Back in the day when comedians earned laughs by stimulating the minds of the audience, rather than appealing to prurient interests, there was one whose light shone brighter than any other: Fred Allen. The Fred Allen Show ruled the radio from 1932 to 1949. His dry wit, combined with a cast of memorable characters, were defining characteristics of his show. Perhaps even more significant was the fact that Fred Allen was the chief writer for the weekly program.
Allen was also a brilliant correspondent. A collection of his letters was published in the book Fred Allen’s Letters. It is well worth the read.
One such letter, written to an insurance company, shows the ingenuity of his fertile imagination:
June 18, 1932
The soullessness of corporations is something to stun you.… I went around last Sunday morning to a new house that is being built for me. On the top floor I found a pile of bricks which were not needed there. Feeling industrious, I decided to remove the bricks. In the elevator shaft there was a rope and a pulley, and on one end of the rope was a barrel. I pulled the barrel up to the top, after walking down the ladder, and then fastened the rope firmly at the bottom of the shaft. Then I climbed the ladder again and filled the barrel with bricks. Down the ladder I climbed again, five floors, mind you, and untied the rope to let the barrel down. The barrel was heavier than I was and before I had time to study over the proposition, I was going up the shaft with my speed increasing at every floor. I thought of letting go of the rope, but before I had decided to do so I was so high that it seemed more dangerous to let go than to hold on, so I held on.
Halfway up the elevator shaft I met the barrel of bricks coming down. The encounter was brief and spirited. I got the worst of it but continued on my way toward the roof—that is, most of me went on, but much of my epidermis clung to the barrel and returned to earth. Then I struck the roof the same time the barrel struck the cellar. The shock knocked the breath out of me and the bottom out of the barrel. Then I was heavier than the empty barrel, and I started down while the barrel started up. We went and met in the middle of our journey, and the barrel uppercut me, pounded my solar plexus, barked my shins, bruised my body, and skinned my face. When we became untangled, I resumed my downward journey and the barrel went higher. I was soon at the bottom. I stopped so suddenly that I lost my presence of mind and let go of the rope. This released the barrel which was at the top of the elevator shaft and it fell five floors and landed squarely on top of me, and it landed hard too.
Now, here is where the heartlessness … comes in. I sustained five accidents in two minutes. One on my way up the shaft, when I met the barrel of bricks, the second when I met the roof, the third when I was descending and I met the empty barrel, the fourth when I struck the barrel, and the fifth when the barrel struck me. But the insurance man said that it was one accident not five and instead of receiving payment for injuries at the rate of five times $25, I only get one $25 payment. I, therefore, enclose my policy and ask that you cancel the same as I made up my mind that henceforth I am not to be skinned by either barrel or/and my insurance company.
Yours sincerely and regretfully,
The letter took on a life of its own and has been repeated in different forms. Ultimately, it inspired “The Bricklayer’s Song,” sung by Ray Stevens in the following video.