Why You Need to Brush Up on The Colgate Comedy Hour

This post will be less any kind of deep history lesson than a brief exercise in advocacy. You must know this show! I’ve long realized I should do a post about The Colgate Comedy Hour, which ran on NBC from 1950 through 1955. The only reason I haven’t is the same reason the show has largely been forgotten: it’s not identified with any single comedian or comedy team. Texaco Star Theatre had Milton Berle. Your Show of Shows had Sid Caesar. The Colgate Comedy Hour, much like the similar Four Star Revue (which we’ll also be writing about soon), had a rotating roster of hosts. Yet there were a finite number of them, they were all top stars, and some of them did their best work on the show, so it needs to be plugged!

I chose Eddie Cantor’s birthday for the post, for he was one of the stars, and he did his best TV work on this show. Much like Groucho did on You Bet Your Life, the Jazz Age comedian very savvily reinvented himself for the new medium and for the Eisenhower era, as a middle-aged family man, the husband of Ida and father of five daughters (Oy, such headaches! With the fighting over the hairbrush in the bathroom every morning!) Unfortunately Cantor had a heart attack in 1953. After that, he slowed down his activity some and began to phase himself out.

Two famous comedy teams also took turns taking over the show, and in my opinion both teams did their best recorded work on this program: Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis. IMHO, the live audience and sketch comedy format showed these teams in a far better light than trying to integrate them into plodding feature length comedies. In the variety format, they were fresh and free and spontaneous. They could ad lib, they could laugh at themselves and each other, they could include the audience in their shenanigans. It is just exciting to watch, and very, very enjoyable.

Fred Allen was also one of the main hosts for the first season, but he moved on. If there was one single performer for whom it could be said “he had a good face for radio” it was Allen. He was radio’s biggest star, but could not for the life of him make a go of it in TV. His last few years were spent doing quiz shows. Other frequent hosts of the show included Bob Hope, Donald O’Connor, Jimmy Durante, Gordon MacRae, and Danny ThomasNorman Lear started out as a writer on the show.

And countless musical, comedic and dramatic guest stars, the biggest names in show business. The show was devised to compete with The Ed Sullivan Show. It ultimately lost the ratings battle. There are countless clips of it on Youtube; I heartily encourage to watch it and get schooled!

To find out more about the history of show business including variety television, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,