The Emergence Of Radio Comedy—The Thirties

Comedy had always been a part of commercial radio. In the 1920s several dramatic programs such as The Smith Family with Jim and Marian Jordan, and The Rise of the Goldbergs (later called The Goldbergs) were meant to be humorous. Musical patter teams like Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, who changed their name to fit their sponsor (at different times in their radio careers appearing as The Happiness Boys for a candy maker, The Interwoven Pair for a sock company, The Best Foods Boys for a food company, and The Taystee Loafers for a bread maker) successfully melded jokes and novelty songs into their act. The Eveready Hour, the popular variety program which debuted in late 1923 and lasted until 1930, often featured comedians like Will Rogers, Irvin S. Cobb, Walter C. Kelly, George Moran and Charlie Mack (the Two Black Crows), and Eddie Cantor.

In its inaugural broadcast in August 1926, moreover, NBC recognized the importance of radio comedy when, along with operatic singers and renowned musicians, it spotlighted the popular comedians Will Rogers and Joe Weber and Lew Fields. Yet, not until the overwhelming popularity of the blackface humor of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll did producers fully comprehend the appeal possessed by broadcast humor.

In the tradition of minstrel shows, Gosden and Correll developed two black characters, Sam and Henry, who became favorites of Chicago listeners in the mid-1920s. When in 1928 they changed radio stations and were unable to retain their original name, the pair appeared on WMAQ as Amos Jones and Andy Brown, proprietors of the Fresh Air Taxi Company and the central characters of Amos 'n' Andy. In varied formats, the program would remain on the air until 1960. Amos 'n' Andy did for radio what Milton Berle and his Texaco Star Theater did for television two decades later: it captured the fancy of the nation and turned a popular medium into a mass medium.

By 1930, there were Amos 'n' Andy toys, candy bars, comic strips, and phonograph records. The sales of radio sets jumped from $650.5 million in 1928, to $842.5 million in 1929 (the year their WMAQ program was nationally aired by NBC). Six times a week their fifteen-minute serialized program engaged the national consciousness. Switchboards slowed to inactivity as few phone calls were placed; department stores piped in the broadcast so shoppers need not go home; and factories closed early to allow employees to listen. In early 1931 a telephone survey by the Cooperative Analysis of Broadcasting gave Amos 'n' Andy an incredible rating of 53.4 percent of those listening.

If the success of Amos 'n' Andy, illustrated the appeal of comedy programming, other social and economic developments help account for the rise of broadcast comedians in the early 1930s. The onset of the Depression, with its distressing unemployment, long breadlines, and generalized dispiritedness created a social atmosphere in which humor was most appreciated. Throughout the period letters and articles in fan magazines attest to the fact the listeners found comedy of great assistance in fighting personal despair. Although comedians generally avoided dealing directly with economic realities, jokes about the Depression were well-received by studio audiences, and Andy Brown's frequent reference to "de repression" soon became a light-hearted national phrase.

The collapse of vaudeville was also a fortuitous event for radio comedy. An article in Variety estimated that about three hundred vaudevillians had quit in 1929, and several hundred left in the first four months of the following year, all convinced "that the future has little in store for them." Where vaudeville entertainers had been reluctant to abandon the stage and enter radio before the 1930s, the collapse of their industry created a pool of underemployed talent from which radio producers could draw in developing new programs. Vaudeville was also an excellent training ground for nationally-oriented radio. Circuit-travelling comics had to develop a style of humor that was acceptable to all types of audiences. Although they made concessions in their acts to local idiosyncrasies, these stage comedians had to please customers from New York City to San Diego with the same type of humor. Drawn as they were from every social class and all backgrounds, vaudeville customers were also less sophisticated than concert or Broadway audiences. The comedians who pleased the diverse patrons of vaudeville, therefore, possessed excellent backgrounds in entertaining exactly what radio was developing—a mass national audience.

Important also to broadcast comedy was that by 1931 all existing forms of radio programming had seemingly reached their peaks and network broadcasting began to suffer a drastic decline in listeners. In 1930, for example, 74 percent of all set owners utilized their receivers on an average weekday. By August 1933, that figure had fallen more than one-quarter to 54.5 percent. This development was, in the words of a contemporary report, "clearly the lowest ebb in listening that radio has ever experienced."20 It was, therefore, in an atmosphere of collapse within the industry that sponsors and advertising agencies sought innovative and attractive programs. The man who most influenced this search was Eddie Cantor.

Vaudevillian, musical-comedy star, motion-picture personality, and recording artist, Cantor came to radio with his celebrity status already established. His program for Chase and Sanborn coffee premiered in September 1931, and within a few broadcasts was well on its way to national popularity. In less than a year, his was the most popular program on radio, and by January 1933, his C.A.B. rating was 58.4. Cantor revolutionized radio comedy. He abandoned the serialized, homey humor of Amos 'n' Andy and utilized the fast-paced gag style made popular in vaudeville. Where earlier comedians had broadcast from quiet studios or were otherwise sealed off from studio audiences, Cantor opened his programs to the public. He thrived on this live audience, convinced that laughter was infectious and that if he made the studio audience laugh, he was obviously making listeners at home laugh.

That Eddie Cantor influenced the future of radio was clearly demonstrated the next year as producers found in similar vaudeville comedians the personalities they needed to revive radio. That year marked the debut for such comedy programs as those of Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Ed Wynn, Jack Pearl, Joe Penner, Fred Allen, and the Marx Brothers. With this inundation of funny men and women, the domination of radio by the comedians had begun.

The gag became the staple of comedy when the former vaudeville entertainers entered broadcasting. On stage, comedians found great acceptance of these short jokes—jokes that ranged from crisp one-liners to curt comedic jabs occurring within a story or skit. Gags could be intricate jokes or simple puns, but invariably they suggested incongruities which took listeners by surprise and prompted laughter. Indicative of gag humor is the following exchange which occurred on The Joe Penner Show in late 1937.

Waiter: (Laughs)
Penner: Why, Dr. Ludwig. What are you laughing at?
Waiter: The soup.
Penner: The soup isn't funny.
Waiter: Wait 'til you taste it. (Laughs)
Penner: Say, I thought you were a doctor. Where did you learn to be a waiter?
Waiter: In my waiting room. Get it? (Laughs)
1st Guest: Waiter, take this back. I thought I told you to serve alphabet soup.
Waiter: I didn't want you to read at the table.
Penner: And another thing, waiter, there's a splinter in my cottage cheese.
Waiter: What did you want, the whole cottage?
2nd Guest: What is this terrible stuff on my plate?
3rd Guest: It's so tough, I can't chew it.
Penner: Waiter, I must say, this is not very good goulash.
Waiter: I can't understand it. I used a pair of your best goulashes.

Most celebrated early comedians specialized in this type of unsophisticated humor. Ed Wynn was reputed to have a repertoire of more than twenty thousand such jokes. Jack Benny, later known as a subtle wit, on his earliest programs in 1932 still followed his introduction as "our effervescent comedian" (he was sponsored by Canada Dry ginger ale) with the comment, "Effervescent for me, we would have a nice program tonight." Four years later, Benny was still punfully deferring to his sponsor with his opening greeting, "Jell-O, everybody!" Utilizing his German dialect, the popular Jack Pearl found an abundance of puns in mispronouncing and incorrectly defining English words. Further, it was with unmistakable pride that David Freedman, the writer of Eddie Cantor's material, told a fan magazine in 1933 that his most successful gag occurred when Cantor, in a deep Russian accent, gave this interview:

Girl: I'd like to interview you, Mr. Rubinoff. Ali, what a beautiful name. Is Rubinoff your real name?
Cantor: No, my real name is Quinn.
Girl: Quinn? Q-UI-I-N-N?
Cantor: No, no, Quinn. C-O-H-E-N. Co-Win!

Throughout the decade American listeners remained loyal to the pun. Comedy programs continually dominated the top fifteen shows in the ratings, and scholarship at that time revealed that about forty percent of the humor in a typical comedy program consisted of puns. Perhaps the most intense example of this simple style of humor occurred on January 17, 1938, on The George, Burns and Gracie Allen Show when for almost six consecutive minutes the famous comedy team, plus their regulars Tony Martin, Ray Noble and John Conte, made puns with the names of cities in a skit Gracie called, "The Fantasy of the Cities." The following excerpt presents an extreme expression of this comedic style. Significantly, that month the series was ranked fifth in the nation, with a strong Hooper rating of 27.5. It is safe to conclude that the pun was still a form of humor appreciated by most American listeners.

Gracie: You see, I tell the story by using the names of cities and towns.... Now, for instance, Tony Martin is a Richmond who's been Macon a lot of money in Georgia, but he needs a few more Dallas to pay his Texas. Get it?
George: Well, that's not Hartford me to understand.
Gracie: Oh, you're catching on.
Tony: Now, Gracie, if this is a musical number, do I play the part of a singer?
Gracie: Well, no, Tony. You've got a little Quincy in Detroit. So you can't Sing-Sing.
George: He can't Sing-Sing. Well, Walla Walla, that's very good.
Gracie: Very good? As Al Jolson would say, New Haven heard nothin' yet.
George: I guess not.
John: Am I in this musical number, Gracie--The Fantasy of the Cities?
Gracie: Well, I should say you are, Johnny, you're the little Boise that I'm in love with.
George: But maybe Johnny doesn't love you.
John: Oh, that's alright, George. I'm glad to Yuma her.
Gracie: You see, George, Johnny's on my side—you spoke Tucson.
George: But Gracie, I'm a very out-Spokane man.
Gracie: Well, anyway, the scene Ipswiches now to a town in Montana. But I can't mention the name of it.
George: Why not?
Gracie: Well, George, you're not allowed to say Helena radio.
George: Well, that was really a Butte.
Gracie: It's very funny Anaconda I made it up myself. George: Oh, yes, Anaconda you made it up right out of your own Marblehead.
Ray: I say, Gracie, am I in this Fantasy of the Cities? Gracie: Certainly.
Ray: Well, do I play another murder victim?
Gracie: Well, yes, Ray. And your name is Valley.
Ray: Rudy Vallee?
Gracie: No, Death Valley. And you're from Texas.
George: Well, maybe Ray can't play a dead body from Texas.
Gracie: Of Corsicana.
George: Well, Ray, you can Troy.

With the ascendency of broadcast humor, gag writers became a critical factor in radio production. Unlike stage performances where a comic could use the same routine throughout his tour, once a program was aired its material could not be broadcast again. With no such institution as the rerun or a rebroadcast at a later date, radio devoured jokes at a tremendous rate. Comedians were, understandably, heavily dependent upon their writers to furnish new and better jokes for each program. The toll could be heavy on the radio comic who lacked able writers. In 1934, Variety reported that several name comedians had already exhausted the material it had taken them up to twenty years to accumulate.

Ed Wynn suffered from this problem. During the early 1930s, his Fire Chief Show enjoyed outstanding popularity. Wynn, however, relied on his own gags and wrote most of his own scripts. During a thirty-minute broadcast he often delivered as many as fifty-five jokes. His series lasted for three years, until in 1935 he altered his rapid-fire gag style for the more leisurely mode of the Gulliver the Traveler program. Without the verve or dynamism of his original program, the new series marked the beginning of Wynn's demise in radio. Despite two other short-lived programs, The Perfect Fool in 1937, and the fantasy-comedy, Happy Island in 1944, plus an abortive attempt in 1947 to team with his son, Keenan, in The Wynn Show, Ed Wynn never regained the popularity his clowning style and material had achieved earlier. In fact, in 1945 Wynn angrily summarized his plight when he announced he was finished with radio since "Radio has changed with these [present-day] gag writers."

The most prolific and controversial writer during the 1930s was David Freedman. He began writing comedy in 1931 when he composed gags for Eddie Cantor, and for three successful years he was the principal source of Cantor's material. Before his untimely death in December 1936—at the age of thirty-nine—Freedman had also written radio scripts for such comedians as Ken Murray, Block and Sully (Jesse Block and Eve Sully), and the Greek-accented George Givot. Freedman was an indefatigable gagster who was highly paid for his services. At a time when an ordinary dramatic script could be purchased for $15 to $75, he was receiving almost $750 for each Cantor program, and $500 for The Chesterfield Program for which he wrote the comedic lines for dialectician Lou Holtz. At the time of his death, Freedman was involved in a controversial legal suit against Cantor, wherein he claimed the comedian failed to honor a contract signed in 1929 which guaranteed him ten percent of all Cantor's earnings.

Many of the successful gag writers in this period had come to radio after writing careers in vaudeville. Gagsters like Eugene Conrad, who in 1933 wrote for Burns and Allen, Block and Sully, and Milton Berle; J. P. Medbury, who wrote the early scripts for Burns and Allen; Harry Conn, who produced jokes for Jack Benny, Joe Penner, and Eddie Cantor; and Billy Wells, who developed and wrote for Jack Pearl's character Baron Munchausen; all had experience composing for vaudeville comedians. Nonetheless, the radio medium was different. Freedman admitted that it was more difficult writing for radio than for the stage. "On the stage, if the material is funny," he told an interviewer, "audiences can be made to laugh at any sort of low character, grotesque or buffoon. You can't push such a character on the radio, however," he continued, "because a radio character is a guest in the home. And people don't want to receive 'muggs' into their homes."

Gag writers often utilized elaborate cross-indexed filing systems in which they placed their jokes. Culling material from publications, experiences, other media, and other comedians, the authors arranged the jokes in such a way that if a situation involved an automobile, they could look under "automobile" in their personal files and produce several appropriate gags. The Hal Horn company in New York City was reputed to have about five million jokes arranged in this manner, with three hundred variations filed under "Who was that lady I saw you with?"

This system of arranging jokes was originated by Ralph Spense, a comedy writer for silent movies whose comic titles helped many films to success. As a device in radio production, it allowed a writer to draw from used material, switch details of a basic joke to fit the context for which he was writing, and produce a new variation on a successful gag. This permitted writers to last for years in a business which demanded fresh jokes weekly. It also prompted criticism of comedy authors for lacking imagination and talent. The prolific David Freedman answered such complaints in a letter to the editor of a fan magazine in 1935. Never denying that writers added variations to used jokes, he maintained:

The futility of trying to create new jokes for radio and stage becomes more apparent with each succeeding broadcast and appearance of the famed comedians. Accusations of plagiarism are flung at the latter—and the men who write them—without restraint; often at the hint of an old wheeze, dressed up in modern clothes. I ... have been criticized with others. That there really is nothing new under the sun, as the Bible states, is further evidenced by the fact that Mark Twain once dedicated a book "to Mr. Smith, wherever he is found," and it develops that an earlier humorist, Artemus Ward, prefaced a book with a similar inscription. Lincoln has been credited with the expressive phrase, "Of the people, by the people, and for the people," yet Theodore Parker, in a recorded address before the Anti-Slavery Society, May 13, 1854, used the same phrase. What's the answer?'

As it emerged and flourished in the 1930s, radio comedy established patterns that would endure beyond the decade. The utilization of a comic foil—often called a "stooge"—by the star comedian was a lasting development in this formative period. Comedians discovered early that it was difficult to entertain a mass audience with only a comic monologue. For the sake of variety as well as inventiveness, stooges appeared on almost all comedy programs in the first years of the decade. In some cases they operated as the butt of the jokes told by the star; but in many instances, the stooges actually delivered punch lines or operated as "straight men" setting up the funnier stars. Several comics utilized their wives as stooges. Gracie Allen, Irene Noblette, Portland Hoffa, and Mary Livingston, for example, played the role for their respective husbands, George Burns, Tim Ryan, Fred Allen, and Jack Benny.

Stooges occasionally possessed thick foreign accents, such as Cantor's Mad Russian, Cantor's and Al Jolson's Parkyakarkas, and Phil Baker's English butler, Bottle (Harry McNaughton). In several programs even the announcer became integrally involved in the comedians' joking, as did Graham McNamee with Ed Wynn, Jimmy Wallington and Harry von Zell with Eddie Cantor, and Don Wilson with Jack Benny.

The appearance of the stooge allowed for dialogue that was more interesting to an audience. The repartee and unexpected twists in conversation often precipitated the funniest moments of the programs. Further, the stooge allowed the comedian to delineate better his own personality. In reacting to the words or antics of his foil, the principal comedian juxtaposed his own fictional characteristics, thereby making them a familiar part of his program. Without the skeptical Mary Livingston or the openly-doubting Rochester, Benny's stinginess would not have been as humorous. The fictional stupidity of Gracie Allen added charm and understanding to the low-key sobriety of George Burns' character. And the thick dialects of Cantor's stooges made his radio personality seem even more enthusiastic and believable.

Also important to the pacing of most comedy series in the 1930s were the various musical interludes provided by a resident orchestra and vocalist. The music clearly divided each show into segments allowing writers to develop a single, episodic story or a series of unrelated skits. The music also added variety to the broadcast and associated it with the successful variety-show format of programs like Fleischmann's The Rudy Vallee Show, the Maxwell House Show Boat, and The Collier’s Hour.

Further, many significant orchestra leaders played behind the radio comedians. In the 1933-1934 season, for example, Ferde Grofe provided music for Fred Allen's Sal Hepatica Revue; Guy Lombardo appeared with Burns and Allen; Ozzie Nelson and his orchestra backed The Joe Penner Show; Paul Whiteman appeared with Al Jolson on The Kraft Music Hall; and Mildred Bailey and her orchestra provided rhythm for The George Jessel Show. In several cases these orchestra leaders also acted as stooges. In all instances, however, a break for a musical selection from the band, or a solo from singers like Tony Martin (The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show), Deanna Durbin (The Eddie Cantor Show) , Gene Austin (The Joe Penner Show) or Frank Parker and Dennis Day (The Jack Benny Program) lightened the comedic format and allowed listeners a pause between the humorous segments of the broadcast. Typical of this merger of comedy and music was the pattern on Fred Allen's Linit Bath Club Revue as aired on December 25, 1932:

    I. Announcer opens program
    II. Orchestra plays full song
    III. Monologue by Allen—into first scene of skit
    IV. Vocal solo by Charles Carlisle
    V. Second scene in skit—Portland Hoffa enters
    VI. First commercial
    VII. Musical interlude
    VIII. Third scene of skit
    IX. Orchestra and vocalist—portions of two songs
    X. Second commercial
    XI. Closing comments from Allen.

Comedians learned early that their humor was most successful when put into skit form. In 1932, Jack Benny introduced the feature of satirizing current motion pictures, a format he used throughout his radio and television career. By the middle of the decade, Benny's weekly program—like those of several other gag comedians—was being written around a single theme or humorous situation in which he and his supporting characters found themselves. Eddie Cantor, too, understood the necessity of introducing situational contexts in which humor could be developed. Although he had begun in radio as strictly a gag comedian, within a few years he was openly advising his colleagues to abandon the puns of vaudeville and to develop a more mature form of comedy. "So comedians have either got to stop gagging or get off the air," he told an interviewer in 1934. "People won't stand for the old stuff any longer," according to Cantor. Of the older comedic form, he contended:

I'd like to get away from gags altogether. What gags I do use are only for insurance. Situations are a gamble. You can't tell how they are going to hit people. Gags are the sure-fire laughs. Then why get away from gags? Because the public is sick of them. They know all the answers. What's the use of kidding ourselves? We've all got the same little books, you know—"Fun in a Smoking Car" or "Minstrel Wit and Humor." We rewrite the old jokes, dress 'em up, and call 'em new gags. But you can't fool the public. They're the same old friends with their whiskers trimmed.... I've said: Boys, if you'll throw those little books away, you'll be better off. Stick to those gags long enough and they'll strangle you. Better give 'em up.

One of the more popular comedy teams to develop an innovative style was Stoopnagle and Budd. Called "The Gloom Chasers" when they emerged on CBS in 1931 as a comedy-patter act, Colonel Lemuel Q. Stoopnagle (F. Chase Taylor) and Budd (Wilbur Budd Hulick) developed a zany, conversational type of humor which was most effective when presented in short, individual skits. The two comedians provided the voices for most of the odd characters who appeared on their show, and their skits remained short and simple pieces which relied upon absurdity, satire, mimicry, and puns.

Typical of their format, in March 1935, they enacted such humorous vignettes as a sale pitch for a "patented both-sides-wrong bed" which guaranteed the purchaser that "you cannot jump out of bed with a smile, but instead you leap from the couch with a grouch"; an interview with Cornelius Updrum, a man who always held his hands behind his back because he carried the front end of a bass drum in a marching band; and a short skit featuring Stoopnagle as Adelbrit Gladpebble, "a dealer in bricks and mortar," who hired Budd as a replacement for a work horse. When these jokesters dissolved their act in 1937, their uniquely absurd style of comedy left radio. Not until the appearance of Bob and Ray (Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding) in the late 1940s would it re-emerge.

Features such as stooges, musical interludes, and situational skits added variety to comedy programming. They also offset the overexposure that might result from a comedian simply airing joke after joke. All the great radio comics avoided prolonged periods which they operated alone. Even later masters of one-line gags, like Red Skelton and Bob Hope, maintained a monologue for only several minutes before introducing an assistant, guest, or musical diversion. The lengthy comedic monologue, however, was not totally absent from broadcasting. It was a pattern best developed by a group of intellectual humorists who came to radio not from vaudeville, but from successful careers in literature and journalism.

At various times throughout the 1930s, radio comedy was enhanced by programs from such individuals as Irvin S. Cobb, Alexander Woollcott, Will Rogers, James Thurber, Arthur "Bugs" Baer, and Heywood Hale Broun. None of the latter three was particularly outstanding. Thurber on CBS in mid-1934, Baer over WOR (New York City) in mid-1936, and Broun in 1931 on WCAU (Philadelphia) and again in 1937 discovered that in radio delivery was as important as composition. Their respective series lasted no more than a few months.

More successful, however, was Irvin S. Cobb. The noted writer appeared as the host of several important network series, including The Good Gulf Show during the 1933-1934 season, and Plantation Party in the 1936-1937 season. Here, as a "Kentucky Colonel," he was most effective as master of ceremonies and raconteur of stories depicting the character and style of Southerners. Despite Cobb's popularity, the humorous monologue received its most developed and applauded realization in the programs of Alexander Woollcott and Will Rogers.

A renowned critic, author, and wit, Woollcott was the host—and often the only performer—of The Town Crier, a literate series in which he presented dramatic and literary reviews, personal reflections, essays, interviews, music, and humor—all interpreted through a personality that was engagingly rich in charm. And Woollcott needed that charm, for, as one admiring critic termed it, he possessed “just about the worst voice that ever poured itself into an offended microphone.” Woollcott's program began in 1933, and with sponsors that ranged from Cream of Wheat breakfast cereal to Granger Pipe Tobacco, it remained intermittently on radio until the early 1940s. His was a subtle and intellectual type of humor that, perhaps, escaped listeners more attuned to the broad jokes of the popular comedians. Typical of Woollcott's style was his nostalgic description of the German Kaiser on the eve of the Great War. As broadcast on October 6, 1933, Woollcott mused:

In Berlin the Kaiser sits on this throne, his gleaming sword in its case, his beard as yet unsprung. It is his proud boast that he has kept the peace of Europe for five and twenty years—he and he alone. And even as he says so—even as he struts his little stage—there sounds from the wings a sardonic laugh. It's the future giving him what will one day be known as "the raspberry."

In the same broadcast, Woollcott humorously summarized his function as a critic, pointing specifically to the danger inherent in the role.

It has been suggested that at this point each week I should make recommendation of some book, play or picture. Any such commentator as myself is a little like the tasters employed by the Doges in medieval Venice who all lived in daily, and justifiable, fear of being poisoned. Before the soup was served to the great man, it was sampled by the taster. If the taster survived, the Doge began dunking with a relish. If the taster died in agony, the soup was thrown out, fresh soup was ordered, and—considerably annoyed—the Doge had to send around for a new taster. Well, as taster-at-large to the American public, I hereby report that I have just enjoyed, without deleterious after-effects, a new book from England called Brazilian Adventure.

If Woollcott was literate and urbane, Will Rogers was unpretentious and rural in his radio personality. Born in Oklahoma and a successful writer and movie and stage comedian before he came to broadcasting, Rogers was as much a folk philosopher as he was an entertainer. He had appeared on radio throughout the second half of the 1920s, but did not have his own regular program until early 1930. From that date until his death in an airplane accident in 1935, Rogers acted on the air as the court jester and critical wit of the nation. Throughout his career he had joked about politics, and network apprehension about political humor did not thwart him.

Rogers gathered his own material for each program and worked without a script. Network censors, therefore, found it impossible to preview his comments, and sponsors refused to censor his material. His barbs could be strong. In his broadcast over CBS on November 11, 1934, Rogers satirized the defeat of the Republican Party in congressional elections several days earlier: "All that was mortal of the Republican Party had left this earth.... He passed away just because he wanted to live like a pioneer. He couldn't change with modern civilization." Rogers pounded his point home as he remarked, "and on his tombstone it says: ‘Here lies a rugged individual, but he wasn't rugged enough to compete with the Democrats.’"

Rogers had satirized Presidents since the administration of Woodrow Wilson, and on radio he continued that tradition. Although he was especially fond of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he found FDR and his New Deal a vulnerable, but respected, target. Typical of his style was The Good Gulf Show broadcast of April 30, 1933. Here, Rogers referred to Roosevelt as a political magician, "a Houdini of Hyde Park," and noted innocently, "They started the inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, and before it got halfway down there he closed every bank in the United States." But this program also revealed the seriousness of Rogers' humor, for beneath the joking he was a Democrat and an optimist about Roosevelt's ability to lead America out of the Depression.

Now, I understand Mr. Roosevelt—somebody told me—was listenin' in. Now, Mr. Roosevelt, we've turned everything over to you. We've given you more power than we've ever given any man—any man was ever given in the history of the world. We don't know what it's all about. We've tried to run the country individually and collectively and along a democratic line. But, hey, we've gummed it up so. So, you take it and run it if you want to, you know, and deflate, or inflate, or complicate, you know. Or insulate—do anything just so you git us a dollar or two every now and again, you know. So, you're our lawyer. And we're gonna turn the whole thing over to—things are movin' so fast in this country now that we don't know what it's all about. The whole country's cockeyed anyhow. And we're disappointin' you. And you take it—we don't know what it's all about, but God bless you.

The demands of broadcasting exerted a maturing effect upon American comedy. Faced by competition for listeners, and compelled to create new programs each week, the comedians and their writers created by the 1940s a higher standard of popular humor. No longer could comedians hope to survive on the tricks developed in vaudeville. Burlesque characters, silly sounds, absurd lines, and an abundance of puns had sustained pioneers like Jack Pearl, Joe Penner, Ed Wynn, and Phil Baker. These devices also appeared in series with slapstick comedians like Wheeler and Woolsey (Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey) and Olsen and Johnson (Ole Olsen and Chick Johnson). By the 1940s, however, such entertainers had faded in significance and their places were being taken by the more adaptable of the early comedians, and by a "second generation" of comics who brought new ideas and new personalities to American broadcasting.

"Old timers" like Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, and Fred Allen survived this winnowing-out process, principally because their concept of radio comedy was sound, and their writers were talented. Benny knew, for example, that the excessive utilization of a supporting character or popular cliché would eventually turn audience interest into apathy. Throughout the 1930s, he carefully introduced new regular characters like Eddie "Rochester" Anderson in 1937, and singers Kenny Baker in 1935 and Dennis Day in 1939; and he made intermittent use of subsidiary actors like Andy Devine, Sam Hearn, Mel Blanc, Sheldon Leonard, Frank Nelson, and Ronald and Benita Colman. Similarly, on his program, Eddie Cantor introduced as regulars singers and comedians like Deanna Durbin, Bobby Breen, Harry Einstein, Hattie Noel, and Dinah Shore. Throughout the period Fred Allen also moved characters in and out of "Allen's Alley" and developed such new features as The Mighty Allen Art Players, Won Long Pan—his take-off on the Oriental detective, Charlie Chan—and his weekly joking about the news, the News of the Day Newsreel.

In this vein, one of the more popular gimmicks to emerge was the "feud" between Benny and Allen. Supposed disputes between personalities were not new to radio with these comedians. In the early 1930s a "grudge" had developed between the popular bandleader and comic, Ben Bernie, and the sharp-tongued commentator, Walter Winchell. On their respective programs each belittled the other while listeners laughed understandingly. The imbroglio between Benny and Allen began accidentally on Town Hall Tonight on December 30, 1936, when Allen ad libbed a quip about Benny's inability to play the violin. Jack Benny countered on his next broadcast, and the feud was on. Actually, the battle was made possible in October 1935, when Allen and his sponsor (Bristol Myers) became clients of Young & Rubicam, the advertising agency which represented Benny and his sponsor (General Foods). While each had different sponsors, sharing a common agency kept the feud fully under control and, therefore, not commercially unprofitable for either side.

The battle came to a climax in March 1937, when the two comedians staged a mock fist-fight during a broadcast of The Jack Benny Program. The two "fought it out" off-mike in an alley. There was no winner, and they returned arm-in-arm, "bruised" but reminiscing about the good old days. Despite the apparent reconciliation, the feud was a popular comedic device and it continued sporadically until Fred Allen retired from his comedy program in 1949.

Radio comedy matured by the early 1940s because of the relatively sophisticated and realistic material upon which it came to rely. Characterization within a program was made fuller as writers developed personalities with whom audiences could identify. Instead of the vaudeville style of humor—with its obvious jokes and unbelievable settings—comedy was more cleverly integrated into the characters appearing on the program. Jack Benny, whose show eventually ceased being a comedy-variety series and was written as a situation comedy, well understood this important improvement in broadcast humor. Writing in 1945, he explained how he and his cast fit into this new maturity.

We feel that, to a certain extent, we represent the audience. In us, they see themselves. It would be foolish for us to knock each other around, because then we would be knocking the audience around ... and when you start doing that—well your sponsor had better be your own brother-in-law. However, one of America's greatest characteristics is our ability to laugh at ourselves. When the audience sees themselves through us, they get a special kick out of the jokes that seem to fit them personally.... Throughout, we try to have things happen to us which will be interesting and also, above all, funny. That's why so many of our routines and gags come from what we see around us. . . .

Topping" a joke—creating a string of secondary, but funnier, jokes based upon an original gag, and, thereby, propelling an audience to greater and greater laughter—was not new to the 1940s, but as Benny explained, the process was now more sophisticated and more cleverly related to the well-known traits of the program characters. As an example, he cited the following dialogue between Rochester and Mary Livingston:

Mary: You say you just got into town, Rochester. What took you so long ... was the train late
Mary: You mean you hitchhiked? Why? Rochester: Well, instead of a train ticket, Mr. Benny gave me a road map.
Mary: Oh.
Rochester: And a short talk on the generosity of the American tourist.
Mary: You mean that's all Mr. Benny gave you?
Rochester: No ... he also gave me a white glove for night operations.

skillfully capitalized upon personal qualities known to listeners—Benny's stinginess, Rochester's racial heritage, and Mary's compassion for people exploited by Benny.

It was important to the continued popularity of radio comedy that as the vaudevillians faded in popularity, fresh, young talents emerged to replace them. Bob Hope had developed his comedic skill early on such obscure variety programs as The Intimate Revue in 1935, Atlantic Family in 1935, and Rippling Rhythm Revue in 1936. Specializing in a staccato stream of one-line and two-line barbs (by 1947 his show was delivering eighty-five gag lines per half-hour broadcast) , Hope blended this approach with an attitude of apparent nonchalance to create a captivating comedic personality.

When he first appeared on his own show for Pepsodent toothpaste in September 1938, the reviewer for Variety well understood that Hope's snappy pace was something new and engaging, for he predicted great success for the new personality: “That small speck going over the centre field fence is the four-bagger Bob Hope whammed out on his first time at bat for Pepsodent.... He sounded like success all the way.... Let him show over a period of time that he can duplicate, and the other comics will be lending a jealous ear.”

Rivaling Hope in terms of pace and vitality was Red Skelton. Skelton came to radio in 1939 after a stage career primarily involving pantomime comedy. Yet, patterning his delivery and his penchant for laughing at his own jokes after Ed Wynn, Skelton by the early 1940s became one of the top comedians in radio. Especially effective were the characters he created. The "mean widdle kid" was a rambunctious and scheming brat with whom listeners could not help but be enraptured. In Clem Kadiddlehopper, an addlebrained singing cab driver, listeners encountered a lovable, if doltish, image of ignorant humanity. And in Deadeye, the boisterous and braggart "fastest-gun in the West," Skelton mimicked the streak of self-importance in most people.

In the slapstick comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, American listeners found the tradition of vaudeville comedy enlivened by an energetic and disciplined patter style. Emerging from small-time burlesque, Abbott and Costello entered radio through their appearances on The Kate Smith Show, an hour-long variety program which, thanks in no small part to the comedy team, by the late 1930s had replaced The Rudy Vallee Show as the most popular variety program in radio. In 1942, the comedy team was starred in the popular Abbott and Costello Show. Abbott's character was that of the level-headed straight man.

Prone to chastising his partner, and always ready to let him suffer the consequences, Abbott's dour personality contrasted effectively with that of Lou Costello. Costello was the comedic force of the act. It was his vulnerable personality—so prone to innocent errors, so gullible around charlatans, and so inhibited in the company of women—that was the most attractive aspect of the team. Audiences accepted the loud screams and inane puns of Abbott and Costello; and they marveled at their well-timed and thoroughly-rehearsed verbal routines, like the famous "Who's on first?" conversation; but it was the human fallibility of Costello that made the pair one of the leading radio comedy acts throughout the 1940s.

The most consistently successful of the new generation of talents was Edgar Bergen. While Bergen was a ventriloquist with a modest personality, his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, more than balanced the traits of his operator. Charlie was a blend of rascality, irreverence, and brashness. He flirted with attractive guests and quarreled pointedly with W. C. Fields. Charlie said the things most people thought, but would dare not utter. Bergen and McCarthy emerged from obscurity in 1936 when, after seeing them at a party, Rudy Vallee suggested they guest on his program.

It was Bergen's talent, of course, that produced the banter between himself and the puppet, but it was Charlie's bold personality that made the act a hit. After many guest appearances with Vallee, The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show premiered on NBC in 1937. For the next fifteen years the program never fell below number seven in the annual ratings. In fact, in the years 1937¬1940 and 1942-1943, Bergen's show was the top-rated program in radio. Although Bergen later developed other puppet characters—the dull-witted Mortimer Snerd, the husband-hunting old maid, Effie Klinker, and the unmemorable Podine Puffington—none ever rivaled Charlie McCarthy for the affection of audiences.

With the appearance of these new comedians, a second generation of radio comics had emerged. By 1940, Al Jolson was fifty-five years of age, Ed Wynn was fifty-four, Eddie Cantor forty-eight, and Jack Benny and Fred Allen were forty-six. In comparison, Bob Hope and Edgar Bergen were thirty-seven years of age, Lou Costello was thirty-two, and Red Skelton twenty-seven. Most of the new comedians had had stage backgrounds, but none was as tied to the traditions of vaudeville as the pioneers of the early 1930s. By the time this second generation entered broadcasting, the capabilities of radio as an entertainment medium were more fully understood. Less attached to the past, the new comics were able to adapt their material to fit these modern dimensions. Therefore, as radio entered the 1940s, broadcast comedy did so with an infusion of young and agile talent. Yet, the most significant comedic development of the 1940s was not its gag comics. Instead, the most important growth in radio humor in that decade was the flowering of situation comedy as the most prevalent type of humor on the air.

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