The Nature Of Radio Comedy

The basis for the popularity of comedy on the air was twofold: the result of the exciting and humorous personalities of the comedians, and the therapeutic attractiveness of laughter. The radio clowns were above all distinctive characters who developed a rapport with their audiences, and each broadcast attempted to renew that relationship. Although they had read and rehearsed their scripts thoroughly, each week the comedians exhibited spontaneity, wit, warmth, and a sense of commonness with the audience as they sought to make listeners laugh.

Many accomplished this with funny sayings or sounds which the audience came to expect within each program. Joe Penner in the mid-1930s became associated with his absurd phrases "Wanna buy a duck?" and "You nasty man!" With Ed Wynn, the high-pitched "So-o-o" that he warbled between jokes may have sounded more like a turkey call than a human expression, but it helped fashion an aural personality that endeared him to Americans for years. And Jack Pearl's mendacious Germanic character, Baron Munchausen, invariably drew laughter when, after reciting an obvious lie, he asked of his doubting partner, "Vass you dere, Sharlie?" Pearl described the importance of such clichés when he told a fan magazine in 1934,

I'll stick to that German dialect role. It's my trademark, just like Ed Wynn's "so-o-o," or Joe Penner's duck. We spent years building those things up, just as a manufacturer builds up his business trademark. We'd be crazy to let 'em go.... What does it matter as long as they're laughing? I get letters from people who say that I've made them forget the depression for a while, that I've made them laugh. That's what I've tried to do all my life—what I want to do—just make people laugh.

Familiar comedic themes frequently were situations or characteristics with which the star of the show found himself involved weekly. Fred Allen's stroll down "Allen's Alley" on Town Hall Tonight and later The Fred Allen Show allowed him to meet various recurring characters with whom he engaged in humorous banter. Jack Benny possessed several recurring gags—his noisy subterranean vault where he stingily secreted his money, the loud 1924 Maxwell automobile in which he was still chauffeured, and his grating inability to play the violin—that appeared for more than two decades on his popular program. On Fibber McGee and Molly, comedians Jim and Marian Jordan had many zany characters who visited their residence located at 79 Wistful Vista, as well as a memorable sound effect, a stuffed closet that loudly unloaded its contents whenever Fibber forgot and opened it. Throughout the 1940s, moreover, physical attributes, such as the shapes of the noses of Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante, the plumpness and baldness of Bing Crosby, and the skinniness of Frank Sinatra, always prompted approving laughter.

The popular radio comedians did not flourish, however, because of any gimmick or complicated secret. They achieved their preeminence because they had good material, they knew how to tell a joke, and above all, they were funny individuals. As early as 1930 it was clear to a writer in Variety that simplicity was the essence of successful radio comedy. According to him, great care had to be taken to avoid patterns of verbal stage humor such as crossfire, wisecracking, double entendres, complicated gags, pantomime, and mugging. A simple, common audience responded best to simple comedic material. "Radio's axiom for comedians is," he wrote, "be simple and be funny or be fancy and lousy."

In this same vein, John V. Reber, a vice-president with the influential J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, remarked in 1933 that radio was a completely ruthless medium which could expose those who were not basically humorous. "Just trying to be funny doesn't go," he stated, for the "comedian has to think and live his humor, or the great listening audience detects the shallowness of his humorous veneer."

Jack Benny, the most popular comedian in the history of radio, well understood the necessity of being funny and uncomplicated. He summarized his feelings in 1934 when he told an interviewer:

No one should ever try to be funny ... because when your audience knows you are trying, and sees you working for a laugh, they're all tired out with your efforts by the time you come to it. For that reason, we try to make our show as off-hand, as natural, as easy as possible. Our motto is: Be nonchalant!

As well as personality, radio comedy prospered because Americans wanted, even needed, to laugh. In the world of increasing stress and complexity that has characterized the United States in the twentieth century, humor exercises a cathartic, healthful value as it has allowed harried people for a short while to laugh away personal tensions. In general, radio enjoyed its greatest popularity during a time of unprecedented uncertainty within the nation. Wars, economic collapse, urbanization, increased competitiveness, technological displacement, dramatically-increased population, and religious reevaluation—these were all significant forces at work in America during the Golden Age of radio. Within such an environment, listeners made comedians the most acclaimed entertainers in broadcasting.

Comedy programs were aired usually in the evening hours, thereby appealing to those trying to relax after a day of labor or coping with reality. People tuned in to be amused, to be swept away in laughter, and in the process to find their existences a little more tolerable. And comedy shows were popular. A survey in 1946 revealed that such programs were the most popular form of entertainment programming in radio, as fifty-nine percent of the respondents cited comedy as their preferred evening diversion.

Significantly, this type of programming had a statistically lower appeal to farmers and residents of rural communities, suggesting perhaps the salutary importance of such shows in the more aggressive urban contexts Milton Berle best stated the necessity of radio comedy for American audiences when in 1940 he wrote:

There's an ever growing need for radio comedy broadcasts. This world of ours is a sanguinary place. There are always wars between nations and between individuals. People for the most part are serious minded, always worrying about something or other. How to make an adequate living, how to win the girl, how to enjoy life. Therefore, I believe that our minds should be completely at ease when we go out to have a good time, or stay home to listen to a radio programs.

Radio produced a style of humor that was designed for an undifferentiated mass audience. For the most part, it avoided topical material—intellectual comedy based upon current events and political personalities—and it especially eschewed that caustic political satire which came to typify much of American humor in later decades. Instead, radio comedy turned inward, poking fun at the comedian and/or his assistants. In this manner, it found laughter in everyone.

Such comedy deflated the ego and good-naturedly exposed the futility and the stupidity of taking oneself too seriously. Lest the task of struggling to survive in mass society become too prepossessing, there were clowns like Red Skelton and his characters Clem Kadiddlehopper and Willy Lump-Lump to parody the mannerisms of the "average" man. Lest marriage, home, and family become overly demanding, George Burns and Gracie Allen were there to spoof these important institutions. And lest the work-a-day world become too discouraging, there were the humorous likes of Irma Peterson, the screwball secretary on My Friend Irma; Chester A. Riley, the well-intentioned but awkward factory worker on The Life of Riley; and Lum Edwards and Abner Peabody, the implacable general store operators on Lum and Abner. Through the characterizations and activities of such comedic types, listeners were not only entertained, but they were subtly dissuaded against the pomposity and arrogance that could develop within a society of would-be achievers.

Another characteristic of radio comedy was its penchant for humorously breaking social conventions. To an audience of "average" listeners, earning "average" salaries, and possessing an "average" share of powerlessness within mass society, it was often refreshing to assail in jokes the pretention, wealth, and influence of social leaders. No comedian better exploited this impulse than Fred Allen.

Allen's humor contained a relatively high degree of sophistication that made him somewhat ahead of his time. For eighteen radio seasons his programs featured various personality types within society. Senator Bloat and Senator Beauregard Claghorn were windy parodies of American governmental leaders. Bloat was always discussing legislation he was introducing in Congress. These "Bloat Bills" promised everything from settlement of the national debt to bifocal lenses for old people with short arms who were unable to put on regular glasses. Claghorn was a loud and loquacious windbag who was so Southern in his allegiances that he would never see a baseball game in Yankee Stadium—in fact, never see a game unless a "southpaw" was pitching.

Allen enjoyed caricaturing poets. Falstaff Openshaw was an aspiring poet who once explained his talent by saying, "I can't help rhymin'—it comes to me natural, like commutin' to a Babbitt." Humphrey Titter specialized in unusual greeting cards and jingles, and Thorndyke Swinburne was described as "the poet laureate of the Boston Post Road." Allen even dared to satirize the social activity of the "average man" through his character, John Doe. Doe was an angry, argumentative citizen whom Allen explained as "incensed about forces and people who were hampering his survival."

Few subjects escaped the scrutiny of radio humor. As a democratic form of comedy, it refused to recognize most areas of sacrosanct tradition and leveled its sights on a broad range of topics. In the late 1940s Henry Morgan was especially incisive in his parodies of great occurrences in history, current events, social conventions, and American perceptions of foreigners. On The Milton Berle Showvduring the 1947-1948 season, Berle dedicated each program to a particular institution, comically "saluting" such topics as health, Christmas, women, literature, public service, and communications. Edgar Bergen used his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd to flirt with glamorous female movie stars who were his frequent guests. Such a format not only produced a popular program, but parodied the unrequited flirtations that millions of Americans had with Hollywood personalities.

The innocence of children was satirized in Red Skelton's impish character Junior, "the mean widdle kid;” in Sis, the rude little girl who lived next door to Fibber McGee and Molly; in Tommy Riggs' own vocal creation, the mischievous seven-year-old, Betty Lou; and especially in Baby Snooks, the peevish brat introduced by Fannie Brice in 1936 on the Ziegfeld Follies of the Air, and as a continuous character in various series for fifteen years. Even the image of bandleaders was humorously tarnished by the characterization of Phil Harris on The Jack Benny Program as a liquor-loving, woman-chasing hedonist.

The enduring popularity of comedy on the air indicates that audiences approved this type of self-defacing humor. According to Constance Rourke in her critical study of American humor, "American audiences enjoyed their own deflation; they liked the boldness of attack, the undisguised ridicule." As early as 1919, the noted Scottish comedian, Sir Harry Lauder, also understood the comedic psyche of the American democracy when he wrote that, "They've a verra keen sense o' the ridiculous and they're as fond of a joke that's turned against themselves as of one they play upon another pairson."

Radio comedy was a reflection of the democratic society it entertained. Like that society, it was thematically and stylistically concerned with a civilization of common people—drawn from all religious and ethnic backgrounds—struggling to govern themselves while attaining material and emotional satisfaction. As such, this comedy embodied the heritage and reality, the goals and the pretensions, of a pluralistic society living in a relatively classless environment.

One of the most controversial areas in which radio found rich comedic material was in its caricature of ethnic minorities. A staple of stage comedy of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, racial comedy abounded in radio and was generally well-received. Some of the most important series in radio history, in fact, exploited ethnic humor. Amos 'n' Andy controversial, but for almost thirty years it featured two white men playing the minstrel show stereotypes of African-American life. Their success in the 1930s, moreover, encouraged a rash of minstrel-show imitators with names like George and Rufus, Honeyboy and Sassafras, Pick and Pat, and Watermelon and Cantaloupe. The Goldbergs was a Jewish replica of Amos 'n' Andy. Although it was sympathetically written by its star, Gertrude Berg, this serialized story of Molly, Jake, Rosalie, and Sammy Goldberg—and of their star border, Uncle David—filled the air intermittently for twenty years with heavy accents and Yiddish phraseology.

Other network series which stressed ethnic stereotypes included Frank Watanabe and Honorable Archie which became a coast-to-coast program in 1930 and for three seasons dealt with a Caucasian American and his Japanese houseboy, and Life with Luigi, which from 1949 until 1953 centered on the tribulations of Luigi Bosco, an Italian immigrant coping with life in the United States. Baron Munchausen first appeared in 1932, and as late as 1953 Jack Pearl was using his thick Germanic accent in a summer series, The Baron and the Bee. Duffy's Tavern, which ran from 1941 until 1951, was not only set in a pub, but many of its characters—the oafish Clifton Finnegan, the thickly-accented policeman, Clancy—also filled out classic Irish stereotypes. In 1941, NBC aired two for the price of one when in Abie's Irish Rose it capitalized upon the hit Broadway play about a Jewish young man, his Irish wife, and the comedic conflict that arose from merging these stereotypes.

As well as programs with a fully ethnic setting, racial humor was often found in secondary characters on many of the major comedy series. Eddie Cantor featured Bert Gordon as "The Mad Russian.” Harry Einstein played Parkyakarkas, a Greek comedic figure, and Alan Reed provided the thick Russian voice for Cantor's violinist, David Rubinoff. In the 1930s Al Pearce, on Al Pearce and His Gang, spotlighted Yogi Yorgesson, a Swedish character; Lily, an African-American maid; and Mr. Kissel, a Jew. Black characters appeared regularly on The Jack Benny Program where Eddie Anderson played Rochester, the valet; on The Red Skelton Show where Wonderful Smith portrayed himself. The Eddie Cantor Show, Fibber McGee and Molly, and The Great Gildersleeve featured the black housemaids Hattie Noel, Beulah, and Birdie Lee Coggins, respectively. Dialectician Sam Hearn created a Jewish character, Mr. Schlepperman, who in the mid-1930s was a regular on The Jack Benny Program. Strong Irish stereotypes were found in Ajax Cassidy on The Fred Allen Show, and in the nosy landlady, Mrs. O'Reilly, on My Friend Irma. And several programs spotlighted more than one ethnic type. The popular Judy Canova Show throughout the 1940s had Geranium, a black maid played by Ruby Dandridge, and Pablo, a Mexican stereotype created by Mel Blanc. And in the mid-1940s Steve Allen starred in Smile Time, an afternoon comedy series on which he portrayed a feisty Irish landlady, a dim-witted Mexican handyman, and a lazy black janitor.

Stereotypic ethnic comedy was not without its critics. Since the early 1930s various black organizations lobbied against the minstrel images perpetuated by programs like Amos 'n' Andy. The rise of the racist Nazi doctrine and the growing potential for war made radio producers increasingly sensitive to racial and religious jokes by the end of the 1930s. Variety reported in 1939 that scripts were being altered and that what was once called ethnic humor was now being termed intolerance. According to that trade journal, "The growth of intolerance has forcibly reflected itself in racial or dialectic humor. Certain races now heatedly resent having themselves kidded or joked about on the air, even if the kidding or story telling is done by a member of the race involved.”

The experience of World War II only increased the pressure against racial humor. The following Yiddish-accented characterization might have gone unnoticed ten years earlier, but after it was broadcast on The Abbott and Costello Show in April 1945, it was called disparaging, and a racial stereotype, and was reported to have "created some unfavorable comment in the trade.”

Jewish Characterization(with accent): Good evening, gentlemen. I'm front the Friendly Credit Company. My name is Auck—Tommy Auck.
Costello:I think before I spoke to your brother—Mohawk.
J.C.: But of course, I think so too. Now, Mr. Costello. My company makes a practice of examining all applicants for loans; a mere formality, if I am not too inquisitive. We have absolute faith and confidence in your honor.
Costello: See that, Abbott? They trust me.
J.C.: Now, Mr. Costello, please be so kind and place your fingerprints on this pad. I'll check with Washington later after we take a sample of your blood.
Costello: You're gonna take my blood?
J.C.: Oh, just a couple of quarts. We return it after the loan is paid up.

Related to ethnic humor was "hillbilly" comedy which also maintained its popularity on radio. In vaudeville it had been termed "Ruben" or "Rube" humor as it ridiculed rural stereotyped characters—typically named Rube—for their awkwardness and generally uncouth manners. Beginning in the mid-1930s Bob Burns portrayed "the Arkansas Traveler," a rural and Southern characterization, who perpetuated the clichés of this comedy. For over a decade Burns would chide his listeners, for instance, for believing that hogs were lazy, reminding them, "I'd like to see any of you people lay around in the mud and come up with forty pounds of bacon." In an authentic Arkansas accent, Burns related anecdotes about his family and friends, such as the time they sprayed the alfalfa with Uncle Slugg's corn liquor and the next day found Slugg grazing with the cattle.

Sometimes radio portrayed these "hicks" within their own environment. The central characters on Lum and Abner, for example, ran the Jot 'em Down Store in Pine Ridge, Arkansas. For twenty-four years their serialized program blended folksy wisdom and country-bumpkin comedy as they encountered a range of stereotyped rural characters and ill-fated schemes.

Rube comedy was also the essence of The Judy Canova Show. Here, however, the heroine was situated in the big city, having migrated to Hollywood from a hillbilly hamlet called Cactus Junction. The quaintness of her country personality was demonstrated weekly in comments such as, "When I found out we are what we eat, I stopped eatin' pig cracklin's and sow belly," or by her admission that she learned to rhumba by driving a tractor with a loose seat. In her new and awkward urban environment, moreover, Canova's observations were always colored by her Rube background. Thus, she might conclude that, when drinking tea, city people extended their little finger as a place to hang the wet teabag.

Despite protests, radio and the listening public never abandoned their taste for ethnic humor. Certainly, the war made writers and sponsors more sensitive to social realities, and the more pejorative dimensions of such comedy faded. Nonetheless, American audiences continued to encounter traditional stereotyped personalities. It was not until the late 1940s that programs like Life with Luigi and My Friend Irma appeared with their respective Italian and Irish characterizations. Although the producers of Beulah finally selected a black woman instead of a white man to portray the stereotyped black maid, the appearance in that role of Hattie McDaniel in 1947—and Louise Beavers and Lillian Randolph in the 1950s—did not alter the minstrel model upon which the show was based.

Not all comedians were oblivious, however, to the negative thrust of their humor. In 1932, the popular bandleader and funnyman, Ben Bernie, noted that he omitted from his gags all references to nationality, politics, religion, and public officials of any nation. According to Bernie, "It's too risky; it isn't kind, not even for a laugh.”

Comedy on radio was necessarily limited in its methods of expression. Because it lacked the visual dimension of theater or motion pictures, humor demanding sight was impossible. Much of the slapstick movie tradition of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, or the Three Stooges pies in the face, pratfalls, and high-speed chases were understandably incompatible with broadcasting. Although a few comedians in the early 1930s, like Ed Wynn with his funny hats and garish clothing, and Eddie Cantor with his off-mike physical antics, played to the studio audience in visual as well as aural terms, most preferred to rely upon good scripts, vocal inflection, and timing.

Radio comedy also demanded speedy delivery. While the leisurely pace of W. C. Fields was acceptable in a screen comedy, in broadcasting it was too slow to sustain listeners over a lengthy period. An audience needed little time to absorb the images created by the comedian's words. Slack in setting up this imagery and delivering the punch lines undermined the relationship between listener and performer. The following study during the 1946-1947 radio season clearly illustrates that the most popular comedy programs were those with a rapid pace in setting up the audience for laughs.

2 Bob Hope Show 10 seconds
6 Red Skelton Show 11 seconds
1 Jack Benny Program 13 seconds
3 Bergen-McCarthy Show 14 seconds
12 Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show 15 seconds
8 Amos ‘n’ Andy 16 seconds
-- Burns and Allen 16 seconds
-- Joan Davis Show 17 seconds
5 Fibber McGee and Molly 19.8 seconds

Radio was, therefore, an unproductive medium for many of the more famous comedians from the movies. Fields never had his own series and had to confine himself to guest appearance in the late 1930s on programs like Your Hit Parade and The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show. None of the clowns from silent films succeeded in broadcasting, the only notable contribution coming from Harold Lloyd, who in the fall of 1943 hosted and starred in a short-lived series, the Old Gold cigarettes Comedy Theater.

The Marx Brothers had an ambivalent career in radio. Their series in 1932 lasted only one season. Individually, moreover, they had only mixed success. Harpo, the silent character, was totally incongruous with a vocal medium and was confined to honking a horn, chasing blondes, or playing his harp. Chico sounded stiff and studied over a microphone. He appeared irregularly on musical programs, usually as a pianist or guest bandleader, rather than the Italian caricature he perfected in films. As late as 1952, he produced an unsuccessful pilot program, The Little Matchmaker, in which he played Chico Revelli, a marriage broker. By this time, however, his ethnic characterization was at best stale, and the show never became a series.

Only Groucho, after years of experimentation, found popularity in radio. As demonstrated during the 1943-1944 season in his series, Blue Ribbon Town, Groucho's wisecracking style often sounded caustic rather than funny. But when he switched his format and became in 1947 the punning, ad-libbing host of the quiz program, You Bet Your Life, Groucho hit upon the formula that kept him on radio until 1959 and on television from 1951 to 1961.

Still another force which shape radio comedy was censorship. Comedians always had to be concerned about censors with their blue pencils deleting objectionable material. Whether it emanated from network vice-presidents, advertising agencies, or sponsors, this interference in the content of programming helped account for the general, noncontroversial nature of broadcast humor. The theory behind such censorship maintained that since a program entered a listener's home without his foreknowledge of its content, it must contain nothing that might insult his personal attitudes. Unlike a motion picture or a book where published reviews and public opinion often informed potential consumers of the content, radio had no such warning system and therefore had to avoid matters over which disagreement might exist.

Included in the list of tabooed items, as summarized in 1939 in the code of program policies adopted by NBC, were offensive references to physical afflictions and diseases, unpleasant smells or odors, laxatives or bodily functions, the Deity, profanity, and race or religion. The censors even looked askance at comedic reference to various parts of the human body, radio and its types of programs (especially soap operas), and regional sensitivities.

Oversights in perusing scripts, or an ad lib by a comedian during the live broadcast, often caused consternation in a network. No comedian upset his network more than Fred Allen. Whether it was a controversial spontaneous remark during his show, or a fierce defense of his autonomy in preparing his scripts, Allen tested the tolerance of radio officials. Typical of the heated reaction incurred by Allen was the incident on his broadcast of May 8, 1935, when, to the reply of an amateur performer that her last name was Lee, Allen remarked, "You don't happen to be any relation to the Lee of ‘I Surrender, Dear' fame?" Variety reported that in anger, "Southern listeners complained that the remark was a grave offense to the name of a great Southern general, statesman, scholar and gentleman, and that if radio comics had to do any insulting, they could pick on folks from up north.”

During the 1946-1947 season Allen's censorship argument with NBC reached its peak, as the comedian integrated into his script disparaging quips about network executives. He told his audience during a pre-broadcast warm-up in November 1946, that he considered broadcasting vice-presidents to be "fungi growth on the desks of conference rooms." Through the person of Clarence Menser, Vice-President for Programming, the network insisted that it would not allow demeaning wisecracks about NBC management.

Matters climaxed during Allen's program of April 20, 1947, when he was cut off the air for thirty seconds because he refused to delete an unflattering joke about the network. Despite their concern over such matters as those raised by Fred Allen, censors were most concerned over two areas of potential humor: sex and politics.

Although no written code spelled out the specifics, there was a general understanding within the broadcast industry that sex appeal would not be used to sell a program. Attractive men and women certainly appeared on radio, and reference was usually made to their beauty; but sexual innuendo was avoided, and explicitness was prohibited. American radio was prudish, and its rigidity was not confined to comedy programming. When General Hugh S. Johnson, retired from the military and from the Roosevelt administration, wanted to devote his weekly commentary to the subject of venereal disease in November 1937, NBC forbid the broadcast. NBC frequently banned from the air popular songs it felt deemed too politically controversial. In 1933 it proscribed "Please, Mr. President," which it thought disrespectful to the Chief Executive. In 1940 it nixed several war-related recordings, including "Blackout; Hold Me Tight," and bandleader Jimmy Lunceford's "Belgium Stomp." For its part, CBS also censored popular music. With the United States tenuously clinging to its neutrality in 1940, that network banned all war-related songs. When CBS did lift its ban, it first allowed only songs from World War I.

Keeping in mind this tradition of conservatism, it is easy to understand the uproar created by the appearance on December 12, 1937, of actress Mae West on The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show. Long a symbol of bawdy sensuality West brought with her a well-nurtured reputation as a temptress and libertine. Her enactment with actor Don Ameche of a comedy skit about Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden was suited to her popular image. The nine-minute episode, written by Arch Oboler, not only infringed upon the religious beliefs of many listeners, but West's love-groans and promiscuity in interpreting Eve's seduction of Adam definitely overstepped radio's sexual boundaries.

After unsuccessfully cajoling Adam to "take me outta this dismal dump and give me a chance to develop my personality," Eve tricked him into eating the forbidden fruit and being "dispossessed." In this way she declared herself to be "the first woman to have her own way, and a snake'll take the rap for it." The skit ended with one final transgression of the religious and sexual taboos of broadcasting:

    Adam: Eve, it's as if I see you for the first time. You're beautiful.
    Eve: Mmm. And you fascinate me.
    Adam: Your eyes!
    Eve: Ahhh. Tell me more.
    Adam: Your, your lips. Come closer. I wanna hold you closer. I wanna...
    Eve: You wanna what?
    (Sound of two loud kisses followed by trumpets and thunder.)
    Adam: Eve, wha’, what was that?
    Eve: That was the original kiss!

Uproar over the broadcast was startling. Religious organizations, especially the Roman Catholic Church, attacked it as immoral and sacrilegious. They threatened a boycott of the sponsor, Chase and Sanborn coffee, and urged the Catholic League of Decency to expand its Index to include radio as well as film and literature. The Federal Communications Commission investigated the incident, and NBC reacted by banning Mae West's name from any of its future broadcasts. West, herself, was absent from radio for the next thirty-seven years.

Radio avoided political humor as much as it shunned sexual material. The fear here, of course, was of offending the FCC (which issued and renewed broadcasting licenses) as well as insulting listeners' political feelings. Will Rogers was the only humorist to escape such censorship, this because his reputation as a good-natured political critic had been accepted by Americans long before he came to broadcasting. Yet, in a period so heavily involved with fascism, Communism, depression, threats of war, and war, it was difficult for comedians and their writers to avoid exploiting the world predicament.

In March 1937, Variety published a list of topical matters that comedy programs were compelled to avoid. These included any type of joke involving President Roosevelt, the Supreme Court, Congress, or specific parties involved in labor strikes. Censorship was also exerted to prevent any interpretative or opinionated gags about Hitler, Mussolini, General Franco and the Spanish Civil War, or the courtship of the American divorcee, Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson, by the heir to the British throne, Edward, Prince of Wales.

Despite network policy, political jests were occasionally integrated into comedy shows. They were, however, hardly critical of any government or its activities. The Depression was consistently made the butt of jokes by Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, and Amos 'n' Andy. Fred Allen's broadcast on Christmas night in 1932 ended with the quip that "No matter what other nations reject their war debts, America certainly got even with turkey today." Ed Wynn worked Mussolini into a joke on his broadcast on April 16, 1935. According to Wynn, a woman reading the newspaper remarked to her husband, "It says here Mussolini is going to give a radio to every man the day he gets married." The man replied, "That's silly, why would a man want to get two loudspeakers at once?" Gracie Allen in 1940 took matters one step further when she followed a tradition set earlier by Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers and conducted a gag Presidential campaign. Her pseudo-campaign was complete with a "Gracie Allen for President Convention" held in Omaha, May 15-18.

American isolationist policy in the interwar period occasionally tempted comedians. When Eddie Cantor appeared on The Rudy Vallee Show on April 23, 1936, he performed a strongly isolationist song, "If They Feel Like a War, Let Them Keep It Over There," in which, to the applause of the audience, he sang:

If they feel like a war, on some foreign shore,
Let them keep it over there.
If the fools wanna fight, and think might makes right,
Let them keep it over there.
From coast to coast you'll hear a million doughboys cheer,
Our job is to protect our loved ones over here.
With an ocean between, let us keep our hands clean,
Let them keep it over there.

[Copyright © 1935 Renewed by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., Inc. Used by Permission]

In the immediate aftermath of the Munich Conference in the fall of 1938, Al Jolson and Parkyakarkas insensitively punned about slicing up the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia by the Germans. When Parkyakarkas announced that he was going to sue several Ohio cities—Youngstown, Cleveland, and Toledo—for refusing to cash his check, Jolson asked why not Dayton too. Parky replied, "You can't sue Dayton, no checks there." On October 11, 1939, Al Pearce's Milquetoast character, Elmer Blunt, jested about American policy on armaments now that war had broken out in Europe. Attempting to sell corsets door-to-door, Blunt showed one lady "our no embargo model" which, he explained, "allows for free movement of the arms." Innocently, on October 1, 1940, Fibber McGee ''apologized" for saying "china" when referring to dishes for, as he remarked, "We can't say anything controversial."

During the war years political humor became much more prevalent on radio. Within five weeks of the Pearl Harbor bombing and U.S. entry into the battle, Eddie Cantor set the tone of the new attitude in an open letter to the entertainment world. Cantor suggested that all comedy was now political. "The barrage of laughs that lifts our men, women and children is an important reserve to the barrage of bombs that are hurled forth to meet the enemy," he wrote. "High spirits," Cantor said, "are one of this country's first priorities."

The depiction of America's ethnic minorities as guileful, awkward, or pretentious was a residual of the humor that blossomed in vaudeville and minstrel shows during the time of massive immigration at the turn of the century. Poking ridicule at accents, mannerisms, personality traits, and physical attributes was ultimately the comedy of a race-conscious society that was anything but a melting pot. It was difficult for radio comedians to abandon successful ethnic material. Most comics and writers had begun their careers in vaudeville. Several, such as Eddie Cantor and singer-comedian Al Jolson, had established early reputations as blackface entertainers.

References to the enemy, the draft, the armed services, the President, and to the general commitment now all surfaced in American radio comedy. Comedians like Cantor, Jack Benny, and Bob Hope frequently broadcast directly from military bases, appearing before large and enthusiastic audiences of soldiers and sailors. The radio funnymen also used their programs and their personalities to raise money to sell War Bonds. By early 1942, for example, Fibber McGee had made a national phrase out of his line, "Buy a bond and slap a Jap across the pond." And on January 29, 1944, Eddie Cantor, just two days short of his fifty-second birthday, broadcast for twenty-four consecutive hours over KPO (San Francisco) and sold $37.6 million worth of war bonds.

The comedy program which most consistently dealt with the political issues of the period was Fibber McGee and Molly. Throughout the war years writer Don Quinn integrated into the scripts topical issues, such as women factory workers, war bond rallies, gas rationing, war songs, air raid wardens, and knitting clothes for soldiers. This type of relevant comedy not only boosted national morale, but it often explained governmental goals in understandable and succinct terms. In a sense, the McGees reduced American foreign policy to a few lines in 1942 when Molly asked, "What did the President mean by his speech last night, Fibber?," and Fibber replied, "Hands across the sea, Molly...first arms, then hands across the sea!" Molly concisely explained the governmental decision in early 1942 to stop selling defense stamps and start selling war bonds. To Molly, this simply meant, "We're going to stop defending and start fighting."

The prevalence of political jokes that emerged in radio comedy during World War II insured postwar comedians and writers that the inhibitions about topical humor would never again be as stringent. While many series reverted in the late 1940s to more traditional formats, several significant comedians continued, even into the 1950s, to utilize political humor regularly. This was especially true of comedians such as Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and Henry Morgan. With Morgan, in particular, jokes about political developments and personalities were an indispensable part of his radio style.

While Skelton's character San Fernando Red was a bombastic caricature of unscrupulous politicians, and Hope specialized in good-natured ribbing of politicians and social developments, Henry Morgan demonstrated a blunt style of humor that betrayed a strong element of political liberalism. In his various network programs Morgan was capable of friendly jibes, such as his comment that since Margaret Truman "is now rehearsing and exercising her voice constantly at the White House," he could now predict "that President Truman will be spending more time at his home in Independence, Missouri." He could also make Cold War quips about what American product the Russians would claim next to have invented, or that a good example of a Communist Front was Stalin's stomach.

But Morgan’s acerbic wit was often less generous with other institutions. He assailed banks: "You know, most people think of banks as cold, heartless, large institutions. And they're wrong. There are small ones, too." He derided the postwar housing problem, noting that "America is still true, true to the traditions of its forefathers. When the Puritans landed there were no houses, and we're carrying on that great tradition." Morgan handled congressmen rudely, as he did when he mused over the notion of fining a congressman to insure attendance at meetings: "Do you realize that would keep him on the job all of the time, using every bit of his ability, all his brain power, all his—maybe we'd better leave it the way it is."

Morgan openly displayed his liberal political bias when he poked fun at Eugene Talmadge, the former governor of Georgia, who had been associated with the Ku Klux Klan. In a skit in January 1947, he visited a mythical Southern state, Cornpone, and spoke to a local businessman:

Morgan:Finally, I’ve investigated business conditions. I interviewed a typical Corponian manufacturer who said--
Man: Yes, sir, the new governor is great for my business.
Morgan: Splendid! What is your business, Colonel?
Man: I manufacture bed sheets.

Henry Morgan's most biting comedy skit, a lengthy routine in which he combined his attack on housing problems with a pointed critique of American landlords, illustrates the higher level of artistic tolerance that had developed in network radio. Landlords, a fundamental part of the national economic structure, would never have been so openly rebuked by radio—network, advertising agency, sponsor, station—at any period before the postwar era. The following excerpt from a skit broadcast on March 26, 1947, suggests that although networks did not diminish their concern over sexual material, censorship of political humor had abated.

Cornelius: Hello, Pierpont, evict any tenants today?
Pierpont: No, not in this weather. I’m waiting for a rainstorm
Cornelius: I don't know how you get away with those evictions. Aren't you ever stopped by the OPA? Pierpont: What's that?
Cornelius: That's the outfit that froze all the rents in my building. I got even, though.
Pierpont: How?
Cornelius: This winter I froze all the tenants.
Pierpont: You know, I had trouble with the heat, too. During the coldest part of the winter I had trouble with the furnace. Couldn't use coal.
Cornelius: What did you use?
Pierpont: Nothing. Anyway, that empty furnace came to good use.
Cornelius: How-
Pierpont: I rented it to a veteran...
Cornelius: Tenants! Tenants! There should be a way of getting rents without having any tenants.
Pierpont: Yes.
Cornelius: What do you do when a tenant complains about pipes bursting, and dangerous fire hazards?
Pierpont: Well, in that case there's only one thing to do.
Cornelius: What?
Pierpont: I go to Florida.
Cornelius: You know, I have one tenant who keeps complaining that his roof leaks. What should I do?
Pierpont: Charge him for an extra shower. Say, you know my eight-story house on Sunset Lane?
Cornelius: I thought it was nine stories.
Pierpont: Eight. The roof caved in.
Cornelius: Any people hurt?
Pierpont: No, just tenants.

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