The Great Escape—The Story Of Radio Comedy

If one conclusion can be drawn from the history of popular entertainment, it is that Americans like to laugh. It was the work of clowns like Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops who produced mass acceptance of motion pictures. The most compelling dimension of vaudeville was its comedians. When comedy was blended with popular music, it created the immensely popular idiom, musical comedy. Radio, too, owed much of its success to the men and women who made listeners laugh. Although radio had developed impressive musical, dramatic, and news programming by the 1930s, it did not experience its greatest acceptance until comedians—from minstrelsy, vaudeville, burlesque, and musical comedy—flooded broadcasting in the Depression years. Ironically, in the 1950s when television displaced radio as the prime entertainment medium in American homes, it was principally because comedians, many of whom had joined radio in the Great Depression, shifted to video and developed large and loyal followings.

Comedy was the most consistently popular type of programming in radio. While the bulk of broadcasting time was filled with music, those shows highest in the ratings were usually comedies. And while it thrived, radio comedy engrained itself in the lives of Americans as no other aspect of the popular arts. More than the sex symbols and great dramatic talents of the movies, more also than the dynamic musical stars of Broadway and the recording industry, the comedians of the air communicated most effectively with mass society. During the economic dislocation of the early 1930s, the most acclaimed "gloom chasers" were radio personalities such as Ed Wynn, Jack Pearl, and Amos 'n' Andy who regularly brought laughter and light-heartedness to millions. The best received entertainers of U. S. troops during World War II were comedians like Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and Jack Benny who travelled throughout the world to visit and amuse the G.I.'s.

When it came to raising money for wartime bond drives, the most successful salesmen were entertainers like Eddie Cantor, whose comedic reputation made the seriousness of his sales pitch all the more striking. The persuasiveness of radio comics was also evidenced in the various charitable causes which aligned themselves with comedy spokesmen, such as Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, and Danny Thomas, for their fund-raising efforts gained lucrative popular support from Americans. Enjoying a following that extended from national fan clubs with hundreds of local branches to the Presidents of the United States, broadcast comedians functioned as national jesters. As such, they occupied a niche within society that was both substantial and crucial.

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