During the Sunday, December 21st, 1952 broadcast of This Is Show Business on CBS, playwright George S. Kaufman made a terrible mistake. Noting that just about every television program the air was, in one way or another, utilizing various Christmas songs and carols, he jokingly announced “let’s make this one program on which no one sings ‘Silent Night'” .
Before the month was over, CBS had fired Kaufman.
According to Jack Gould in The New York Times, the network action “came as a direct result of several hundred letters and telephone calls objecting to the remark on the ground that it was ‘anti-religious’ and in questionable taste” . The protests were aimed at both the network and the American Tobacco Company, the show’s sponsor.
Kaufman, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, tried to defend and explain the joke. He insisted it “was not wittingly an anti-religious remark. I was merely speaking out against the use and over-use of this Christmas carol in connection with the sale of commercial products” . The decision to fire Kaufman was an unusual one, because CBS planned to end This Is Show Business in January 1953. The network needed to make room for Ann Sothern’s Private Secretary.
The threat of a boycott against the American Tobacco Company likely had quite a bit to do with the decision to drop Kaufman. But CBS found it difficult to replace him. Fred Allen, John Daly, and Garry Moore turned the network down. Moore said he didn’t want to sign on for just three weeks of work . On December 31st, CBS announced it had signed Steve Allen to take over for Kaufman .
That same day the Rev. Dr. Truman B. Douglass (chairman of the broadcasting and film commission of the National Council of Churches) criticized CBS in a letter to William S. Paley:
It would seem to me that before C.B.S. accepted these self-appointed defenders of sanctity as ultimate arbiters of good state in the realm of religion some attempt might have been maid to obtain the opinion of responsible representatives of religious bodies. 
Douglass also said he happened to agree with Kaufman. Religious songs like “Silent Night” were heard far too often on commercial television. Garry Moore also supported Kaufman. During his December 31st, 1952 broadcast, Moore said “it’s a shame that responsible people in the television industry have given in to such foolish pressure” .
Back on the Air
CBS reversed its decision to fire Kaufman on January 3rd, 1953 and announced that he would return to This Is Show Business, but only after its contract with the American Tobacco Company expired (following the Sunday, January 18th, 1953 broadcast) . The following week, on Saturday, January 24th, the show would shift to Saturdays at 9PM on a sustaining basis.
CBS vice president in charge of network television programs Hubbell Robinson made the announcement. The controversy, he declared, arose after viewers “widely misinterpreted” Kaufman’s remarks . Jack Gould applauded CBS for its move. He believed it was the first time a “controversial” figure returned to television after being removed.
Gould didn’t lay too much blame on the American Tobacco Company and the Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn advertising agency, because every other sponsor and advertising agency would have reacted the exact same way. And although CBS should never had fired Kaufman in the first place, said Gould, “nevertheless the step did require its own form of courage in the delicately competitive business of broadcasting” .
Nor did Gould attack those who complained about Kaufman’s remark, even if they did misunderstand it or belief it could be misunderstood by others:
The error of C.B.S. and the sponsor was to attach excessive importance to these protests and take the rash action of firing the dramatist. What sponsors still must learn is that they cannot expect to capitalize on the appeal and glamour of show business without also accepting the problems of the entertainment world. There are bound to be Kaufman incidents if TV is to be worth watching. 
Gould hoped the Kaufman controversy convinced viewers “the attainment of an independent and sensible television medium is partly their responsibility” . If so, perhaps it served a useful purpose.
This Is Show Business remained on CBS until March 9th, 1954. During the summer of 1956 NBC revived the series for several months.
But Why Fire Kaufman?
Kaufman certainly wasn’t the first person to find himself on the wrong side of television viewers ready and willing to write angry letters or make impassioned phone calls to stations, networks and sponsors. But as Jack Gould pointed out, he was perhaps the first to actually return to television on the same program that got him kicked off in the first place. Jack Eigen certainly wasn’t allowed to return to WBKB after being fired for a long kiss.
I do wonder why CBS fired him in the first place rather than simply pulling him from the panel until the controversy died down. The show was going to end shortly anyway. Could the American Tobacco Company, worried about a boycott, threatened to have withhold further advertising dollars from the network if Kaufman wasn’t fire? Perhaps he network hadn’t intended to keep This Is Show Business on the air on a sustaining basis until Kaufman reignited interest in it.
A cynic might think the network fired him just to fan the flames while waiting for the American Tobacco Company’s contract to run out. The same article in The New York Times that announced Kaufman’s return also revealed “another sponsor showed some interest in picking up the program” .
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely recordings of Kaufman’s joke exist. According to The New York Times, “the remark was clipped from kinescope film recordings sent to nineteen stations that did not carry the program ‘live'” . Could an unedited kinescope or an audio recording exist? It’s possible. Even if a recording does exist, though, it probably won’t make for compelling television. What Kaufman said wasn’t all that controversial in 1952 and it certainly wouldn’t be considered controversial today.
1 Gould, Jack. “TV Show Drops George S. Kaufman As Yule Carol Quip Draws Protests.” New York Times. 30 Dec. 1952: 21.
4 “C.B.S. In Dilemma On Kaufman Show.” New York Times. 31 Dec. 1952: 21.
5 “Minister Assails C.B.S. Dismissal of Kaufman From TV Program.” New York Times. 1 Jan. 1953: 25.
8 Gould, Jack. “Kaufman Returns to TV Jan. 24; Was Dropped for Christmas Quip.” New York Times. 4 Jan. 1953: 65.
10 Gould, Jack. “Radio and Television: Columbia Network Exhibits Courage in Kaufman Incident by Defying Sponsor-Agency Ban.” New York Times. 5 Jan. 1953: 26.
12 13 Ibid.
14 “C.B.S. In Dilemma On Kaufman Show.”