On Goodman Ace, Jane, and “Easy Aces”

Time has buried the Aces, as will happen when the fields you’ve conquered are such things as radio stardom, television writing, and magazine humor. But make no mistake, they were well known in their day, and legendary in their industry. The couple were Goodman Ace (Goodman Aiskowitz, 1899-1982) and his wife Jane (Jane Epstein, 1897-1974). They were literal high school sweethearts from Kansas City Missouri who’d married in in 1922. The pair entered show business via a roundabout route, possible only in the early days of radio.

Goodman Ace was an aspiring writer since his teenage years. He edited his high school paper, then studied journalism at Kansas City Polytechnic. From here he became a reporter and columnist for the Kansas City Journal-Post. This led naturally to local radio at KMBC, where he read comic strips on the air (a common practice at the time) and gave movie reviews. An emergency need to fill a time slot resulted in his drafting of Jane to come on the air with him to talk about their bridge games and this evolved into their nationally distributed long-running sitcom Easy Aces (1930-1945, with some later incarnations).

Easy Aces occupies an interesting niche. Superficially, as a team, the Aces bear some resemblance to Burns and Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, or The Bickersons. Like Burns, Goodie wrote their material, and like Gracie, Jane uttered memorable malapropisms (“time wounds all heels” is one of the most famous). Goodman’s raspy, hoarse voice was not unlike Fred Allen’s; Jane’s high-pitched nasal one reminds me of Una Merkel’s. Yet, the listening experience is MUCH different from the better remembered hit sit-coms of the day, in that the shows feel much more naturalistic, three dimensional, and real, almost like playwriting, or the soap operas of the day. Unlike most radio comedians of the time, the Aces had not been in vaudeville. The writing is not punch-punch-punch, joke-filled crosstalk. It’s much more relaxed, and focused on the plot and situation, with the humor emerging naturally. And the show was produced without a live audience, so there is no laughter for you to join in. It’s there for you to appreciate on your own. Even in it’s day, Easy Aces was more of a cult favorite — but it was a favorite. From 1945 through 1948, the Aces were featured on The Danny Kaye Show, for which Goodman was also a writer. (He also wrote gags for Jack Benny from time to time). When Kaye moved production to Los Angeles, the pair remained in New York and attempted a new version of their show mr. ace and JANE (1948). This incarnation of the show did have a studio audience, which changed their dynamic, and it only lasted one season. The couple also experimented with comedy before the cameras. They made two comedy shorts for Educational Pictures, Easy Aces (1933) and Dumb Luck (1935). And they tried a TV version of their show in 1949, but it didn’t fly. In the ’50s the pair on the NBC radio shows Monitor and Weekday, and also voiced commercials.

Goodman also did a lot of work outside the context of the comedy team with his wife. In 1947, he created the radio series CBS is There, which lated became the TV series You Are There, starring Walter Cronkite (1953-57), featuring historical re-enactments treated as news stories. In television, Goodman wrote for The Milton Berle Show (1952-54), but was best known as Perry Como’s head writer, from 1955 through 1966. He also wrote for Tallulah Bankhead’s variety show The Big Party in 1959. I first learned about Ace as a teenager, from his correspondence with Groucho Marx in The Groucho Letters, in which he penned the immortal lines “television is a medium because it is never well done”, also referring to it as “Terrible Vaudeville”.  In 1958 Ace wrote the screenplay for the film I Married a Woman starring George Gobel and Diana Dors, directed by Hal Kanter. He was so disappointed by what he saw on screen he never attempted movies again.

Ace was also a regular columnist for the magazine The Saturday Review starting in the 1950s. In 1970, Easy Aces got a new burst of life on two fronts. Several of the scripts were published in the book Ladies and Gentleman – Easy Aces. And dozens of the scripts were adapted for the Canadian sitcom The Trouble with Tracy, which was produced through 1971 and shown in rereuns into the 1980s. Also, in the ’70s, Goodman did regular radio spots on NPR.