The Situation Comedy—The Forties

In contrast to the variety style of comedy, with its big-name hosts, stooges, guest stars, skits, orchestras, and fast-paced atmosphere, the situation comedy of the 1940s relied more strongly on drama—the sense of story with a definite beginning, development, and ending—and hence produced its humor within a strikingly different context. With the gag comedians, listeners could not mistake the spirit of a stage show which they possessed. The prologue by the star, the banter between him and the guest, the skit or skits, and the closing remarks combined to create a spectacle in which listeners were seemingly placed in the audience of a stage.

Situation comedy, however, swept listeners directly into the narrative. These comedies, especially those set within domestic surroundings, opened within a familiar context and stayed there until the program ended. Even those sitcoms that had orchestral interludes and guest stars remained tied to a single story line from beginning to end. In this manner, listeners were taken directly to 79 Wistful Vista each week on Fibber McGee and Molly, to 1849 Rogers Lane on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, or into Mr. Duffy's bar on Duffy's Tavern. In these familiar surroundings—or in new surroundings made familiar because the regular characters were visiting there—the audience was drawn into an episode in which humor and dramatic narrative were blended.

The situation comedy was not new to the 1940s. It had actually been developed in the late 1920s as a result of the success of such early programs as Amos 'n' Andy and The Goldbergs. Both serialized programs presented recurring characters, functioning in familiar surroundings (Amos and Andy ran the Fresh Air Taxi Company, and the Goldbergs lived in the Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side of New York City) , and into whose lives listeners were able to enter. That this type of program hit a responsive note with Americans is noticeable in the fact that by 1930 Amos 'n' Andy was the top-ranked program in the nation, and The Goldbergs remained intermittently on radio for twenty years.

The development of situation comedy was adversely affected when radio was inundated by vaudevillians in the early 1930s. Used to stage routines and joke-telling, few of these established comedy stars developed successful situation comedies. This is not to say, however, that even at this time sitcoms failed to appear. One of the most appreciated programs in radio, Easy Aces, began in 1930. This serial featured the witty conversations and adventures of Goodman and Jane Ace. Housewife Jane was a master of malapropos whose mispronunciations usually contained poignant double entendres. Her misconstrued phrases—"up at the crank of dawn," "working my head to the bone," and "you've got to take the bitter with the badder"—became nationally recognized bon mots. Husband Goodman not only starred in the series, but for the fifteen years it was on the air, he was its sole writer.

Vic and Sade first appeared in mid-1932. Masterfully written by Paul Rhymer, this daytime blend of soap opera and sitcom focused on the antics of the fictional couple, Vic and Sade Gook, who, with their young son, Rush, lived humorously "in the little house half-way up in the next block," in the epitome of small-town America, "Crooper, Illinois—forty miles from Peoria." Throughout the 1930s audiences found in Vic, Sade, Rush, and their silly friends—Dottie and Chuck Brainfeeble, Smelly Clark, Ruthie Stembottom, Uncle Fletcher, and Rishigan Fishigan from Sishigan, Michigan, a distinctive absurdity which set it apart from most of the humor broadcast at this time.

Another important situation comedy to emerge in the 1930s was Lum and Abner. This series featured the Rube humor of Lum Edwards (Chester Lauck) and Abner Peabody (Norris Goff) , proprietors of the Jot 'Em Down Store in Pine Ridge, Arkansas. The program came to network radio in mid-1931 and for twenty-two years presented a vast range of rural characters and ill-fated schemes. Lauck and Goff provided almost all the voices for the show, from Cedric Weehunt, the local idiot, and Snake Hogan, the village tough-guy, to the money-hungry Squire Skimp, and Grandpappy Spear, the inveterate checkers player. Whether their tribulations concerned such crises as caring for a lost infant, planning a trip to Mars by rocketship, or training the weakling, Mousey Gray, to be a prizefighter, the rustic pair demonstrated the viability of situation comedy.

Despite the chronic popularity of sitcoms, American tastes in humor in the 1930s continued strongly in favor of the comedy-variety mixture associated with the stage comics. A perusal of the C.A.B. ratings for that decade illustrates that while comedy dominated the top-ten rankings each year, until the 1940s the only situation comedy ever so popular was Amos 'n' Andy.

With the decline in popularity suffered by Amos 'n' Andy, the sitcom format did not re-enter radio in any popular fashion until the end of the decade.

(includes average percentage of audience)
March 1930 toMarch 1931 to March 1932 to
February 1931 February 1932 February 1933
1. Amos ‘n’ Andy1. Amos ‘n’ Andy 1. Eddie Cantor
3. Eddie Cantor 2. Amos ‘n’ Andy
(18%) (20%)
4. Ed Wynn (18%)
5. Jack Pearl (17%)
March 1933 to March 1934 to March 1935 to
February 1934 February 1935 February 1936
1. Eddie Cantor 3. Joe Penner 2. Jack Benny
(25%) (19%) (26%)
1. Ed Wynn (25%) 4. Eddie Cantor 5. Fred Allen
5. Jack Pearl (23%) (18%(19%)
7. Amos ‘n’ Andy 4. Ed Wynn (18%) 5. Burns and Allen (19%)
(18%) 6. Jack Benny (17% ) 10. Eddie Cantor
7. Burns and Allen 8. Amos ‘n’ Andy (15%) (15%)
(18%) 8. Fred Allen (15%)
March 1936 to March 1937 to March 1938 to
February 1937 February 1938 February 1939
1. Jack Benny 1. Edgar Bergen 1. Edgar Bergen
(33%) (40%) (42%)
1. Ed Wynn (25%) 2. Jack Benny (36%) 2. Jack Benny
5. Jack Pearl (23%) 5. Eddie Cantor (25%) (36%)
7. Amos ‘n’ Andy 6. Fred Allen (23%) 5. Burns and Allen
(18%) 6. Burns and Allen (23%) (21%)
7. Burns and Allen (18%) 10. Al Jolson (21%) 5. Fred Allen (21%)
March 1939 to
February 1940
1. Edgar Bergen
2. Jack Benny (39%)
4. Fibber McGee (29%)
6. Bob Hope (24%)

Not until the success of Fibber McGee and Molly by 1940 did the situation comedy become a strong alternative style. Jim and Marian Jordan, stars of the program, had had ample training in radio humor before attaining acceptance as Fibber McGee and Molly. In the 1920s they had entertained Chicago audiences with The Smith Family, and in the period 1931-1935 they had appeared in a sitcom, The Smackouts, set in a grocery store that was always "smack out of everything." As the McGees, from 1935 until 1957, they nurtured and refined two characters who comically summarized the conditions of millions of average American families.

The series was well-written by Don Quinn, a former cartoonist who had joined the Jordans in 1931 and remained with them throughout his career. The humor, however, was not particularly innovative. Much of it bore the mark of vaudeville in which the Jordans had worked even before entering broadcasting. There were weekly visits to the McGees' home by such distinctive characters as the self-centered and short-tempered Mayor La Trivia, the puny-voiced Wally Wimple, the bratty little girl next door, and the wheezy and incredulous "Old Timer" whose skeptical retort, "That's pretty good, Johnny, but that ain't the way I heared it," became a standard of the program. The weekly adventures encountered by the McGees were also unspectacular. A typical program might center on Fibber finding a wristwatch, wallpapering the house, suffering a toothache, or planning a vacation.

The strength of the program lay in the two central characters. As it was with second generation comedians like Bob Hope and Edgar Bergen, the key to success with audiences in the 1940s was the development of a fallible, recognizable, sympathetic human character with whom listeners could warmly identify. Fibber McGee and Molly were certainly in this mold. They were familiar people, a blend of rural and urban that was awkward and vulnerable enough to affect the serious emotions as well as the funny bones of Americans. Fibber was boastful, but ultimately inadequate, while Molly was nonplussed by her exaggerating husband and always in control of the situation. If Fibber started bragging about his theatrical background, Molly was there to deflate his ego by reminding him that the only play he ever wrote had been a disaster. If Fibber whined about the blisters he was getting while digging, Molly was there to mother him condescendingly and then command him back to work. Or if Fibber cracked a corny joke and looked for laughing approval, Molly would remind him sourly, "'Tain't funny, McGee." Radio Guide magazine explained the strength of their humor when it described them in 1936 as two of "those Pagliaccis of the air who were trying their darndest to make America forget its troubles."

They were Fibber McGee and Molly, whose homely humor might be that of your old Aunt Harriet in Cherokee or mine in Kalamazoo—whose whole philosophy is as sincere as yours or that of your good, kind neighbor next door. In the beginning there was nothing subtle about the McGee brand of humor. It was as honest as the kitchen sink—as unpretentious as your old bone-handled carving knife—and sometimes it was just as suddenly sharp! In fact, theirs was Main Street entertainment, pure and simple.

Fibber McGee and Molly was not an overnight success. It took Quinn and the Jordans several years to be accepted by an audience used to the comedy and variety mixture offered by big-name stars. In January 1936, for example, their Hooper rating was 6.6 as compared to 26.8 for The Jack Benny Program. Yet, by polishing their style, convincing listeners of the variation possible within sitcoms, and developing recognizable and funny characterizations, within four years their rating had increased to 30.8 compared to Benny's 34.1. By February, 1943, the program set a new C.A.B. rating record of 44.5, the highest rating a half-hour program had ever achieved to that date.

The rise of Fibber McGee and Molly led directly to a revival of situation comedy in radio. Eager to duplicate the popularity and profitability of that series, sitcoms proliferated in broadcasting in the 1940s. One of the principal charms of this type of program was its low cost. Relative to the traditional comedy show with a high-priced star, guests, orchestra, and writers, the sitcoms were economically competitive and often more profitable. A comparison of weekly production costs and Hooper ratings for the top comedy-variety and situation comedy programs in January 1944 reveals that the latter were usually less expensive and cost less per rating point than the celebrity shows.

(January 1944)
Production C.A.B. Cost per
Comedy-Variety Costs Rating Point
Bob Hope $14,750 31.6 $467
Red Skelton $8,000 31.4 $255
Bergen & McCarthy $12,000 29.2 $411
Jack Benny $22,500 27.2 $806
Abbott & Costello $11,000 24.0 $458
Fred Allen $14,000 19.8 $707
Production C.A.B. Cost per
Situation Comedy Costs Rating Point
Fibber McGee & Molly $10,000 31.9 $313
The Aldrich Family $6,500 26.9 $242
Amos ‘n’ Andy $9,000 17.1 $526
Blondie $5,000 16.3 $307
Great Gildersleeve $5,000 16.0 $307
That Brewster Boy $2,700 13.0 $212

Situation comedies of the 1940s usually related familiar occurrences drawn from the realities of domestic life. A typical show might revolve around something as recognizable as repairing a water pipe, purchasing a new hat, or greeting a visiting relative. But whatever the context, the strength of sitcoms was their blending of this credible, if unspectacular, narrative action with plausible comedic development. In reality no one ever produced as much laughter experimenting with a chemistry set as did Phil Harris on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show on November 14, 1948. Yet the humorous incidents that happened in that broadcast—innocently spilling hydrochloric acid on the tablecloth, creating an unknown blue and orange mixture, accidentally dropping the mixture and causing an explosion—were all possible developments and, therefore, hilariously comprehensible to the audience. The jokes and skits heard on the comedy-variety shows in the 1930s ranged from unrealistic spoofs and satirical parodies, to fantasies and absurdities, but the sitcoms of the next decade always possessed an aura of suburban middle-class feasibility.

In terms of format, situation comedies fell into three distinctive types. Programs focused on the adventures occurring to a family residing in its own home, or on a group of recurring but unrelated characters operating a business establishment, or—if the central character was mobile and could usually be found in more than one locale—on a distinctive personality.

The most prevalent format was that which concerned the family. Here the family with few exceptions was Caucasian, middle-class, and living in a single-family home in the suburbs. For the Andersons of Father Knows Best, this meant two proud parents and three energetic children, Betty, Bud, and Kathy, all residing on Maple Street in Springfield, U.S.A. For the Webster family of Those Websters, it entailed mom and pop and two children, Billy and Liz, living at 46 River Road in Spring City. And for the Coopers, Liz and George, who had no children in My Favorite Husband, it meant living in "a little white two-story house" at 321 Bundy Drive in the "bustling little suburb of Sheridan Falls." A twist to the formula was provided by The Great Gildersleeve where "Unk" Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve presided over rearing his niece and nephew, but still in a friendly and predictable neighborhood in the peaceful town of Summerdale. Whatever the composition of the domestic unit, all such programs seemed dedicated to the function asserted in the opening to Those Websters, that this was "our weekly reminder that families are fun."

While most family situation comedies centered on the adult characters, a significant variation on the motif was found in those series spotlighting juveniles. The prototype of these shows was The Aldrich Family, an eminently popular program revolving about Henry Aldrich and his problems with adolescence. Evolving from a Broadway show and several appearances by the play's cast on The Rudy Vallee Show, Henry and his entourage—his parents, sister, girl friend, best friend, and other acquaintances—came to network radio in the summer of 1939. For the next fourteen years their program was among the highest-rated shows on the air. The plots were ordinary, but their themes were teenaged. They dealt with Henry's love problems, his troubles at school, or his failure to communicate with adults. Although aimed at a typical evening audience, a mixture of adults and youngsters, The Aldrich Family was the first radio series to concentrate its attention on teenagers.

Programming for and about children had always been juvenile in orientation. Characters such as Jack Armstrong, Captain Midnight, Uncle Don, and Little Orphan Annie made no claims of appealing to, or reflecting, the sensitive world of the teenager. On the other hand, adult programming in the evening hours usually avoided spotlighting juvenile characterizations unless, like Fanny Brice's Baby Snooks, they were infantile comics. In Henry Aldrich, however, network radio presented in prime time a vigorous and well-intentioned image of the humorously-innocent American adolescent.

The success of The Aldrich Family led to a considerable number of imitations. A Date with Judy, which premiered in 1941, featured in Judy Foster, “a lovable teenage girl who’s close to all our hearts,” a feminine equivalent of Henry Aldrich. Where Henry had Homer as his best friend, Judy had Mitzi; where Henry had a younger sister, Judy had a kid brother; and where Henry's best girl was Kathleen Anderson, Judy's beau was Oogie Pringle.

Also in this format were programs like Meet Corliss Archer, Junior Miss, Maudie's Diary, That Brewster Boy, and The Adventures of Archie Andrews—all of which debuted in the early 1940s. Certainly such series involved the interactions of family members with mundane problems and comic situations, but the emphasis was clearly on the teenager in the house. The weekly opening lines to That Brewster Boy aptly summarized this approach, as they proclaimed:

This is the story of an average American family, the Brewsters. You'll find people like Mom, Dad, Nancy and Joey Brewster in every town in this country of ours. Yes, that's right. You'll even find boys like Joey in every town, because Joey's problems are universal.

All these series probed the laughable consequences of teenage life. Beneath the humor, however, there was a reality which suggested that along with the comedy, there was pain in being an adolescent. Girlfriend and boyfriend problems could be agonizing for Joey Brewster or Corliss Archer; reconciling parental demands with one's own desires was often difficult for Judy Graves of Junior Miss and Maudie Mason of Maudie's Diary; and Archie Andrews encountered humiliation as well as humor when he displayed his awkwardness in adult society. In surfacing such tensions, even in a comedic context, radio pioneered in the commercialization and analysis of teen culture through the mass media. It was a process that television, film, and popular music would develop much more fully in the next two decades.

Radio situation comedies were middle-class morality tales. The American family was portrayed as a vital institution in which love, trust, and self-confidence were best developed. Altercations resulted from misunderstanding or a lack of trust; disruptions in social harmony were short-lived and trivial; personal weaknesses were often the signs of tolerant characters; and love and respect permeated the narrative. A disgruntled Henry Aldrich might scream "Jeepers!" "Yikes!" or "Gee Whiz!" when commanded by his father; yet, ultimately, he followed Pop's advice. Dagwood Bumstead in Blondie might be indecisive and awkward, but he possessed a compassionate personality. Chester A. Riley, the blue-collar hero of The Life of Riley, could exclaim "What a revoltin' development this turned out to be," but listeners knew that the "development" would not destroy Riley's warm family life and sympathetic nature, and that circumstances would not stay "revoltin’" for too long. When Ozzie Nelson was not on speaking terms with his next-door neighbor, it was because of an insignificant misunderstanding that would be happily resolved before the program ended. In this manner, sitcoms provided social lessons. They instructed audiences in the value of friendliness, honesty, respect, tolerance, and other salient attitudes of a middle-class society.

These secular parables proffered models which cleverly combined comedy and social message, an act of camouflage that made the sermonizing more palatable. In the process, they became powerful communicators of the values necessary for the well-being of a civilization of competitive, success-oriented citizens seeking still to maximize harmony and eliminate dissension.

The moralistic dimension of domestic situation comedies was appreciated by religious institutions. In 1947 the International Council of Religious Education polled 90 percent of the Protestant churches in the United States to discover which programs most faithfully portrayed American life. Criteria used in the selection was heavily moralistic, for according to a spokesman, the following standards were applied to each series:

  1. Is the family true to life?
  2. Is the family democratic?
  3. Does the family recognize God in its everyday living?
  4. Is there a high moral tone to the program?
  5. Is the sponsoring commercial in keeping with the best in family life?
  6. (
  7. Is there a high type of humor?
  8. Does the family show an interest in the community, the nation and the world?
  9. Is the home the center of security and strength?
  10. Does the program portray the family as improving?

The list of the top ten programs, in alphabetical order, illustrates that American churches well understood the social and moral values underlying radio sitcoms:

    The Aldrich Family (sitcom)
    Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (sitcom)
    A Date with Judy (sitcom)
    Fibber McGee and Molly (sitcom)
    The Greatest Story Ever Told (religious drama)
    Life Can Be Beautiful (soap opera)
    Ma Perkins (soap opera)
    Mayor of the Town (sitcom/drama)
    One Man's Family (soap opera)
    Pepper Young's Family (soap opera)

Important, though less numerous, were those situation comedies centering on a locale outside the home, or focused on a distinctive character and his or her weekly “adventures.” A business establishment was a favorite site. Duffy's Tavern was set in a pub, and Meet Me at Parky's was located in a restaurant. Both offered humor-laden stories of plans going astray but leading inevitably to happy resolution. Duffy's Tavern featured musical interludes and guest stars like Bing Crosby, Rex Harrison, and Ida Lupino, but its sustaining dimension was the weekly predicament encountered by Archie, the manager, and his cast of regulars such as Clifton Finnegan, Clancy the cop, and Miss Duffy. One week it might be Archie scheming for a raise or preparing the bar for the visit of a celebrity. The next it might involve Miss Duffy's constant search for a husband or Archie trying to win money to make the books balance. In Meet Me at Parky's, Parkyakarkas operated a diner in which problems and gyros mixed with guest stars, musical interludes, and a cast of comedic regulars that provided a Greek-American equivalent of Duffy's Irish-American realm.

Despite the absence of a home and family, this type of sitcom paralleled the domestic format. Instead of a house in the suburbs, the bar or restaurant functioned as the friendly domicile in which comedy and narrative unfolded. Instead of a family, it offered the host as a surrogate head-of-household, and the recurring characters as the remainder of a pseudo-family. Like the domestic sitcoms, moreover, the problems encountered in these comedy shows were always happily resolved.

Those comedies stressing a distinctive leading character still adhered to the sitcom mixture of a central personality augmented by surrounding comedic characters. Such principals were neither married nor tied to a business establishment, and therefore possessed physical mobility that rendered location secondary to individuality. By the early 1940s The Jack Benny Program, the leading comedy-variety series of the preceding decade, had evolved into a situation comedy of this type. Benny's escapades took place at home, in his neighbor's house, at his studio, on a train, at the race track, or wherever his writers felt it advantageous to locate their leading character. Without a spouse, family, or home, Benny was free to be situated anywhere consistent with the characterization built into his role.

Both men and women appeared as central characters in this sitcom format. The empty-headed blonde secretary, Irma Peterson, dominated the antics that occurred on My Friend Irma. Connie Brooks was the man-chasing center of Our Miss Brooks. And the hillbilly actress, Judy Canova, portrayed herself as an unmarried celebrity on The Judy Canova Show. Also in this style were programs like Life with Luigi which concerned the adventures of Luigi Bosco, a recent immigrant from Italy; and Amos 'n' Andy which in 1943 had become a half-hour, non-serialized sitcom bouncing between the schemes of George "Kingfish" Stevens and the innocent dreams of Andrew H. Brown. Although such programs avoided the extreme mobility of The Jack Benny Program, their stress on personality and their de-emphasis of family and locale clearly distinguished them in terms of format.

One of the most interesting variations in this type of programming was Maisie. The series appeared in 1945 and concerned the assorted adventures of Maisie Revere, a world-wise beauty from Brooklyn who, between show-business flops, drifted from city to city encountering varied occupations, fresh men, and comedic situations. Based on the "Maisie" movies produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, this radio series presented an image of liberated womanhood that was far ahead of its time.

For the sake of respectability, Maisie was engaged to Eddie Jordan, whom she once described affectionately as a "good lookin', sweet-talkin', lovable, lazy, no-good bum." She was only able to commiserate with her fiancé, however, during those shows that unfolded in New York City. But Maisie's antics took place throughout the world. She was immediately at home in a London dress shop or a Texas dude ranch. She railroaded, drove, sailed, or hitchhiked her way from one locale to another, demonstrating an earthy understanding of men that was punctuated by a solid slap across the face of the more aggressive wolves.

Maisie, however, possessed the proverbial heart of gold. Whether she was working at a blood bank, or spending her last dollar to buy movie tickets for a group of orphans, she was a singular figure whose feminine assertiveness and independence was even more striking when compared to the stereotyped dumb-blonde stupidity of Irma Peterson and the husband-hunting predictability of Connie Brooks.

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