On the surface The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950-1958) appears like your typical early sitcom in the pioneering days of television. Gracie (Grace Allen) is a nutty and unsuppressible ditz who’s always mixing up words and meanings to delightfully malapropic comic effect, while her accountant husband, George (George Burns), is the cigar smoking straight-man. But look a little deeper and you see a subtly surreal meta tragedy of mythic proportions.
What I am about to recount to you are my observations surrounding the legendary sitcom. Granted, my findings are based only on personal experiences and not necessarily founded in actual science.
George (Burns, that is) exists in seemingly two different worlds. First there is the husband and straight-man role he occupies quite serviceably, but he also dons the role as the semi-omniscent narrator to the events of the show. The laughter induced by a recent scene ends, the lights go down, and George appears in front of a curtain—passing through the looking-glass—and he begins to explain things to the audience directly. He summarizes and he fills in missing scenes and he puffs his cigar. It appears as though he has one foot firmly planted in a different reality. But is the other side of the curtain the real reality or are the laughs only in his mind?
If the audience is indeed real then is George Burns some sort of droll demigod? He is privy to certain information on the stage, but not all. He knows events that recently occurred and he knows some things that he was not even present for and occasionally he knows a few minutes into the next scene that will arrive shortly, but he rarely knows the ultimate outcome of these scenes. He only knows where he just came from, what other characters are doing right now off-screen and he knows everything that happened earlier and some things that have yet to transpire. He is borderline psychic, but even if he knows the route things will take he is still doomed to go through the motions and see them through to the end.
Here is the show in a nutshell: George Burns narrates half the events as they really happen before they happen but then he gets interrupted by the action as its happening, like the “tape delay” has caught up with him and is sucking him back four minutes into the past. What a hellish existence.
After a few laughs and a few cigar puffs Burns leaves the audience and returns to the sitcom world where his powers are meaningless and unknown. What if he could tell them all: “Hey, I knew you would say that” or “Don’t let her in. She doesn’t really have pie”? Surely they’d take him for a madman. I am certain Gracie would have some wry misinformed quip to lighten the mood should they conflagrate him a witch.
George Burns is a trapped victim living between two dimensions each equally alienating in their own way. There exists, however, another disturbing element to the Burns and Allen Show. Like many sitcoms and variety shows of the era when TV was new, commercials were oft times eerily interwoven into the events of the plot. Television had yet to fully separate the programs from the sponsors and the results were a Twin Peaks-esque nightmare of drama-driven advertising. Frequently characters will appear with strange quasi-hidden posters or product samples. Claiming to have some relation to the Burns and Allen storyline they would invite themselves in, skitter through their phony setups only to reveal their ulterior motives. It’s forecast pretty loudly so it’s hard to miss an impending in-show commercial, yet they always manage to surprise me with their thinness and surreality.
Burns knows this scam (I think), yet he is powerless to stop it. Perhaps he is aware that if he stops the advertisers from doing their bizarre ritualistic spiel then Carnation Instant Milk Powder will pull the plug on the money-flow that sustains Burns and Allen. Essentially to stop them is suicide. But what quality of life does he really have? Who is George Burns really? Does he sleep in the world of separate twin-beds, sitcom setups, and no toilets or does he make camp in front of the curtain?
George Burns might have been a sort of failed Messiah. Perhaps he had it in his power to open up everyone’s eyes. He could have told the characters of the sham they were living. He could have given them the Pleasantville revelation that they are merely acting out a fictitious plot for the amusement of a savvy 50’s television audience. Maybe Burns could take Gracie and the cast by the hand and lead them to the other side of the curtain and open their eyes. But would this revelation not blow their mind? Think of the Square from Edwin Abbott Abbott’s mathematical masterpiece “Flatland.”
On occasion he does manage to pull Gracie to the other side, but her dimness of wit makes her ill-equipped to get a handle on things and she merely blathers on in character. Can she not recognize her salvation when it is at hand?
There is the risk that the studio audience on the other side of the curtain is just the hallucinatory manifestations of a deranged and deeply introspective George Burns. But how come Gracie pretends she can see it too when he transports her?
Maybe it’s a risk worth taking. They could escape the advertisements and the tinny laughter. Maybe color would even be granted the weary travelers. Would that then be Nirvana? Not the band, but the utopic state of being in the afterlife. Maybe the band. The British Nirvana from the 60s though, not the other one.
It is mere folly to speculate as Burns proved to be a failed Messiah. He never did bring divine revelation to his fellow cast members of this sick play. Maybe he was just a lost lesser X-Men who never realized his potential. Perhaps he never knew the others were not semi-psychic. How alone he must have felt.
No, George Burns was no Messiah.
But he did play God later.
…John Denver was a terrible actor.