So I just finished listening to Old Time Radio’s Greatest Comedies. Some general thoughts:
On the War: Many of the shows were recorded during WW2, and the content of the shows reflects that. Burns and Allen decide to rent out their den to a returning serviceman, Abbott and Costello do a show at an Air Force base and make a bunch of hilarious military jokes, Charlie McCarthy sends a message to the boys overseas, and so on. The commercials also reflect the wartime economy and environment. Camel urges us to be patient with our local merchant, since Camels are hard to come by right now. Chase and Sanborn coffee urges us to make the most of our ration book coupon by buying only the best — Chase and Sanborn of course. And JELL-O may be hard to find, but we will get it more easily once this sugar shortage is over.
And most of all, we need to remember to buy more war bonds. Burns and Allen even risk coming up short in their monthly budget in order to buy an extra bond. I wonder if we’d have gone to war in Iraq if we’d had to fund the war up front with War bonds, instead of borrowing the money to pay for it from our children. Actually, I don’t wonder about that at all; we wouldn’t have gone to Iraq. These shows do highlight the difference in the way we experience the war from the way they did in the 1940s. Right now, it’s a very small percentage of our population that shoulders the bulk of the sacrifice for our military efforts. Listening to these shows has reminded me just how much that differs from previous experience.
Commercials: The commercials on these shows are built right into the story or the dialogue, or there’s a sponsor-man there to talk about the product. They even joke about the ads. At one point, Lucille Ball says “Okay, let’s make the sponsor happy.” And almost all the products had songs. Camels, JELLO, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Each has a jingle. And each is delightful.
Live Programming: Some of the comedians, like Red Skelton, had a regular part in their show in which they would misread their scripts and then joke about it. Red’s straight man would often steal his punchlines, leaving him pretending to be aghast and the audience in stitches. Like when Jon Stewart or the SNL people break up laughing, the audience here delighted in the light-hearted errors they made.
Some thoughts about the specific shows:
- Abbott and Costello: Pretty darn funny. They have a lot of the misunderstanding jokes like “Who’s on First.” My favorite had to do with buying a train ticket. Costello wanted to get a bottom bunk, but Abbott kept saying he had to “go higher” to get the lower bunk. Costello didn’t get it and it was funny!
Sponsor: Camels! Sending over 1,000,000 free Camels overseas to our fighting boys every week.
Catch phrases: Hey Abbott! I don’t even know what I’m talkin’ about! I’m a bad little boy.
- Amos N Andy: Pop quiz hot shot: with your strong grasp of history and sharp mentality, how long can you distance yourself and listen to racist comedy on its own merits? About 10 minutes, it turns out.
Sponsor: I don’t know.
- Burns and Allen: Very funny sitcom starring George and Gracie. She plays a bit of an absent-minded woman, but in a smart and funny way. George’s growl has a youthful bounce to it that gives a different impression of him than I had from all the old-man movies I’m more familiar with.
Sponsor: Maxwell House
- Fibber McGee and Molly: A very entertaining sitcom. Fibber is a down-home fella and he loves Molly a lot. Very funny. My favorite episode was the Blondie old card about a man borrowing another man’s tools. Fibber’s installing a porch swing and loses all his tools and the folks who he borrowed them from come by to collect. Fibber and Molly employed a stereotyped black house-maid. Sigh.
Sponsor: Johnson Wax.
- Jack Benny: One of the shows features Orson Welles giving Jack dramatic acting lessons. Another has Joe Louis unknowingly acting as a body guard for Benny. Pretty funny, though I was a bit uncomfortable with the stereotyped butler character who shows up in each episode.
Sponsor: Lucky Strikes
- My Favorite Husband: Starring Lucille Ball. An hilarious predecessor to the LB shows that would come later. Lucille regularly gets her husband into hot water with her antics.
Sponsor: JELL-O. She started each show saying “Jello, everybody!”
- The Red Skelton show: Red seems to specialize in voices. He has one dopey character who sounds a lot like Buddy Hackett. This was probably my second favorite show, after Abbott and Costello.
Sponsor: Proctor and Gamble’s Tide — No other suds or soap will get clothes cleaner.
- Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy — I really don’t understand how or why a ventriloquist dummy is popular on the radio. Plus, Charlie is supposed to be a boy, oh, say 12. He’s really lascivious for a twelve-year-old. It’s even more gross if you think about him as a puppet.
Sponsor: Chase and Sanborn Coffee.
- The Great Gildersleeve: Wasn’t funny. I just couldn’t get into it, so I only listened to one and a half of the four shows. Plus, the guy’s name is Gildersleeve.
Sponsor: Parkay Margarine.
- The Life of Riley: A family sitcom about a boorish father named Chester Riley who continually gets himself in over his head and then finds he can’t swim. I was particularly amused by the episode in which he accidentally gets engaged to marry two women on the same day. At the end, he and the wife he really wanted find themselves on a train headed for Niagara falls. As they’re about to fall into bed together, he gasps and calls for the train to be stopped immediately. After all, they aren’t married yet.
Sponsor: Pabst Blue Ribbon. What’ll ya have? Pabst.