The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which premiered on 12 October 1950, was one of the first comedy series to make the successful transition from radio to television. Similar to the format of the radio program in which George Burns and Gracie Allen played themselves, the CBS domestic comedy was set in their home, the first television series to depict the home life of a working show business couple.
The half-hour series was broadcast live for the first two seasons. The first six episodes were broadcast from New York, but the show soon moved to Hollywood, making it only the third CBS series to emanate from the West Coast (after The Ed Wynn Show and The Alan Young Show). On Burns' insistence, the show was broadcast on alternate weeks in order to provide sufficient time for rehearsals and alleviate some of the pressures of live broadcasts. During its bi-weekly period, the series alternated with the anthology series Starlight Theater and, later, with Star of the Family. After two seasons of live performances, the series switched to a weekly filmed broadcast. Although not filmed before a studio audience, the final filmed product was previewed to an audience and their reactions recorded. At a time when many series relied on mechanically reproduced ("canned") laughter, Burns claimed that his series only "'sweetened' the laughter when a joke went flat and there was no way of eliminating it from the film. Even then we never added more than a gentle chuckle."
Like other television pioneers such as Desi Arnaz and Jack Webb, George Burns must also be credited for his contributions behind the scenes. Burns and Allen incorporated a number of television "firsts," although Burns noted that "television was so new that if an actor burped, everyone agreed it was an innovative concept and nothing like it had ever been done on television before." Still, he was the first television performer to use the theatrical convention of "breaking the fourth wall" between the audience and the performer. He frequently stepped out of a scene and out of character to address the audience, then rejoined the story. This convention was later imitated by others, but not used effectively until It's Garry Shandling's Show in the 1980s.
The staff writers for the series were those who had written for the Burns and Allen radio program or worked with the team in vaudeville, including Paul Henning (who later created The Beverly Hillbillies), Sid Dorfman (who later wrote for M*A*S*H and produced Good Times for Norman Lear), Harvey Helm, and William Burns, George's younger brother. To keep dialogue and situations consistent with the characters' personalities and ages, the writers adhered to policies and practices established during their radio show. The stories stayed away from topical humor, fantastic characters, and absurd situations and focused instead on more universal aspects of daily life. Plots were simple (e.g., Gracie attempting to learn Spanish) and, like their vaudeville routines, the comedy emanated from Allen's uniquely skewed interpretation of the world and the resulting confusion. Burns played the quintessential straight man to the giddy, scatterbrained Allen.
Each episode began with Burns standing, trademark cigar in hand, before the proscenium surrounding their living room set. There he presented a brief monologue, then offered the audience a few comments regarding the situation they were about to see.
Allen's success, and her enormous popularity, emanated from her ability to underplay her character. Her convincing sincerity makes illogical premises, such as sewing buttons on her husband's shirttails so no one would notice if he lost one, seem logical.
Episodes ended with a Burns and Allen dialog reminiscent of their vaudeville routines. At the conclusion, of every episode Burns would turn to Allen and close, "Say goodnight, Gracie," to which Allen would obligingly turn to their audience and fondly bid them "goodnight."
The supporting cast continued in roles established in the original Burns and Allen radio program. Bea Benaderet and Hal March played the Burns' neighbors, Blanche and Harry Morton. Bill Goodwin, as himself, played the show's announcer and friend of the family, and Rolfe Sedan played mailman Mr. Beasley, with whom Gracie gossiped. During the run of the series, the role of Harry Morton was subsequently played by John Brown, Fred Clark, and Larry Keating. In the second season, announcer Goodwin left to host his own variety series (The Bill Goodwin Show, NBC) and was replaced by Harry Von Zell. A musical entr'acte entertainment was provided by The Singing Skylarks. The Burns' son Ronnie later joined the cast as himself.
Although Burns and Allen was never among the top-rated series, it maintained consistently high ratings throughout its eight seasons. The show garnered a total of twelve Emmy nominations: four for best comedy series, six for Allen as best actress and comedienne, and two for Bea Benaderet as best supporting actress.
The series ended on 22 September 1958 with Allen's decision to retire from show business. Burns continued working in a revamped version of the show, The George Burns Show (NBC, 21 October 1958 to 14 April 1959), in which he again played himself, now in the role of a theatrical producer. Bea Benaderet and Larry Keating reprised their roles as Blanche and Harry Morton, but now portrayed Burns' secretary and accountant and Harry Von Zell repeated his role as Burns' announcer. The series lasted only one season.
Burns returned to series television again in 1964 as producer and star of Wendy and Me (ABC, 14 September 1964 to 6 September 1965), in which he played an apartment building owner who narrated and commented on the action. Burns' McCadden Productions continued to produce other situation comedies, such as Mr. Ed, The Bob Cummings Show, The People's Choice, and The Marie Wilson Show. In 1985, at age 89, Burns hosted the short-lived half-hour comedy anthology series George Burns Comedy Week (CBS, 18 September 1985 to 25 December 1985).