The Friars Club of Manhattan has hosted a storied roster of comedy and entertainment greats for more than a century. From its early days as a haven for theater folk—who, for generations, included only men—to a more inclusive contemporary experience in its remodeled English Renaissance Revival Midtown clubhouse today, the group has included luminaries like Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Jerry Seinfeld, and many more.
But besides these marquee names, the Friars have counted a number of equally talented creators among their habitues, and one of the greatest of these was Goodman Ace. In its February 1, 2022 issue, the Forward newspaper paid tribute to Ace (born Aiskowitz) with a long and fascinating piece by Michael Barrie.
Becoming “America’s greatest wit”
“Goody,” as he was known to friends, was the man the great Fred Allen called “America’s greatest wit.” He wrote, performed, and produced for both radio and television, offering his audiences an easy-going but highly literate style characterized by a sharply observant and wry way of tweaking human folly and pretension. He had a big influence on his fellow writers and producers beginning in the 1930s, and it’s not too much to say that the entire look and feel of American popular entertainment bore his stamp for decades.
So, why has this jewel of American humor been so long forgotten in popular memory?
Goodman Ace was born in 1899 in Kansas City, Missouri. The son of a haberdasher, he grew up wanting to be a writer. He started as editor of his high school’s newspaper before being brought on board the staff of the Kansas City Post. While working as the paper’s film critic, he also hosted a daily local radio program.
A partnership in talent
Notably, Ace’s wife, Jane (née Sherwood, although her name at birth was Epstein) became his writing and performing partner, helping him achieve success during the prime years of his career. The two had met and become sweethearts as high school students back in Kansas City. Her marriage to Ace drew the wrath of her father, who had wanted a son-in-law who could help him in his retail business. But the couple stayed together from their first radio appearance in the show Easy Aces in the 1920s, through the program’s conclusion in 1945, until she passed away in New York in 1974.
Jane Ace played a series of characters whose malapropisms were part of the running jokes of their shows, with her husband as a long-suffering straight man. Goodman Ace dubbed the verbal misadventures that he wrote for her “Janeaceisms,” and they helped bring wide recognition to this first male-female radio duo to base their comedy on language play.
“Say it in words of one cylinder,” she would request, or she’d note that someone was “making a mountain out of a moleskin” or describe the crowded tenement apartment buildings on New York’s Lower East Side as “Old Testament houses.”
All this started when, looking for a quick replacement for a guest who failed to show up for his Kansas City radio show, Ace asked his wife to participate. Their ad-libbing about a simple everyday husband-and-wife situation—their card game of the night before—was so genial, relaxed, and fun that listeners wanted more.
The king of the writers’ room
Goodman Ace went on to enjoy jobs as head writer for television greats of the 1950s and early ‘60s, including Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Perry Como. As part of their prime-time line-ups, he became the highest-paid writer working in television comedy. In addition, he wrote books and wrote and produced his own work for TV. Danny Kaye wanted Ace as the producer of his Los Angeles-based show so much that he allowed the master craftsman to work from New York.
Ace’s work at CBS Radio, when he put together a star team of fledgling writers, was among his other notable contributions to American entertainment. Those who learned their craft under his tutelage in those days included Neil Simon and Paddy Chayefsky.
In the 1970s, Ace led the writers’ room for the show Andy Williams Presents, alongside, among others, Michael Barrie, author of the tribute in the Forward.
Barrie describes Goody’s Midtown office as “a 1940s time-capsule,” complete with a superannuated assistant. Barrie and a fellow writer settled in one day and asked Ace whether he’d worked with Andy Williams before. “No,” was the answer; Ace only knew the notably underwhelming Williams “to say goodbye to him.”
It must have been nice to pull up a chair next to Goodman Ace at the Friars Club, where he often ate lunch, and listen to his diatribes against the wanton misuse of the English language. For example, there was the time he excoriated fellow Friar Alan King for saying on his show that he’d had a “heart-rendering” experience.
But one day, Ace got into a contretemps with the maître d’ at the club and ended up proclaiming that he would never come back. While there was talk of go-betweens trying to help mend fences, Forward writer Barrie is not certain that this ever happened.
Ace’s health declined after the death of his wife, but even as he suffered his own late-life illnesses, he kept writing almost until the day he died in 1982.
There’s not a lot of easily available material on Goodman Ace around today, and that’s a sad commentary on our culture. New fans can try searching for the scant handful of audio clips posted on YouTube, and for a book Ace authored to commemorate his radio show. The out-of-print 1970 title is called Ladies and Gentlemen, Easy Aces.