankled him, and those barbs didn't always sit well with his new sponsors, either. He is alleged to have said of his sponsor's Oh Henry! candy bar (after exhorting listeners to try one), "Eat two, and your teeth will fall out." When Eversharp sponsored his show to promote both Eversharp pens and Schick injector razor blades, Morgan threw this in during a show satirizing American schools: "They're educational. Try one. That'll teach you." He also altered the company's Schick injector blade slogan "Push-pull, click-click" to "Push-pull, nick-nick." Eversharp finally dropped him in December 1947, citing what Dunning called "flabby material," to which Morgan—picked up promptly by Rayve Shampoo—replied, on the air, "It's not my show, it's their razor."
Perhaps most notoriously, Life Savers candy, another early Morgan sponsor, dropped him after he accused them of fraud for what amounted to hiding the holes in the famous life saver ring-shaped sweets. "I claimed that if the manufacturer would give me all those centers," Morgan remembered later, "I would market them as Morgan's Mint Middles and say no more about it." Radio historian John Dunning, in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, has noted that Morgan also started describing his "mint middles" flavors as "cement, asphalt and asbestos." Notwithstanding, Morgan enjoyed a last laugh of a sort: ABC had been founded by Life Savers chief Edward Noble—who had bought and renamed NBC Blue as ABC, after NBC was forced to sell the Blue Network following a federal anti-trust ruling.
ABC afforded Morgan his first exposure on television as host of a low-key variety series, On The Corner, produced at affiliate station WFIL-TV in Philadelphia (ABC's New York station and production center was still under construction) and aired on the fledgling TV network as a summer series in 1948. True to his iconoclasm, he satirized his sponsors during the short run of that show as he had so often done on radio.
Veteran radio announcer Ed Herlihy, a friend of Morgan, remembered him to radio historian Gerald Nachman (in Raised on Radio): "He was ahead of his time, but he was also hurt by his own disposition. He was very difficult. He was so brilliant that he'd get exasperated and he'd sulk. He was a great mind who never achieved the success he should have." Nachman wrote of Morgan that he was radio's "first true rebel because—like many comics who go for the jugular, from Lenny Bruce to Roseanne Barr—he didn't know when to quit."
Morgan had his fans and his professional admirers, including authors Robert Benchley and James Thurber, fellow radio humorists Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and Fanny Brice, future Today Show host Dave Garroway, and Red Skelton. Morgan, for his part, claimed Allen as a primary influence; Allen often had Morgan as a guest on his own radio hit, including and especially the final Fred Allen Show in 1949, in a sketch that also featured Jack Benny. ("If Fred Allen bit the hand that fed him," Nachman wrote, "Henry Morgan tried to bite off the whole arm.") Morgan's byline appeared in three 1950s issues of the similarly sardonic Mad magazine.
Another supporter was Arnold Stang, who worked as one of his second bananas on the ABC shows and was known later as the voice of Hanna-Barbera's Top Cat. "He was a masochist, a neurotic man," Stang told Nachman about his former boss. "When things were going well for him, he would do something to destroy himself. He just couldn't deal with success. He'd had an unhappy childhood that warped him a little and gave him a sour outlook on life. He had no close friends." Stang also claimed Morgan's first wife "kept him deeply in debt and refused to give him a divorce"; the divorce occurred in due course, and Morgan remarried happily enough.
Morgan was briefly blacklisted after his name appeared in the infamous anti-Communist pamphlet, Red Channels. That he was any kind of Communist sympathizer was a dubious proposition at best; Nachman noted Morgan's listing sprang from his former wife's leftist affiliations, and Morgan himself confirmed it in his memoir:
- All her information came from friends whose conversation leaned sharply away from their relatively high incomes, which, apparently, they found to be embarrassing in a world that harbored poor people. Their chosen method of being helpful was to attend meetings at one another's homes and discuss the problems of the hungry hordes after dinner. I am not trying to be amusing; it's what they really did. A Party member was usually invited to lead the discussions. I was apolitical. To some, that meant that I was either stupid or "inner-directed"—which meant according to them that I didn't care about my fellow man. What I really didn't care about was the four or five of her friends who later became known as the Hollywood Ten.
Morgan revealed in his memoir that one of his cousins had been a Communist Party member until the Hitler-Stalin Pact caused him to break with the Party, and that this cousin had told investigators Morgan hadn't been a Party member. This cousin, Morgan continued, had decided to cooperate heavily with investigators "when he learned that his agent, a Party member, had refused to accept assignments for him; his doctor, another Red, knowing of (his) bad heart, had recommended that he play tennis. The Party tried to rape him. It was enough to ruin his faith, it was. He decided to kill them, that was all." Morgan himself was cleared soon enough, and he resumed his broadcasting career.
So This Is New York
Morgan made one movie in which he had the lead role, producer Stanley Kramer's sophisticated comedy So This Is New York (1948), which also featured Arnold Stang and was loosely based upon Ring Lardner's 1920 novel The Big Town. Though Morgan and the film received favorable critical reviews, it didn't go over as well with the public as his radio and later television work did. Morgan also appeared as Brooklyn assistant district attorney Burton Turkus in the 1960 gangster film Murder, Inc., playing in a cast that included Stuart Whitman, May Britt, and Peter Falk. A year earlier, he hosted the short-lived syndicated television program Henry Morgan and Company, which All-Movie Guide has called a kind of precursor to David Letterman's style of irreverent television.
Morgan's longest-lasting television image, however, was struck in June 1952, when he was invited to join CBS's I've Got a Secret, produced by game show giants Mark Goodson and Bill Todman. Morgan's tenure on the show was marked by his periodic complaints about the (allegedly) horrid conditions in which he had to work, in between firing questions at the show's guests with the secrets. Morgan's mordant wit played well against the upbeat personalities of the other panelists, and producer Allan Sherman would deliberately stage elaborate "secrets" involving Morgan personally. On various occasions, Morgan was:
- sent to Africa;
- dispatched to an undisclosed location in the Caribbean to try a theoretical betting system;
- partially undressed on the air while trying to read a dramatic script (and to his credit, his composure didn't break once during the bedlam);
- given a job by cowboy Roy Rogers on his San Fernando Valley ranch in California;
- given janitorial equipment and told to clean up a messy, confetti-strewn theater stage;
- assigned to caddy for noted golfer Arnold Palmer in a charity golf tournament.
Still, he stayed with the show for its original 14-season run and rejoined it when it was revived twice: in syndication in 1972, and on CBS once more for a brief 1976 summer run.
On and off and on the air
Morgan continued radio appearances, most often on the NBC weekend show NBC Monitor (1955–70), which also afforded the final airings to longtime radio favorites Fibber McGee and Molly, until co-star Marian Jordan's death, as well as playing guest panelist on other game shows produced by the Goodson-Todman team—including What's My Line?, To Tell the Truth, and The Match Game. Morgan also took a turn hosting a radio quiz show, Sez Who, in 1959; the quiz involved guessing the famous voices making memorable comments that had been recorded over the years. Panelists included comedians Joey Adams and Orson Bean, model and personality Dagmar, and future Gilligan's Island co-star Jim Backus. In the 1960s, Morgan was seen at times on the legendary weekly news satire That Was The Week That Was in 1964–65, made numerous appearances in the early years of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and became a regular cast member of the short-lived but respected James Thurber-based comedy series, My World and Welcome to It in 1969. During the 1970s, he wrote humorous commentaries for national magazines. His radio career gained an early-1980s revival in his native New York City, thanks to his two-and-a-half minute The Henry Morgan Show commentaries, broadcast twice daily on WNEW-AM (now WBBR) starting in January 1981. The following year, he added the Saturday evening show Morgan and the Media on WOR. In what might be called inadvertent iconoclasm, Morgan used a 1981 WNEW commentary on pre-inflation prices to sing, rather wistfully, an old Pepsi jingle ("Pepsi-Cola hits the spot / Twelve full ounces, that's a lot/Twice as much for a nickel, too/Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you"). The irony abounded as well, remembering Morgan's controversies with his sponsors in the classic radio days; the only thing wrong with singing that ancient Pepsi jingle was that that day's Morgan commentary was sponsored by rival Coca-Cola.
On October 13, 1972, he turned up as a last minute fill-in on the Merv Griffin Show, and, getting increasingly irritated by Charo butting in every few seconds and mangling the English language, he finally stood up, told Griffin off, "...you dragged me out of bed because you said you were stuck for a guest, and I have to sit and listen to this nonsensical babble..." and walked off the set. Griffin was uncharacteristically completely flustered.
Later life and death
Always known as much for his sarcastic grouchiness as his barbed self-deprecation, Morgan's 1994 memoir, Here's Morgan! The Original Bad Boy of Broadcasting, found him satirizing many of his former co-stars while straining not to examine his professional life beyond a series of in-and-out zaps, asides, and declarative statements—almost as if the reader were listening to a vintage radio satire of Morgan's life. His final national television appearance was on the cable television series Talk Live, in early 1994. A few weeks after that broadcast, Henry Morgan died of lung cancer at age 79.
- Henry Morgan, Henry. Here's Morgan! The Original Bad Boy of Broadcasting. New York: Barricade Books, 1994.
- "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas: Norman Corwin", Tangent online
- Nachman, Gerald. Raised on Radio. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.
- John Crosby, Out of the Blue: A Book About Radio and Television (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952; 301 pages).
- Henry Morgan at the Internet Movie Database
- "Bad Boy of Radio" by Danny Goodman
- Excerpts from Henry Morgan's autobiography, Here's Morgan!
- Henry Morgan: Fuck the Sponsor. Biographical article by Kliph Nesteroff