During the depression and into the war years, comedy was the salve that kept our country together. Most people who remember radio remember the comedy shows with much warmth; for it helped us forget what was going on around us and allowed us to laugh at ourselves for just a moment.
But radio provided comedians long before those horrible years. Many former vaudevillians were seeing great opportunities in radio. One problem, however, was what to do with the lack of audience? Radio required projecting a personality through a box and not via a live audience. These former stage comedians based their humor and timing on the response of their audience. Now they could not hear their audience and had to judge how best to deliver their lines. Some succeeded, but others, despite stage and film successes, failed miserably. Vaudevillians like Bert Lahr, Al Jolson and even Jimmy Durante and Weber and Fields never really had successful radio careers, yet enjoyed success in other media.
Early radio comedy was very much like vaudeville. One early success was Billy Jones and Ernie Hare. Their radio careers were built around a sponsor and listeners knew them as The Happiness Boys, then later as The Interwoven Pair. As their sponsorship changed, so too did their name. Their comedy was based upon snappy songs and patter as were the routines of Scrappy Lambert and Billy Hillpot - known on radio as Trade and Mark, the Smith Brothers. Though there is little if any recordings of these types of broadcasts, an example of a Weber and Fields routine [Click] from a record gives an idea as to the banter that occurred between comedy teams of the time. You can also watch a video of one of their vaudeville routines here.
Gradually, comedy routines developed with narratives. The earliest was created by two stage veterans who settled in Chicago and began a series of radio skits for station WGN in 1926. Their radio personas were Sam Smith and Henry Johnson. Their routine was based on Negro dialects, a popular form of comedic delivery at the time, though both comedians were white. While the series never overtly identified their characters as "black," the dialect they used was familiar to the audience having heard it from the blackface minstrel shows popular at the time. The show proved so popular that the two, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, wanted to take it to a national market via syndication. Their plan was to make a series of recordings of the show which would then be distributed to subscribing stations nationwide. WGN was not interested and so the two left in 1928 and moved to WMAQ, where the show was renamed Amos 'n' Andy due to WGN's ownership of the earlier name, Sam n' Henry. By August, 1929, Gosden & Correll's characters were broadcast over the National Broadcasting Corporation network. These early days of their radio program [Click] were so popular that people stopped regular and sometimes important activities to listen.
In the beginning, Gosden & Correll played all of the characters, but gradually other actors were included. The show had lots of wit and provided an affectionate spot among the many loyal listeners. It lasted off and on until 1954.
The Comedy Kings
Comedy continued to become more sophisticated as radio moved into the thirties. It was at the beginning of this decade that two of radio's greatest comedians made their broadcast debuts. Jack Benny and Fred Allen would become friends, but radio would make a great public relations move by publically creating an on-air feud between them. At the same time, according to Michelle Hilmes in her radio book, Radio Voices, Benny and Allen would form a middle ground in radio comedy as their show personnas grew. Hilmes says that early radio personnas such as Samual L. Rothafel from Roxy and His Gang and Wendell Hall from The Eveready Hour appeared as "themselves." Later narrative series such as Fibber McGee & Molly, Myrt & Marge, Lum and Abner and Amos 'n' Andy contained actors portraying characters unlike themselves. Jack Benny would forge a center ground wherein a "a complex and detailed 'life' was built up around Benny and his cast involving not only his professional but his 'personal' life, with cast members going over to his house, go shopping or on trips, taking the show on the road, and getting into various scraps."
Fred Allen would first be heard on radio on November 30, 1930. Allen would get his first show on The Linit Bath Club Revue starring with his wife, Portland Hoffa, who would share the radio stage with him for the rest of their radio careers. This show and all of Allen's subsequent series [Click] were probably some of the most literate ever on radio. Allen's wit was sharp and he would not tolerate some of the shenanigans by radio executives. One episode in fact got him cut off in mid-show because of his criticism of an earlier cut due to overtime.
Allen continued to prove unflappable in the face of network action. His increasing popularity protected him though he continued to find censorship throughout his career.
Allen's on-air nemesis was Jack Benny. Benny's radio career got its boost when he got his own show [Click] in 1932 appearing with Ethel Shutta and her husband, bandleader, George Olsen on The Canada Dry Program. The Chase and Sanborn Hour with Eddie Cantor had proved with a 28.9 Hooperrating that what listeners wanted was variety/comedy. Benny's first show was in this format. It was not broadcast in front of an audience and sometimes sounded flat with Benny delivering short gag lines between numbers and guests. Like other vaudeville comedians, he was his best when he could hear the laughs.
Benny rose to popularity quickly moving into the top ten in 1933 and to sixth place by 1934. His style was to give the laughs to others and react to their humorous situations making himself look like the fool. The comedian soon included his wife, Sadie Marks Benny, who was known on stage as (and later changed her name to) Mary Livingstone. Gradually, like Fred Allen, he added other radio actors who provided excellent characterizations of their own. Unlike Allen, Benny's career into film and television continued very successfully. Allen's intelligent sarcasm of the broadcast medium prevented his ever moving to higher success.
A Haven for Comedy Teams
Early radio seemed to be a haven for comedy teams. Though there were individual comedians beginning to make their mark, the thirties continued to provide successful comedy teams. One team that was destined for radio, film and television stardom was Burns and Allen [Click]. George Burns met Gracie Allen in 1922 and established a vaudeville act with Gracie as "straight man." Several years later, they realized that it was Gracie who got the laughs, so the concept was reversed. Gracie continued to develop the dizzy dame character while George took on the straight role, reacting to Gracie's mis-adventures. Their early radio appearances were on Eddie Cantor's and Rudy Vallee's shows. In 1932 they signed on to CBS with their own show. George always said it was Gracie who made the act.
Another couple who began in vaudeville but moved to radio was Jim and Marian Jordan. After touring the country in vaudeville, they auditioned for station WIBO in Chicago and were immediately hired as the O Henry Twins. From there they moved to WENR to become the Air Scouts, where Molly began to develop the little-girl voice that would become Teeny. Still later, they met Don Quinn who created a program of comedy and tall tales for them called Smackout (as grocers they were always "smack out of everything). The show was immediately successful in the Chicago area. Two of the characters the series introduced were Fibber McGee and his wife Molly. The Johnson's Wax people heard the show and decided to pick it up for national broadcast with some changes. The show was re-titled Fibber McGee and Molly [Click] and more situations were created around the characters with other actors involved. The show used a novel approach to advertising by including them right into the events.
While Fibber McGee and Molly used vaudevillian techniques in their program, it was a spin off from that series that took situation comedy to new heights. The Great Gildersleeve was about real three dimensional characters who were involved in realistic situations. Not only did we know the main character of Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, we because very acquainted with lesser characters such as Leila Ransome and members of the Jolly Boys Club. Where Fibber was more of a cartoon, Gildersleeve was the real thing. Gildersleeve was romantic at heart as in this clip [Click].
Radio was the catalyst of imagination. One could do literally anything through this medium. By leaving the imagination to the listener, radio became a realm of possibilities. It was in this environment that the unthinkable occurred. An unlikely comedy team found success in the medium yet one member was not even human. That team was Bergen and McCarthy. Charlie McCarthy was a mere dummy of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Yet despite both voices being performed by Bergen, the concept clicked and the team became immensely popular. In the minds and ears of the listeners, Charlie was real. Getting their start at the invitation of Rudy Vallee, the act appeared on The Royal Gelatin Hour and were immediately a hit. Chase and Sanborn decided to include them in a show that was being formed called aptly, The Chase and Sanborn Hour [Click]. Hosted by Don Ameche, the show soon became Bergen and McCarthy's. One show became controversial when Mae West was on as a guest. The dialogue between her and the dummy Charlie went beyond mere comedy and many were upset.
As radio evolved, so too did its programs. With each new show, there were newer levels of sophistication. Comedy was like that too. Gradually, it was moving away from the vaudeville routines (though that still remained a popular type) and more into episodes with comedic storylines.
Probably one of the wittiest comedies to appear on radio was slotted into the soap opera period of early afternoon. The show was Vic and Sade [Click] written by the talented Paul Rhymer. The show revolved around the Gook family and their encounters and reactions to various people and situations. There were a limited number of characters, but the brilliant writing of Rhymer gave us very visible illustrations of many other characters. The boy Rush had a number of friends, none of whom we met, but about whom we knew a lot. One could see Bluetooth Johnson and Smelly Clark. We also knew a lot about Sade's friend Ruthie Stembottom or Vic's lodge buddies such as H.K. Fleeber or Hank Gutstop. The series had a large audience and continued to be popular until Rhymer decided he could no longer go on creating new situations for the characters. He simply was burned out.
The forties brought even more sophisticated comedy routines. But despite the changes, many of the old-style vaudeville routines were still very popular. Many comedy shows included a variety of musical material. Never one to see you cry, the Ink-a-dink man, Jimmy Durante, with his raspy voice comedy opened his current program with a song. Familiar to radio audiences since 1933, by the forties Durante could be heard with a young straight man, Garry Moore, who would go on to have a strong career in television. The Durante/Moore show was called The Camel Comedy Caravan [Click] and revived the drooping career of Durante and boosted the young Moore. The show moved quickly into the top five by 1943. Starting as a quick replacement on March 24, 1943 for the Abbott and Costello show when Lou Costello was forced off with a resurgence of rheumatic fever, it was an instant success with Durante steering and his "junior" partner, Moore, helping to push. Eventually, the show began its decline after Moore left and ended when Durante moved his career to the upstart television.
Comedy was an integral part of the life of radio and without its heartwarming humor and ability to bring out-loud laughter into our homes, radio would have died much sooner. It got us through the depression and the war years. But it could not have done it without the treasure that were our comedians.