Say goodnight, Gracie


I suppose the number of people who actually watched the Burns and Allen Show during the 1950s is dwindling rapidly. For most folks, George Burns is best known for the films he did after Gracie Allen passed away in 1962 – movies like “Oh, God” and its sequels and “The Sunshine Boys.” The show itself was typical 50s fare with one notable exception. The paper thin plots would play out while George served as a kind of Greek Chorus – standing off past the proscenium (in the earlier shows) or watching the story unfold on a television in his study. He would carry on a running conversation with the audience about events that unfolded on the set then step into the action by engaging with Ronnie (his son), Gracie, and almost weekly, firing Harry Von Zell. Then he would step out once again and engage the audience commenting on what had just happened or predicting events that resulted from his interventions. It was all accomplished with a wink and a nod, appreciative of the audience as unindicted co-conspirators (to borrow a phrase from a later and less pleasant television experience). The act of stepping outside the fourth wall wasn’t original with George Burns and has been used extensively since, but he was perhaps it’s most playful master. The device allowed George a dual privilege – the ability to laugh with the audience at Gracie’s indecipherable logic while enjoying his adoration of her.

I have suggested to a client from time to time that they think of their life as a television show or a movie – a compelling narrative filled with joy and sorrow, hope and fear, suspense and uncertainty. I ask if they realize that the audience watching the film would be rooting for them, hoping for a happy ending, gasping with every misstep, cheering with each success. When I suggest it, I often receive a quizzical look indicating that either they had never thought of such a thing, or that they can’t imagine that their lives are of sufficient interest to keep the attention of an audience.

Encased as we are in a first person perspective, we rarely take the privileged position of standing outside the fourth wall and watching the action of our own lives. If we did, we might actually marvel at our perseverance, admire our tenacity, ache with our suffering. We might view our own responses and behaviors with compassion rather than bearing feelings of shame and regret. Astonishing as it sounds, we might begin to realize that in the struggle of daily life we are acting out in microcosm the Great Endeavor – the striving for purpose, meaning and fulfillment that has defined the human story since the beginning of time.

It would be nice to think that the audience for this ultimate expression of theater was appropriately large: that it encompassed not only family, friends, neighbors and coworkers, but (in the dreaming of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews) that we are compassed about with a great cloud of witnesses, all of them watching breathless on the edge of their seats.