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December 2nd, 2008

Four of the greatest comedy bits in radio were sight gags: the avalanche of junk cascading out of Fibber McGee and Molly’s closet; Jack Benny’s beaten-up old jalopy, the Maxwell; the ventriloquist act of Edgar Bergen and his saucy, raffish dummy Charlie McCarthy; even the antics of two black Harlem cab owners, Amos and Andy—voiced by two white men.

From one perspective, all of radio comedy was a sight gag. Each individual listener had to see the comic event in his or hers mind’s eye—which meant there were millions of different imaginings of one comic’s gag from coast to coast. Within its first decade of broadcast programming radio rewrote the rules of comedy in America. In fact, radio created so many of the ways that Americans receive and perceive comedy that it is arguably the most influential medium for comedy in our history.

Comedy took a while to find its potent niche on the airwaves. After the first commercially licensed station broadcast the results of the 1920 presidential election, most of the programming to be heard on the nascent technology consisted of music, news reports, and chat. Comedians ventured skeptically into the new medium; first, it seemed counter-intuitive for a comic who had spent years, if not decades, making funny faces and funny gestures to have to rely solely on his voice, and, second, the poor transmission quality made it difficult for any comedian to land his material successfully. Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn were two of the few name vaudevillians who briefly tried their hands at radio comedy in the very early 1920s, but the pioneers of the genre are generally considered to be Freeman Godsen and Charles Correll, two obscure entertainers from the Midwest. They were initially asked by a Chicago radio station to do some cross-promotion with a local newspaper by dramatizing a popular comic strip, The Gumps, but they stuck to what they knew better—the minstrel tradition—and created the first comic serial. The daily fifteen-minute adventures of Sam’n’Henry—a pair of black ne’er-do-wells—was broadcast for the first time in January of 1926. A contractual dispute led to their move to another station in 1928, and to the adoption of new names for, essentially, the same characters: Amos and Andy. Amos ‘n’ Andy would grow to become one of the most popular and enduring programs on radio, continuing for four decades.

That the roots of Amos ‘n’ Andy began with the funny papers seems entirely appropriate, because the radio serial was the performance equivalent of a daily (or weekly) comic strip; it was the first time Americans could follow the ongoing adventures of live characters. The desire to keep up with characters who had endeared themselves to the audience proved to be a potent one and it required immense energy and considerable imagination to fill the insatiable maw of a one-half hour episode every week (in an era when there were no summer re-runs).

The idea of creating a character that a comedian had to embody for weeks on end was an entirely novel one. Vaudeville comedians could dine out on the same gags for years, as long as they moved from town to town; in radio, they became sitting (or standing) ducks—one broadcast could send a year’s worth of gags to every town in America and vaporize your best material in half an hour. Even if you were a comedian in a Broadway comedy or revue, you still had only to play the same two hours of material every night, and then for a thousand people, at the most. There was no way to succeed with a strictly regional joke anymore and goodness knows you had to stick with your clean material, no matter how well the risqué stuff played. But radio was clearly the wave of the future and it would be a huge challenge for ordinary comedians to ride that wave. Small wonder, then, that when Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn both attempted radio again in the early 1930s (Cantor debuted on The Chase and Sanborn Hour in 1931; Wynn as The Fire Chief), they used as much of their vaudeville/revue apparatus as they could comfortably drag into a broadcast studio.

A comedy variety show, like Cantor’s, allying radio’s two early mainstays, comedy and music, would seem to be what we’d now call a no-brainer. But, even here, the rules were unclear. In Cantor’s initial broadcasts, audiences were asked to try to stay completely silent during the proceedings, which were performed behind a glass wall, for fear their laughter would distract the home audience. Well, given Cantor’s outrageous antics, that wasn’t going to last long; during one of Cantor’s ad-lib gags, the audience fell apart, and, quickly, so did the glass wall, metaphorically speaking. Cantor liked it better that way and so did the home listeners, who sent in sacks of mail in support of such live spontaneity. Variety comedians had to try new ways to keep both the studio and the home audience engaged. The radio announcer was soon drafted in as a comic foil; ensembles of distinct comic personalities became common as did guest stars; even the sponsor’s commercial product was turned into comic fodder. (Sponsors initially disliked the idea, until they realized that humor helped to sell their products better than earnestness.)

By 1935, 70 percent of all American households had radios. Depression economics encouraged the growth of the medium, as radios grew cheaper in cost, and as people had less money to spend on traditional entertainment forms like theater or nightclubs. “First of all, it was the only source of home entertainment, unless you had some kind of silly uncle or something,” recalled Larry Gelbart. “Radio was a vital part of everybody’s life. At night, the comics came on and you shared it with the family. Nobody had a radio in their room. I didn’t think I had a room. It was a family affair, and of course, all the comedy was squeaky clean.” The audience for comedy developed at a rapid rate and many comedians now saw radio less as a terror than as a refuge—a necessary evil.

Life was made easier for the variety comedian once the technical rules were sorted out and they discovered those aspects of radio that could actually add to the fun. Although Jack Benny and Bob Hope employed scores of hard-working writers on their respective staffs, they never had to memorize scripts or rehearse them at great length. The loosey-goosey nature of a show like Hope’s or Cantor’s meant that characters and guests could come and go without much motivation or conventional set-up. Unlike a movie or a play, radio could be immediately topical—and it required no sets, props, or real estate other than a broadcast studio. Even a rare unscripted moment could be immediately wrangled from becoming a calamity to a classic. When an errant eagle broke loose from his trainer on a 1940 episode of NBC’s The Fred Allen Show, flew around the studio, and eventually made a natural deposit on the floor, Allen seized on the joke for weeks, referring to the “ghost’s beret” left on Mr. Rockefeller’s carpet. Less amusing, perhaps to Pepsodent, the show’s sponsor, was Bob Hope’s ad-libbed rejoinder to Dorothy Lamour when she told him one evening on The Bob Hope Show to “meet her in front of the pawn shop”: “Okay—you can kiss me under the balls.”

A clever comedian could wring enough subtle changes in the variety format to create something enduring that worked off his personality. Allen created, essentially, a Broadway revue, by alternating sketches, parodies, and recurring characters and segments. Jack Benny created an appealing hybrid between a variety show, which he hosted, and a situation comedy, where he played variety show host Jack Benny. Hope, a product of the slicker 1940s, eschewed sense and sensibility for speed and wisecracks. It was hard to judge what kind of comedian would appeal to a radio audience. Edgar Bergen, an unprepossessing ventriloquist, became a superstar jousting with Charlie McCarthy, and Abbott and Costello were able to use radio as a stepping stone from burlesque to film. On the other hand, Groucho Marx, that most vocally idiosyncratic of comedians, suffered mightily on radio before scoring as host of a quiz show as late as 1947. W.C. Fields was, at best, a marginal figure on radio; Milton Berle bombed on it; Laurel and Hardy never even tried it.

Perhaps audiences were more particular because radio was the first medium that allowed comedians into their homes. That may also explain why radio was so conducive to the form of the serial domestic comedy. While Bob Hope and his friends could be as outrageous and show-bizzy as they wanted to be, there was also a significant place for just plain folks on the radio. In addition to Amos ‘n’ Andy, there were scores of situation comedies that burrowed their way into the hearts of Americans. “These shows had a family of people,” said Jonathan Winters. “And you looked forward to listening to them.” Some early comedies were broadcast daily for fifteen minutes; later on, most adopted a half-hour weekly format, the better for audiences to grow accustomed to them. Fibber McGee and Molly was the quintessential domestic comedy, a slice of small-town Midwestern American life, centered by the eponymous married couple, played by a real-life married couple of former vaudevillians, Jim and Marian Jordan. McGee was a genial dope who always bluffed his way through some hair-brained scheme, only to be gently upbraided by his long-suffering wife. They filled out their domestic quarrels at 79 Wistful Vista with a parade of off-beat neighbors, relatives and servants. (Two of these—neighbor Throckmorton Gildersleeve and maid Beulah—were given their own spin-off series; this, decades before The Jeffersons.) The McGee’s overstuffed closet became almost as famous as the characters themselves and the show was on the air, in one format or another, for twenty-two years.

An odder, but equally beloved series was Vic and Sade, about another Midwestern couple, the Gooks, who lived in mythical Crooper, Illinois. The extraordinary conceit of this fifteen-minute daily comedy was that its on-air characters essentially consisted of only four people, the Gook family, who constantly referred to a legion of off-stage kooks and eccentrics who resided in their hometown. Somehow, the sole writer, Paul Rhymer, and his talented ensemble kept up this absurdist haiku of a comedy going for a dozen years, five times a week.

Of course, as listeners and entertainers alike were to discover, it was the very regularity of domestic comedy that made it so appealing. It was a tricky balance, to encourage repetition without incurring predictability, but the best shows could pull it off. These radio shows created something previously unexplored—the running gag, an idea so potent and so welcome that, like the McGee’s closet or Gracie Allen’s search for her long-lost brother, its very anticipation could engender waves of laughter. Radio comedies created national catchphrases, some of which survive to this day, even if their provenance is only known to a handful of nostalgia buffs: “It’s a joke, son!” or “Taint funny, McGee” or “Vas you dere, Sharlie?” Nearly all of radio’s serial comedy was domestic in nature (Duffy’s Tavern, a forerunner of television’s Cheers was a rare exception) and its basic vocabulary was bequeathed to television when the time came: marital spats, nosy neighbors, ethnic characters, the surprise guest star, the theme song.

After World War II, radio was on its last legs. Very few new shows of any interest sprouted up, except perhaps for a domestic comedy called My Favorite Wife, starring a fading movie star named Lucille Ball. A pair of whimsical geniuses named Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding broadcast their hilarious burlesques of radio’s pomposity out of a local Boston affiliate in the early 1950s and became cult figures. Bob and Ray’s ensemble of characters included a cowboy who did rope tricks on the radio, the spokesman for Slow . . . Talkers . . . of . . . America, and obnoxious sportscaster Biff Burns, who always signed off, “This is Biff Burns saying this is Biff Burns saying goodnight.” They paved the way for a legion of goofy broadcasters who dominated the rush-hour airwaves with their anarchic antics, most notably Howard Stern (although whether he is a pure comedian or a broadcast host or just an agent provocateur is open for question).

But although there is much on radio in the 21st Century that is amusing, the comic engine that primed the pump of its golden age is long gone (the only stations dedicated purely to comedy are on the satellite networks). Once television came along, Americans could continue to enjoy the funny faces and funny gestures that radio comedians had given up decades earlier. CBS executive William Tankersley recalled an evening in 1950, after the network had adopted television, in addition to radio, broadcasting:

I remember walking on stage at our studios on Sunset Boulevard when Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had been on some radio show and the cast had gone out for dinner. And the stage was empty and the lights were kind of dim. And over in a corner there was a suitcase with some wooden pieces on it. Then I saw they were the arms and legs of Charlie McCarthy, whom we all considered to be a smart aleck, a very urbane, very funny character–and a live person. And there he was–just a pile of wood. And I thought that was a metaphor for the state of radio. And I’m getting the hell outta here.

— Excerpt from Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor. Copyright 2008 courtesy of Hachette Book Group.

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