Celebrating the great Nat Hiken

Nat Hiken was born in Chicago on June 23, 1914 and raised in Milwaukee, where he moved with his family at age six. His comedy career began in college, with a send-up of newspaper advice columns, called The Griper’s Club. Despite being warned by one of his advisors that he’d never make a living as a writer, Hiken vowed to find a way.

He established Hollywood connections via a relative who’d moved out west and taken work at Republic Pictures, and Hiken eventually found himself running in a circle that included a local KWFB disk jockey named Jack Lescoulie. Hiken pitched the Griper’s Club idea to Lescoulie, who convinced KWFB to put it on the air. Renamed The Grouch Club, it was a clearinghouse for people to air their everyday grievances, which were of course fake, and written by Hiken.

The show was a hit, and was soon running statewide, adding a larger cast and more work for Hiken. By 1939, it had joined the NBC Red network, where it was given a prime slot on Sunday nights as a lead-in to no less than The Jack Benny Show. Hiken’s cerebral style and ability to churn out scripts (though he was a notorious procrastinator) got him under the radar of one of radio’s leading wits, Fred Allen. Based on what he heard, he hired Hiken and his writing partner Roland Kibbee, and the two relocated to New York.

Hiken left Allen’s show in 1947, eager to try his hand at other opportunities. He wrote for Milton Berle, helping the star to overcome a series of previous radio failures. In 1950, Hiken conceived a marvelous radio program, The Magnificent Montague, the story of a blustery Shakespearian actor who’s forced, because of fading fortunes to take a job in radio. It’s one of radio’s forgotten gems, and you owe yourself a visit to the amazing Archives.org website, a huge museum of public domain material available for download. Here’s the direct link to some of the Montague shows.

With TV fast becoming the medium of choice for actors (not to mention sponsors), it was inevitable that Hiken make the plunge, and did so as a writer for Martha Raye in NBC’s Four Star Review, a variety show with a rotating foursome of hosts. He was still contributing to the Montague show at this time. Raye’s show was a success and Hiken soon found himself moving comfortably within the TV world. When CBS offered Phil Silvers an opportunity to develop a show for television, one of the things that made him agree to do it was knowing that his casual acquaintance, but a man whose talents he certainly admired, Nat Hiken was to write and produce the show.

You’ll Never Get Rich premiered in 1955, and it married Silvers’ incredible comedy skills with Hiken’s magnificent scripts. The show was populated with a perfectly cast supporting gang of unglamorous galoots and dogfaces who were just as eager to avoid work and win a round of cards as their intrepid leader, Sgt. Ernie Bilko. It wasn’t long before the show was renamed The Phil Silvers Show. Of course, you’ll catch it right here on Me-TV, late Saturday/early Sunday (depending on how you look at these things) at 4AM/3C.

And preceding it in that night owl timeslot is another brilliant Hiken creation – the sweetly daffy Car 54, Where Are You? Shot on location in the Bronx, Hiken chose to go decidedly against what he termed the “chintz curtains and ranch houses” that he felt were the backdrops of too many TV programs. Klutzy, absent-minded, and thoroughly endearing, Officers Muldoon and Toody (Fred Gwynne and Joe E. Ross) were as terrific a comedy duo that ever graced the small screen. The show was rife with Runyonesque characters and straight talking cops, and it enjoyed a feverish following. It has no casual fans, it seems – just die-hards who swear by its goofy greatness, and the comedic genius of its creator, Nat Hiken.

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