In the history of show business, there have been very few successful husband and wife comedy teams. Butterbeans and Susie, Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara, Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams (who didn't really work as a dedicated team), the musical parodies of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards (Paul Weston and Jo Stafford), and the list doesn't really get much longer than that. But the names to put at the top of the list have always been the same: the incomparable team of George Burns and Gracie Allen.
They started in vaudeville and stayed together -- reaching the top of the entertainment field -- for over 40 years. Allen started her career as a child Irish specialty dancer, growing into adulthood in a dramatic act with Larry Reilly. Burns had a far more checkered career, working as Glide in "Goldie, Fields, and Glide," Jose of "Jose and Dolores," Eddie Delight, Jed Jackson of "Jackson and Malone," Harris of "Harris and Dunlop," Captain Betts of "Captain Betts and his Trained Seal," and -- at various times -- as both Brown and Williams of "Brown and Williams." Burns would do virtually anything to stay in show business and when Gracie offered to play a straight woman to Burns' comic in a new act, it must have seemed like a windfall for the young hoofer who was hanging onto his career foothold by the slenderest of threads. The only problem with the new act was that everybody laughed at Gracie's feeder lines and nobody laughed at Burns' punch lines. Now maybe George Burns hadn't been a success up to this point, but he had been in enough bum acts and had accumulated enough show business savvy to know exactly what to do.
The two switched their roles and once he switched the lines and let Gracie have the toppers, the act was set for life. Allen's dizzy replies set a whole new female comedic style into motion, built on the time-honored '"Dumb Dora" character with a distinct switch; Allen wasn't dumb, it was everybody else who were the ones that didn't get it. Her feminine countenance and bird-like voice made everything that came out of her sound absolutely believable, almost as if she didn't truly understand the jokes she was delivering. Everything Gracie said and did made perfect sense to her, and Burns was the one who puffed on the cigar while trying most exasperatingly to make sense out of all of it. As Burns would later put it, "Gracie was the whole act. All I had to was ask her, 'How's your brother?' and we were good for 14 minutes.'"
Burns wisely put his ego in his back pocket and worked on shaping the act -- Gracie's character, which he dubbed "illogic-logic" -- into a precision machine. In no time at all, they became headliners in vaudeville and the toast of two continents. When talking pictures became the newest wrinkle in the entertainment blanket, the duo made several successful short comedies starting in 1929, all based on the stage routines they had honed to perfection. This led to a career in motion pictures, with Burns and Allen making 14 films, with Gracie making solo appearances in three more, starting with The Gracie Allen Murder Case in 1939.
But it was with the advent of radio that their careers truly hit their stride. After guesting with bandleader Guy Lombardo doing brief routines on several shows, they launched their own program on CBS in 1933. The show was an immediate hit using the weekly running gag of Gracie's constant search for her lost brother. When they were censored during a guest shot on the Rudy Vallée show from mentioning Gracie's missing brother, the ensuing publicity turned it into a national craze along the proportions of "Where's Waldo?" decades later. Gracie started doing drop-ins on every program on CBS, asking if anyone had seen her brother. Suddenly everyone from the Burns Detective Agency to United States Senators were in on the act. The stunt finally ran it course when Gracie's real life brother Georgie became so distraught by the invasion to his privacy that he disappeared for real. Suddenly, everyone knew who Gracie Allen was and all George Burns seemingly had to do was ride the lightning.
In real life however, their roles were dissimilar. Burns was the brains of the act, coordinating everything from production to staff writer meetings, making sure the program was a well-oiled machine that seldom faltered. He came up with three promotional brainstorms: Gracie's art exhibit, her piano concert tour, and her Presidential campaign, all of which were wildly successful, honing her character even further. The show's formula -- still an extension of their old vaudeville patter routines like "Dizzy" and "Lamb Chops" -- proved successful until the mid-'40s when the show started declining in the ratings. Allen, always a homebody, figured their run had finally come to an end, an eventuality in show business. But Burns dug deeper into the problem, finally realizing that they could no longer play sweethearts on the air when America knew they were actually longtime marrieds with a couple of kids of their own. Burns once again made the switch, updating their characters to co-exist with their real lives, and the show was once again at the top of the ratings sweepstakes.
They made the transition to television in 1950, doing the show live in New York on an every other basis. By 1952, the program was moved to Los Angeles, being filmed for weekly broadcast on CBS. The show's cast was fleshed out with Bea Benadaret and Hal March (later Fred C. Clarke) as next-door neighbors Blanche and Harry Morton, Bill Goodwin (and later Harry Von Zell) as the announcer, with the Burns' two children, Ronnie and Sandy, doing guest turns, and Ronnie becoming a regular cast member a few years later. The show ran for 299 episodes, only going off the air when Allen announced her retirement from show business at the end of the 1958 season. This was big enough news to rate a cover story in Life magazine. She was in increasingly ill health for the next few years, finally succumbing to a heart attack in 1964 and closing the chapter on comedy's most successful married couple.