In his early years, Nat was fond of Sholom Aleichem and the slapstick being performed on the vaudeville circuit. He loved listening to Gilbert and Sullivan, listening to the operettas such as HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance.
During his teens, Nat became known for his great, witty storytelling. Nat would always try to find the humorous side of a situation even if it was (although not nastily) at the expense of a friend or colleague when he was at High School, the family leather business was showing signs of being a real money-spinner.
But Nat wasn't satisfied, he wanted to make a living which was a lot better than selling shoes. In 1932, after graduating from high school he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. He would train to be a newspaper journalist for the time being at least. At University he joined the staff of the campus daily known as the "Cardinal."
He also earned a Phi Beta Kappa key. In his senior year he began to hone his humorous writing skills by writing a column called the Gripers' Club. This was a send-up of newspaper advice columns where students were invited to write in their complaints about university life. But in reality, many of the letters that were published were written by Nat himself under many aliases.
Soon after his graduation Nat came up with an idea for a freelance news service which involved stories about local men and women who were now involved in the movie business in Hollywood. On the strength of this idea his cousin, Sandy, who was working as a secretary for Republic Pictures, suggested that Nat come out to California where she had a number of contacts within the film industry. Nat made the trip and soon found a tour of newspaper offices along the way proved to be very fruitful as he sold many of them on his idea of Hollywood news items with a hometown interest.
By all accounts Nat wasn't the most prolific writer at this time and often left it to the last minute before submitting his copy to the local newspapers. Still, he made enough money to live on - just. It was only when Sandy introduced him to some friends of her's that she thought Nat would hit it off with, that things changed. Roland Kibbee was the manager of a local radio station and Jack Lescoulie had aspirations to be an actor but up to this time had done nothing more than bit parts. He was currently surviving as the disc jockey at KFBW. During a conversation one day, Nat told his new found friends about his Gripers' Club column and Lescoulie thought it could be adapted to make an amusing radio show. They agreed that Nat would set about writing it while Lescoulie tried to get some airtime with KFBW. But Nat, just like he did with his newspaper articles, just sat on it until Lescoulie announced that they were going out live the following Saturday. Nat set to work and produced the material in record time. It seemed that he produced much better material when working to a tight deadline.
The show was called The Grouch Club and went out six mornings a week from Monday to Saturday. It's tongue-in-cheek approach came as a refreshing change to listeners who were used to hearing lively, loud and quick-talking radio show hosts and the broadcast began to pick up a steady and appreciative following. By 1938, the show was picked up for broadcast throughout the state by the California Radio System. With success also came a little more luxury for Nat, as he didn't have to come up with new ideas every day as the show was now broadcast just once a week on a Monday evening. The shows were also extended and Nat found that he had to write a sketch for each of them in order to stretch them out. It soon turned out that sketch writing was Nat's true forte.
The Grouch Club soon began to attract the attention of publications as prestigious as 'Variety' and very soon Warner Brothers took an interest too. The result of this was a series of short films. Finally, in April 1939, NBC broadcast the show coast to coast with it now being sponsored by General Mills' Kix cereal. The show had also caught the ear of Fred Allen, the popular radio comedian whose own show was considered one of the best and was certainly one of the most popular in the so-called classic era of American radio. In 1940 he hired Nat Hiken and Roland Kibbee to write for him. Nat worked for Warner Brothers as a screenwriter from 1940, for the studio's short-subject films.
In order to write for Allen, Nat needed to relocate from Los Angeles to New York, but he soon settled in and found that he didn't miss the glamour and glitz of Hollywood. A lot of show business people still populated New York as did many sportsmen such as boxers Joe Louis, Jake LaMotta, Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano, and as boxing was Nat's favourite sport he was in his element. New York was also much closer in lifestyle to Milwaukee than LA was.
In 1941 Nat met a young woman called Ambur Dana Salt and in October they married. Around the same time Nat's responsibilities on the Fred Allen Show increased and he was now pretty much Allen's head writer. During World War II Nat went into the army. He served in special services and came out a sergeant, promptly rejoining Fred Allen. During his time in the army he had continued to contribute ideas to Allen. In 1946, Nat decided to call it a day as an Allen scriptwriter, feeling that the time was right for him to branch out on his own. But Nat was worried about giving up the security of a regular income and put off telling Allen until 1947. By that time television was gaining in popularity and although only about 135,000 televisions were in use the signs were there that this new medium was gaining ground so fast that there might come a time when it was more popular than radio.
Nat was still not convinced. Even the man they were starting to call Mr Television, Milton Berle, was still trying to find a successful radio format. At this point he'd had six failures behind him. The problem with Berle was that his visual style of humour was ill suited to radio. Here was a brash and breezy comedian who could do as much with a double take as he could with a funny line. But this was completely lost on a radio audience. Nat Hiken was now given the task of finding a successful radio formula for Berle. To his credit, Nat gave Berle his first radio success, but the comedian's impact on television was now eclipsing anything else he did.
The radio series premiered on NBC in March 1947 and after a lukewarm reception in the early episodes both critics and listeners began to warm quite considerably. In his biography, years later, Berle wrote that it was "the best radio show I ever did."
By 1949, with Berle's television commitments taking precedence, the radio show was cancelled and once more Nat Hiken had to weigh up his options. Those who predicted televisions rising popularity were proved correct and by 1948 - 49 the number of TV sets in use had risen to half a million. Nat's first television gig was an impressive one. He was hired as head writer on the staff of Four Star Revue, a new variety series developed by NBC. Nat stamped his personality on the series by altering the format (which everyone else was following at the time, mainly to compete with Milton Berle), by crafting sketches that were all linked as opposed to being individual set-pieces. One critic remarked that the idea was "hardly wildly original" but "no one else has done it."
Encouraged by the support he was getting Nat decided to develop the concept to the next level for a comic he regarded as having huge potential. Martha Raye had been on the verge of something special for many years but had never managed to cross the last hurdle into stardom. Born into a showbiz family, just two days after Martha arrived in the world her mother was back on stage, and Martha first appeared in their act when she was three years old. In the early 1930s, she was a vocalist with the Paul Ash and Boris Morros orchestras. She made her first film appearance in 1934 but it wasn't until 1947 when Charlie Chaplin cast her in Monsieur Verdoux that she got a chance to really shine. But the release of the film coincided with accusations that Chaplin was a communist and, in spite of its early rave revues, it was forced to close early.
By the time she arrived on NBC's All Star Revue (as it had now been renamed), her movie career was over. Nat created a character for her as a frustrated, man-hungry spinster and put her into a situation comedy setting. The show was an immediate hit and was the talking point of the 1951-52 season. However, before that season came to an end Nat was worried that some of the scripts were not strong enough. He soon found a solution to this problem.
On a summer day in 1952 Nat met Rocky Graziano. After spending some time in the championship boxer's company Nat got the idea that he could use Graziano in The Martha Raye Show. From Graziano's point of view his days in the ring were numbered and he needed another way to make a living. Now that Nat was director, as well as head writer of the TV series he could do what he liked. Graziano's delivery of his lines was stiff and awkward and in a lesser writers hands he may have been made to look a fool. But Nat wrote the script in such a way that this type of delivery actually became an asset and what's more there was an instant chemistry between the boxer and the star. The critics raved about the second season premiere of The Martha Raye Show, the first TV programme to be written and directed by Nat Hiken.
Nat wrote a skit in which a tiny canary's chirp was annoying someone. A shot was heard offstage. Then a pitiful peep. Next day --- BOOM! Bird watching societies everywhere were mad as anything. Many vowed never to watch the Martha Raye show again!!
With a growing reputation and possible success looming Nat still yearned to get away from it all once a week. His favourite escape was a game of gin rummy at the Park Plaza Hotel where he would meet up with the likes of composer Jule Styne, CBS executive Oscar Katz, former press agent-now producer, Irving Mansfield, fellow comedy writer Leonard Stern and the Broadway star Phil Silvers. Part of the enjoyment of the game for Nat was the banter that went on between the players, not least of all Silver's who, although was a terrible gambler, was certainly one of the most vocal and entertaining of the participants
During the 1950s Phil and Nat teamed up to create the hugely successful The Phil Silvers Show. To huge acclaim, after winning award after award, he left the show after season two complaining of tiredness.
Nat holds court with Allan Melvin, Phil Silvers, Harry Clark & Harvey Lembeck
Nat & Phil - Two comedic legends!
But the comedy bug returned during the early 1960s when he made a new comedy show. That show was called Car 54, Where Are You? . . . . At the time, Nat's enemies acknowledged that he is the keenest comedy writer and director anywhere around, and his stock around New York rated pretty highly too. He sold Car 54 to Proctor & Gamble from just a bare six page outline. The really beautiful part of Nat's success on NBC with Car 54 was that he did it by breaking all of the so-called rules which the wise-crackers have always adopted for sure-fire success.
Nat took a couple of homely guys and made them the heroes. He injected wholesome, funny comedy into police business ---- something that hadn't been done since Mack Sennett's Keystone Cops. There is no kid hanging around Nat's series, and in Hollywood, doing a sitcom without a kid was like doing a western with a midget as the hero.
When Nat did the Bilko series with Phil, the TV critics said: "Whose gonna want to watch a comedy about soldiers in peacetime?" And that the barracks routine would be finished in six weeks.
What the master minds always overlooked about Nat's comedy is its honesty and his refusal to contrive a situation just for what might be a laugh or two. It's character comedy when Nat does it about characters he loves and knows intimately.
There were people who thought the New York police would resent Nat's portrayal of a couple of cops as comic characters. They didn't know the cops as well as Nat.
Nat said; "Every once in a while, some cop will come up to me or one of the boys and in a confidential tone tell me, 'We got a Toody in our precinct.' At an early 1960s police affair Joe and Fred got a standing ovation when they appeared."
He was referring to Joe E. Ross who plays Gunther Toody and Fred Gwynne, the lanky Francis Muldoon --- the two main stars of the show. Ross and Gwynne both appeared in the earlier Bilko show although they never actually starred in any of those programmes together.
Onset: Nat with Fred Gwynne & Ruth Masters
Phil pops in to see his old friend
Nat regarded Joe and Fred as a fine comedy team a perfect foil for each other. Before he wrote any scripts he spent a great deal of time sitting around police precincts in the Bronx, picking up the subtleties of expressions and inflictions, the working habits of a policeman. The entire series was filmed in New York, a rare distinction in itself, after all every other comedy show was coming out of Hollywood. "I could never work on the coast," said Nat, with a twinkle in his eye. "If I were out there, I know I'd quit working early every afternoon to play golf. I like television, I just wish it was easier."
Nat gets up very early every day at seven in the morning. He leaves his Manhattan apartment to go to a secret hideaway office in mid-Manhattan where he writes for four to five hours before noon. "It's the only way. I don't usually try to write after lunch. And I never write at night, or at home. I do like what I do, I just wish it wasn't so hard."
Nat said: "How can you tell about a show? I wasn't sure about Bilko. Phil knew from the first that it was going to be a hit, but I didn't. I've got the same feeling about this. It looks good to me, but I can't be positive. We're missing one element we had before, Phil Silvers. Nobody can act with people like Phil can. Nobody can bring people to life like he does."
Was Nat worried about being up against a national institution in the ratings war? "You bet I'm worried about being opposite Sullivan (Ed) but I get the impression that a good many people watch television on sunday nights. I'll settle for just my share. There's no kidding around with comedy. It's hard, hard work. Maybe one more series after this one then I'll quit for good. Oh boy, will I quit? This is no romance. I won't even look back."
The proper casting of his characters was almost a fetish with Nat. He even waited until one actress, Maureen Stapleton, returned from Europe so he could get her for the part of a fortune telling gypsy. When broadcast she was the funniest gypsy that you could wish to see!
Some critics panned the first Car 54 episode. They weren't too specific about what they didn't like. It was "weak" or "didn't come off." There were those, of course, who thought it wasn't sophisticated to laugh at broad comedy ---even when it's good. It is worth noting that the greats, Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields weren't acclaimed by the elite until they were written-up as artists and their films shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Car 54 Where are You? went on to be a huge international hit. Indeed, many critics put it on an even higher pedestal than the Bilko series!!
As a producer, Nat also had a wonderful eye for spotting new talent. He is credited with discovering and advancing the TV careers of such future stars as Fred Gwynne (1955), Alan Alda (1958) (both made their TV debuts on The Phil Silvers Show), and Dick Van Dyke (1957). A television pioneer, he worked with such major figures as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Nat won eight Emmy Awards and wrote material for Milton Berle, Bette Davis, Carol Burnett, and Lucille Ball.
After his death, his influence was still felt in 1970s sitcoms. Shows including Welcome Back, Kotter and especially Barney Miller owed clear debts to Nat's stock yet smart comedic ideas. Larry David, in DVD extras to season 1 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, has spoken about his love of the Bilko series.
Nat also displayed his musical talent by working with composers George Bassman and Gordon Jenkins on music and theme songs for TV series, and among the songs Nat himself composed are 'Close to Me,' 'Irving,' and 'Fugitive from Fifth Avenue.' He also wrote the theme song and music for the TV series, Car 54, Where Are You?.
Sadly, Nat's career was cut short when he died of a sudden heart attack on December 7, 1968 in Brentwood, California. He was just fifty four years of age.