The life of a great American satirist whose work--aside from its influence on Garrison Keillor, Woody Allen, Bob and Ray, the Mighty Carson Art Players, and others--disappeared with the rise of a cathode-ray tube. As with his excellent study of this country's fight against tuberculosis (Saranac: America's Magic Mountain, 1986), Taylor researches in depth, gives many absorbing pages detailing radio wit Allen's rich background in vaudeville and the tenor of the radio days that he and Jack Benny bestrode like twin colossi. From Cambridge, Mass., Allen entered vaudeville in his teens, billing himself as the World's Worst Juggler. After catching the juggling and patter of W.C. Fields, he added jokes to his act and became a tireless collector of humor. A devout Catholic, he married chorine Portland Hoffa, who converted from Judaism for him and became his very talented "wooge" (female stooge). Headliners together, they eventually moved to radio, with Allen writing, casting, directing, and starring in half-hour shows. His nasal delivery flattened his tremendously gifted metaphors and lent sandpaper reality to outlandish imagination. Unlike Benny or any other radio comedian, Allen wrote his own material, but later took on an assistant or two (the show went hour-length early in 1934 and stayed there for eight years), including 21-year-old Herman Wouk. Allen's fabulous feud with Jack Benny captivated the nation, had it riveted to both their shows. Some of Allen's earlier material seems antediluvian now, Taylor admits, but long quotes from later shows has Allen rasping out real sparks. "Fred Allen's books are out of print," writes Allen, "his movie and television appearances were negligible, and radio, as he conceived of it, is obsolete. Yet be does not dwindle away and disappear." And this is a marvelous reminder of why he should not. First-rate.