Source: The C E Hooper Radio Survey of the 2nd of June, 1939.
And for another thing I can share anytime but that feels timely today: a New Year’s Eve broadcast from The Jack Benny Program. Through the early 40s Jack Benny had a tradition that was antiquated even then. The final sketch of the show would be a little allegory of the old year briefing the new year on what the state of the world was.
These always sound as odd pieces. Dennis Day even says as much. (I forget if he’s confused the same way every year.) The tradition they’re writing in is just not present anymore, at least not in pop culture. I imagine someone’s doing good web comics or sketches or such like this, but I don’t know them. But as we see out the most trying year I remember going through here’s a glance at how a particular bit of pop culture viewed its joining into a dark and deadly valley.
Old-time radio had many genres of show. Many of them still exist, albeit on television. (In the United States, where commercial interests sent them.) Soap operas, famously, still carry on, though nobody would say they’re healthy. Police and detective shows we’ll never be rid of. Medical dramas too. Suspense anthologies … all right, we don’t really have that anymore, although thrillers and crime procedurals nearly cover that gap. Sitcoms — with or without laugh tracks — come and go, but they’re steadily around. Game shows have mutated, but they’re still around.
But there’s one that isn’t really still around, not in United States anyway. I’m not even sure what exactly to call it. It’s the kind of show typefied by The Jack Benny Program. It’s centered around a strong, comic host, and there’s a set of regular supporting cast with clear punchy comic personas. There’s some topic, often drawn from the news, that all the regulars riff on for a while. Then a musical interlude. Then a spoof of something or other. A lot of shows fit this admittedly quite general template. Jack Benny fits it (less perfectly as the show ages and it turns into a semi-sitcom). Fred Allen too. Bob Hope. Red Skelton. Some of these shows are great. Some are agony, at least to my tastes. Depends on whether you like the host.
So here’s an example of that genre. It stars Henry Morgan, a comedian who is reliably described as “caustic”. This episode doesn’t show off anything “caustic”. I would describe it more as “sly”.
I wanted to use the embeddable little radio player that archive.org offers. But it won’t link to the file I want because whoever uploaded this episode in the first place included spaces in the file name. WordPress’s thing for embedding archive.org audio can’t handle that. So I’m afraid I must ask you to download or open in a fresh tab one of these links:
- The Henry Morgan Show, for the 9th of September, 1946, in MP3.
- The Henry Morgan Show, for the 9th of September, 1946, in OGG.
- The Henry Morgan Show, for the 9th of September, 1946, in PNG, which is just a picture of what the audio looks like. It’s kind of cute.
It’s a fast-paced show, with as its first centerpiece a mock-documentary about the discovery of air. I love mock-documentaries. Always have. The form of the factual essay and the content of nonsense tickles me. It ends with a spoof of game shows. Along the way there’s riffs about the other leading radio shows of the day, which was September 1946. It’s a sharp, densely written mix of stuff. I’m sorry the audio gets fuzzy at a few spots mid-show, but I want to feature more of Henry Morgan and this seemed to be a pretty good introduction, all things considered.
I’m still in an old-time radio mood. So here’s a 1941 installment of Fibber McGee and Molly. The show’s got great name recognition, if allusions to it on Mystery Science Theater 3000 are any guide. Granted, by that standard, Averell Harriman still has great name recognition.
But it’s of historical importance. The show was one of those that created the situation-comedy genre. As often the case with those that create a form it doesn’t have the form quite right. The show tends to have very loose plots, to the extent it has plots at all. There’s typically just a gimmick for the episode and then riffing around that. The bunch of wacky neighbors and friends come on, usually one at a time, to add their riffs, and then after 25 minutes of this, two musical numbers, and a minute spent praising Johnson’s Wax, something ends the situation. It hardly seems like the same sort of entertainment as, say, Arrested Development.
But I think it’s of more than just historic importance, at least in some episodes. The one I’ve picked here, “Leaving for Hollywood” and originally run the 24th of June, 1941, closed out the broadcast season. It’s built on the McGees closing up their house and saying goodbye to everyone because they’re off to Hollywood for the summer … to make one of the movies based on the Fibber McGee and Molly show. The movie, Look Who’s Laughing (mentioned in the show as the Old-Timer worries about the title) featured most of the radio program’s cast in a story that intersects with Lucille Ball and Edgar-Bergen-and-Charlie-McCarthy and some story about the town’s airstrip.
And there is something almost strikingly modern. We have the fictional conceit that we’re listening to the stuff happening to the McGees and their acquaintances. And yes, it breaks the fourth wall a couple times each episode for the needs of commerce or just to let Jim Jordan get in a good side crack. But here’s a story all about winding up the “real” affairs of the McGees for long enough to let them make a movie about themselves. It’s a weird blending of layers of fiction. I don’t think the 1941 audience was confused or blown away by this; it just feels too natural that the listeners are in on the artifice of the show. (Note the biggest laugh of the episode is one that subverts the show’s best-remembered joke. And its next-most-famous running gag appears just to be mocked too.) I imagine someone listening to the show for the first time would find nothing surprising about the structure, except maybe for the conceit that perfectly good half-hour radio comedies should be adapted into 80-minute movies with far too much plot and nothing happening. It’s only weird if you stop and point it out, which I hope you see now that I have.
Minor note: the second musical number within the show, about 19:30 in, is the Kingsmen singing “The Reluctant Dragon”, based on the Disney partly-animated Robert Benchley vehicle and that’s fun.
Everybody loves spoofs. I suppose they satisfy our desire for transgressive mockery without demanding the self-cutting introspection of satire. That makes me sound snobby about spoofs and it shouldn’t. A great spoof is a celebration of the good and bad of something. And we need sometimes entertainment that doesn’t ask how we justify our thinking.
Stan Freberg among many things produced fantastic spoofs. His Dragnet spoof made his name and solidified “Just the facts, ma’am” as the phrase the original show would be known by. In his one-season radio show he’d do a lot of spoofs, many of them really great.
A great spoof needs to capture something essential about the original. It might be the original’s rhythm, it might be its attitude, it might be just the way it sounds. To some extent a spoof needs to be precise. It needs to follow a template that could plausibly be the original’s. If it doesn’t then it becomes something like an Elvis or a William Shatner impersonation, something that at one time had something to do with the original but now is an entity unto itself. That’s not to say they’re necessarily bad, but to say that they’re their own thing, no longer based on the original.
But there’s a danger in capturing the sound of the original too precisely. That problem it’ll eventually be sixty years later and nobody is going to know what your spoof was going on about. There’s a bit of this in the Stan Freberg Show I want to share here. It aired originally the 22nd of September, 1957.
So. There’s two big spoofs there, one of a sports-radio announcer/interviewer, another of a western. If you’re not a fan of old-time radio then I’m going to guess the sports-radio thing made better sense. There are still sports announcers and interviewers kind of like this and you can imagine an interview coming close to but not quite that. The other spoof is of a western and that probably sounds all the more bizarre.
Freberg was taking seriously his responsibility to get his spoof right, to make it just this close to the thing he was spoofing. The sports-radio guy he’s spoofing was Bill Stern, pioneer of radio sports reporting. A fair number of his recordings survive. He had this bombastic and, must be said, addictive style, delivered in a breathless rush and sprinkled with amazing human-interest stories that might even be true.
The western, now, that probably reads stranger. We just don’t have so many westerns. And the image of the old-time radio western is, well, what people think The Lone Ranger was. Big, broad, cartoonish melodrama with dramatic declarations and gunfights and claim-grabbers and salted gold mines and big, broad dumb gags. That was one thread of western, yes. But there was another line, which for want of a better term I’ll call “adult westerns”. These varied, of course, but they would try for a more sedate, more grown-up tone. They’d be more meticulously paced and there’d be more of the sound effects of men walking in full, noisy garb than of gunshots. They’d try to address more grown-up topics, like drought, economic failure, and racial tension. Gunsmoke, the show Freberg was most specifically targeting, could be wretchedly depressing. It was the sort of show where the silver lining is that at least the floods will put out the range fire before washing away the railroad bridge the ranch-hands would use to get into town to riot.
So if this seems like a bizarre segment to listen to that’s just the problem that Freberg captured the sound of Gunsmoke and its ilk too well. I think you can infer what he’s mocking from this, but it is easier to understand, and funnier, if you’ve heard more of the adult westerns that 1950s radio offered. (Many are easy to find.)
The “sponsor” is an easier spoof to understand. That’s mocking Quaker Puffed Wheat and Quaker Puffed Rice. These breakfast cereals were shot from guns on every 15-minute program radio aired between 1939 and 1958, if my sampling is representative. That maybe communicates easier since we’re still spoofing commercials, and there’s an inherent goofiness that doesn’t need much setup.
Well, I hope you enjoy the show however much sense it makes.
So I found there were some ancient Jack Benny Program podcasts that my iPod somehow had for some reason and I got to listening. And they had some real obscure ones, like from his show before Jell-O picked him up as a sponsor and before his writers had invented Phil Harris and everything. And the show was weird back then, since he didn’t have any of his famous cast except Mary Livingstone and she was still mostly doing Dumb Dora. And then they got to what sketch they’d do on the next week’s show. “Next week, folks, we’re going to do a real old-fashioned style minstrel show!”
So I had to cry out, “NO! DON’T DO IT, JACK BENNY PROGRAM OF 1933!” and throw myself at the iPod, smothering it with my body and saving my whole platoon from the imminent racefail. And while my iPod’s Otter case was strong enough to withstand my falling all over it, and the next episode turned out to be one from 1944 and everything was normal, I’m still not quite up to par. Jack Paar was Benny’s summer replacement host for 1947. But you can see why this has me all off my schedule.
I feel like listening to something today. Here’s an October 1959 episode of Bob and Ray Present the CBS Radio Network. As often for these shows it’s a set of several sketches, all done by Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. None of the sketches really involve one another so if you don’t care for one premise — a Broadway actor going over the failure of his musical; a political-news interview with a possible candidate for the upcoming presidential election; the Bob And Ray Trophy Train arrives in Memphis — you can zip ahead a few minutes and enjoy the next. I wouldn’t.
While listening to the Vic And Sadecast, an hourlong podcast about Vic and Sade, my love assessed that I have a love for wordy humor. Not puns, mind you, or jokes that consist only of putting a word where it doesn’t belong. More humor in which there is wonderful care about picking words so that they are just odd enough to be funny even if you can’t point to a specific laugh line. I think my love’s right in this as with so many regards. Bob and Ray sound rambling and improvised; it’s part of their charm. I don’t know how much Bob and Ray and their writing staff got done by editing and rewriting into shape and how much they got done by being really good writers and improvisors. It’s hard to pick any line, though, and find a variation that would be better. You can make lines more obviously meant to be punch lines, but then the whole sketch would be lessened. Anyway, do enjoy, please.
If you’ve been listening along with Vic and Sade episodes this week you maybe noticed that not much happens in them. The characters talk about what they’re up to, but they don’t do much about it. That’s part of the style of the show. It has an almost classic respect for the ancient unities of Greek theater. Each day’s installment is one scene, at one time, and rarely do characters enter or exit, at least not much. Doing stuff is almost impossible in the ten minutes or so of conversation they have.
But stuff happens between episodes. And, more, it’s remembered. Vic and Sade is a representative of the serial-sitcom. It could have storylines going and progressing and developing, five days a week, just the way they might on soap operas. Vic and Sade isn’t a strong representative of the genre, the way that Lum and Abner or the difficult granddaddy of them all, Amos ‘n’ Andy, are. Vic and Sade stories aren’t as long and don’t dominate weeks of storytelling the way the more dedicated serials do. But it’s there.
Here, for example, at least after about the first two and a half minutes (spent talking about the wonders of Crisco and perhaps local advertisers), is a continuation of Vic’s All-Star Marching Team. The Marching Team is hoping to put together a Ladies Auxiliary. Sade is targeted to participate. She’s uninterested in marching and she and Vic talk just a little past one another about the point. The Marching Team was based on an absurd premise to start. And now the Ladies Auxiliary promises to be further absurd, as it can’t just be the wives of the Marching Team members. Many of them aren’t married. (One has intentions of marrying his beloved early in 1948, a joke which barely registers until you know that this episode is from the 22nd of February, 1941.) It’s not the straightforward absurdity of the original Marching Team premise, and its need to rehearse when none of the members can get together. That doesn’t keep it from finding wonderful absurdity anyway.
Maybe I’ll just carry on with the old-time radio and make it a Vic and Sade week. Picking out episodes makes me want to hear more episodes, and I like talking about the stuff I enjoy. So here goes.
One of my favorite comic modes is the deadpan absurdity. The name almost explains it. Presenting the most ridiculous idea possible with the straightest face possible delights me. If someone questions your absurdity, you can own up to it … or you can try explaining why it really makes sense all along. Take the second path and you are entering the heady woods of the American heritage of tall-tale folklore, of the reductio ad absurdum that earns mathematicians their pay, and — if you happen to answer every objection soundly — conspiracy theory.
Vic belongs to a lodge, the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way, the way many people did in 1941. The way even more sitcom men did. The lodge wanted to organize an All-Star Marching Team. The head lodge chose ten members, Vic included. Lodge headquarters wants them to practice marching as a unit. The members are distributed across the country. The members aren’t asked to spend money and time travelling to each other.
So … how to rehearse marching as a unit when you just can’t get together? And there’s an answer, and it’s ridiculous. There’s obvious objections. They’re answered with a straight enough face that it all almost makes sense. It’s wonderful.
And a note for listeners: boy, the sponsor’s introduction really does go on, doesn’t it? If you are already as sold on Crisco as it is possible for you to ever be, you can skip to about two minutes thirty seconds in and the start of the real action.
I’m still feeling in an old-time radio mood.
Vic and Sade starred Art Van Harvey as Vic, and Bernardine Flynn as Sade. That was, apparently, enough cast to start with, but they adopted Rush, played by Bill Idelson, soon enough. Most of the scripts depended on the three, or two of the three if one of the actors got a day off, describing events to one another. A problem arose in 1940, when Van Harvey became ill. Every long-running radio show had this problem occasionally. If the actor’s illness was known about long enough in advance they could rewrite around the part. If it was sudden, they could just have someone else fill in. (There’s at least one episode of Burns and Allen with someone else playing the part of Gracie Allen, and that is not a role to step into lightly.)
To cover for Van Harvey’s illness, author Paul Rhymer brought a talked-about character in. This would be Uncle Fletcher, played by Clarence Hartzell. Uncle Fletcher could take the part of someone for Sade and Rush to talk to, or at least talk around, at least as well as Vic did.
It does mean we have curiosities like this episode, though. It’s from the 9th of October, 1941. It’s a two-actor day. So it’s an episode of Vic and Sade with neither Vic nor Sade. It’s built on Rush attempting to do his algebra homework, and Uncle Fletcher attempting to coach him through it. As I’d said, many Vic and Sade episodes are driven by the characters talking not quite past one another. This is a fine example of the form.
I’m in the mood to share some more old-time radio. This is an episode of Vic and Sade. It’s a strange show. It was for most of its run a daily, 15-minute program. It’s classed as a situation comedy, although it’s not what you would imagine from “radio sitcom from the 1930s and 1940s”. You might get that from how its Wikipedia page insists one of its catchphrases was “Is there a perfumed lady, heavily veiled and greatly agitated, hiding under the davenport?”. (I do not remember hearing this in any episode I’ve listened to. This might be instead a “memorable quote” from the show. However, I haven’t heard all the three hundred or so episodes that survive. Perhaps something happened.)
If I must describe it briefly, I’d say it’s “three people obsessively talking almost past one another”. It’s a small cast — Vic, Sade, and their son Rush — talking about what’s of interest to them. Often it’s some trivial daily event. Sometimes it’s a project that’s become urgent to one of them and uninteresting to the rest. It’s not a program to dip into casually. Something in it will be amusing if you listen to it while doing other stuff, sure. But it’s one of those shows that presents itself as deeply mundane. It keeps piling on the day’s premise until you reach the point of noticing they’re having a crazed conversation. There’s no guessing where that moment will hit for you. But it’s there.
Vic and Sade was written, all three and a half thousand episodes, by Paul Rhymer. Rhymer had left the newspaper business when the Bloomington (Illinois) Pantograph learned he was interviewing people who didn’t technically exist. Radio probably fit him better. He had a knack for writing people who are ridiculous yet not quite unbelievably so. People who could plausibly make a catchphrase of “You’ll send your undershirt to Detroit parcel post”. And he could string together words in that way that makes every sentence more interesting than it has to be to hold its information. It’s hard to pin down a punch line. Any sentence might suddenly strike you as the funny part, and you’re right. There are reasons most of the series was done without a studio audience.
And the episode I mean to have highlighted above — called “Rush’s Speaking Acquaintances”, based on Rush’s obsession of the day — gives a glimpse of one of Rhymer’s talents. He could compose funny names that are actually funny. The show would collect legions of discussed and typically-offscreen characters, all with names that feel off without ever quite being distractingly impossible. You don’t know how impressive this is until you’ve paid attention to people making funny names. Mix in some absurd touches and discuss without anybody quite finding their point, or convincing anyone else of it. It’s almost a course in how to write character-driven comedy.
I want to share some of the gentle, absurd, kindly wonderful humor of Bob and Ray. Here’s something a bit mysterious. Its description on archive.org is able to give only some information about where it’s from. It was an Armed Forces Radio Service transcription disc. It would seem to come from one of their 1958-era broadcasts, apparently on NBC’s Monitor weekend service. I can’t pin it down more precisely than that.
The audio is patchy. But I think their appeal comes through. They offer brownies to the audience and that goes as well as anyone might hope. There’s a look into the difficult world of the soap opera writer. And there’s a review of what could be found on TV. I too would watch that Weird Theater tales meant to keep you in suspense.
I’m still feeling a little woozy and a more bit lazy, so let me give you something to listen to today. This is another Bob and Ray Present The CBS Radio Network. an episode from the 23rd of October, 1959. It’s seasonal. I’d be putting up the storm windows myself if I quite felt up to it right now.
The center sketch of this, One Fella’s Family, is a parody of something specific. The tone of it probably gives that fact away. What it’s a parody of is probably as forgotten as it used to be famous. They’re playing off the series One Man’s Family, a radio soap opera that ran from 1932 to 1959. And it kept the same actor for the main Man, J Anthony Smythe, for that whole run. (It also had two short-lived TV adaptations, one in prime time and one in daytime.)
The show had an irresistible comic hook. Episodes were introduced as being from a particular book and chapter of the tales of the Barbour Family. I would say that’s the high point of the episodes, honestly. The show strikes me as the tale of Henry Barbour sighing and grumbling about how his kids won’t listen to him, until they finally decide to listen to him. It’s a style of drama I don’t get much into.
Bob and Ray don’t have the great arcs of the kids figuring they’re too smart for college or whatever else went on in One Man’s Family. As with many of their bits, the story is of characters not quite able to do simple things. The closer you listen, the more absurd it all is.
Top Secret is a pretty good movie. Solidly fun, stuffed full of jokes, and breezy and silly in a way that seems to be lost to modern grand spoof movies. What probably keeps it from being one of the great spoof movies is that it’s impossible to answer the question: so what exactly is being spoofed? It’s a close parody of something that never existed, the … Elvis World War II espionage thriller? That doesn’t matter much. Maybe its genius comes from pulling together spoofs of a couple of genres and finding that they harmonize. Maybe its genius comes from just taking a goofy idea and spoofing it so relentlessly that we don’t care if there was ever an original.
A weird idea? Sure. But after all, how many people spoof silent movie melodramas by depicting women tied to railroad tracks, even though that never happened except in silent movie spoofs of melodramas? Something can have all the hallmarks of a spoof without actually being a parody of anything in particular.
And this brings me to the Bob And Ray Present The CBS Radio Network for the 14th of July, 1950. The episode is tagged as “The Grand Motel”, for the central sketch in it. It gives off the vibes of parodying some particular old-time radio soap opera but heck if I can say what. The most specific I can get is to One Man’s Family, but that’s just because I’ve heard a lot of that soap and it features a lot of cranky old man at its center. I’m attempting, again, to embed it, but if that doesn’t work the above link should let you download it. And if that doesn’t work you can try this Archive.org collection of Bob and Ray episodes, looking for the one tagged “590714TheGrandMotel”.
To the extent this is spoofing anything particular, it’s soap operas, of course. There used to be a lot of them. Many were surprisingly short, fifteen-minute installments mostly of people recapping where they were and advancing the story a little bit. Many blurred the line between drama and comedy, as we’d see it now. The Grand Motel feels just slightly outside what might be plausible for a real soap. It’s played with a ruthless integrity to its internal logic and the Bob and Ray sketch comedy motif of the world just not quite fitting together smoothly. Everyone in their sketch worlds is just a little bit out of place. If that amuses you at all, then the sketch will keep getting funnier.
Also, yes, look for surprise special guest Pat Boone. He’s there with advice for teenagers.
If you want to be a comic performer, broadly speaking, there are two paths to take. You can be Groucho Marx or an accountant. The Groucho Marx approach has obvious advantages: you go out looking funny and anybody paying the slightest attention knows you are trying to be funny. The audience is readied to laugh. The accountant is tougher: you go out looking utterly unexceptional and trust that, maybe, the audience will notice you’re being ridiculous. The accountant style is more likely to go over people’s heads. The audience might not understand they’re expected to find this funny. But it’s also the kind that gets critical acclaim. And discovering something that’s accountant-style funny is wonderful; it feels like being let in on a secret.
(Yes, I’m aware that Groucho Marx hated the greasepaint-mustache, looking-to-be-funny look he wore. He felt going out looking deliberately funny encouraged audiences to be skeptical, and would rather have gone out looking like an accountant. But by the time he could have cast off the vaudeville look, he was too famous for it to ditch it entirely.)
So this brings me to Bob and Ray. Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding were mostly radio comics, with some television and other ventures. I want to say the best way to describe what they did was that they did SCTV, but for radio. I trust that SCTV is a recognizable reference around these parts. However, what’s got me doing a Bob and Ray Week is that I discovered a friend had not the faintest idea what I was talking about when I referred to them.
So here’s a sample. In 1959 and 1960 they performed Bob and Ray Present the CBS Radio Network many installments of which survive thanks to the magic that lets old-time radio survive. This one is from the 12th of October, 1959; it’s tagged “Guess The Name Of This”.
It is theoretically possible that I have this embedded below. However, Archive.org’s “embed” feature is really badly screwed up, and its help page is utter gibberish. I recommend that if you want to see something explained in a way that explains nothing to anybody. It may be easiest to just download the MP3 and play that in your preferred MP3 player than deal with this mess. In any case it’s file number 77 in this collection, titled “591012 Guess The Name Of This”.
Anyway, this is a fun episode to try out. I think it conveys well the Bob and Ray spirit in which you might, if you’re not listening, not even notice something ridiculous is going on. We get some lovely predictions for the future, and a Name That Tune-style contest that goes subtly awry. The sense of subverted normality is strong here. It won’t be for everyone, but for the people it is for, it’s perfect. Also the episode is only twelve minutes long, so it’s easy to try out. (Most episodes of this particular series are fifteen minutes; I’m not sure why this one is short.)
Bit of a change for these sorts of Friday things. Rather than a video I’d like to share an old-time radio program. This is the Fibber McGee and Molly that originally aired the 17th of June, 1941. It’s titled “Amusement Park”. I don’t know whether that was the script name or just how the Fibber McGee and Molly fans chose to name it. If I have overcome archive.org’s horrible new interface, this should be a link to download an MP3 to it. If I haven’t overcome archive.org’s horrible new interface, well, you should be able to select track 21, “Amusement Park”, below and listen in your web browser, rather than your MP3 player or audio program of your actual choice. Mostly, though, archive.org’s new interface is horrible.
Anyway. Fibber McGee and Molly was a proto-sitcom. The show started as being about vagabond motorists Fibber and Molly having encounters with amusing locals. After a few years of this they won a house in a raffle (really) and settled down to what’s almost the modern format of the genre. Most episodes give Fibber some modest task to attempt, at home, while Molly comments, and comical neighbors drop in, one at a time, to riff on that.
It’s not quite the sitcom as perfected, mostly because the episodes don’t really have plots. They have themes and jokes circling around the theme. But most of the time you could scramble the appearances by the comical neighbors and have about as good a show. There’s not a running storyline; at best it’s got running jokes. Which seems really odd because the show would have stuff develop over the course of episodes. Indeed, this episode introduces something that would be picked up on the next week, their close of the 1940-41 broadcast season.
I mentioned with Rube and Mandy last week that Amusement Park movies tend toward storylessness. But for Fibber McGee and Molly that works, since the format begs for chance encounters and nothing much happening. The curious thing about this episode is that Fibber and Molly don’t actually do anything but walk around and talk and try to use a photo booth. Before the episode started Fibber apparently rode the roller coaster twelve times, but none of that’s on-microphone. That seems quite odd considering it’s a radio show, and they only need sound effects to put the cast on anything. And the show even features a comic song praising the Sound Effects Man.
The best sound effect, though, is in the voice acting. Teeny, the Little Girl who keeps nagging Fibber for food, was voiced by Marion Jordan. So was Molly McGee. In most episodes of the show, Teeny is one of the comic neighbors, who drops in for her bit and disappears after delivering a minute or two of jokes. And in most episodes Molly makes some excuse to leave the scene. This is one of the few episodes where Marion Jordan has to do both Molly’s and Teeny’s voices, repeatedly, and extendedly, in the same scenes. And, you’ll remember, live. It’s a neat bit of voice acting, one it’s easy to not realize is going on.
There are a couple of racially tinged jokes here. Most are like how funny it would be for a Zulu person to hear the Hut-Sut Song. That was a contemporary nonsense-verse novelty song you hear in a couple of Looney Tunes. (And where are the modern nonsense-verse novelty songs, by the way?) In the Sound Effects Man song there’s a reference to shooting “redskins”; I’m sure they just meant to honor the football team.
I do get a strange feeling listening to this because I know the original broadcast date. It was the 17th of June, 1941. World War II was nearly two years old. President Roosevelt had just the month before declared the Unlimited National Emergency that left the United states all but officially at war with Germany. The German invasion of the Soviet Union was less than a week away. Not a hint of this creeps into the dialogue. Japan’s terror-bombing of Chongqing had recently killed four thousand residents who were in a bomb shelter. It would be out of character (and, for Operation Barbarossa, anachronistic) for people to talk about the war while at an amusement park. (There were scattered references to the war in earlier episodes, such as the one in which Fibber McGee’s gotten his draft notice.) But there is this strange tone to hearing so much small, normal, routine things in the midst of such an epic picture.
The Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper I managed decided one semester the front page of the first issue should be devoted to an essay dubbed “Embracing the Doom: A First-Year Unhandbook”. Its thesis was that we are all basically, deeply doomed, and while it was easy to deny this or despair from this, we were all better off embracing that doom and carrying on proudly. At the time I thought it the stupidest thing we could have printed and almost ridiculously playing to our paper’s stereotype as made by people just educated enough to be idiots about everything. I was wrong. I’ve come to realize there’s wisdom in accept that even if we are in the long run doomed, that doesn’t mean we can’t be satisfied and see a lot of sunny days while we get there.
This brings me to Stan Freberg, the humorist and satirist and voice-actor and advertising-creator whose death was reported yesterday. His style was almost definitive of a kind of humor that I associate with a particular circa-1960 smart set: literate, absurdist, cynical but not dismissive, dropping out of a wry detachment when there’s a belly laugh just about set up. It’s the voice of people who noticed they might just be the smartest person in the room, but are worried that they’re not all that bright themselves. I might try to call it cartoon existentialism, since many of the most accessible examples of it were cartoons made with that Rocky and Bullwinkle spirit, and for that matter of the better Hanna-Barbera cartoons from when the writing had some edge: characters who know they’re in adventures and who know the stories don’t really make sense, but who embrace it because someday the cartoon will end and you can either be entertaining while you get there or not, and the entertaining side has a better time of it. In short, there’s doom to be embraced.
After a lot of voice-acting work and comic records — incidentally crystallizing the Dragnet quote “just the facts, ma’am” in a spoof of that program — and supporting parts in other shows Stan Freberg finally got the dream job of producing a half-hour radio comedy for a major network, CBS, though as the gods of irony demanded he got the chance in 1957, when the major networks had decided to shut down original scripted programming on radio in favor of television. Freberg’s show would probably always had a hard time on commercial radio, as its style of humor fits in the Fred Allen/Henry Morgan/George Carlin vein that makes advertisers wary and network vice-presidents worried about what he’s going to say on their program; the program ended up being a “sustaining program” — no advertising, no sponsors. That’s normally a mark of a program being broadcast as a public service, or as an experiment developing the state of the art. Freberg didn’t want the show to have a single sponsor, and didn’t want tobacco advertising either, and four months after the show debuted, it was ended.
Archive.org has a set of all fifteen episodes of this show, and I recommend it as a way to sample Freberg’s work, and to taste this particular era of comedy: it’s knowing, sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes silly, offended by the madness of the world but unable to disengage from it, the sort of thing that will merge the folly of Las Vegas casinos with the threat of atomic war. (The show also makes use of many of Freberg’s comedy records from the 1950s, sometimes in revised form, so you also get a taste of how he got to be someone noteworthy enough to have a half-hour comedy program.) We might all be characters in a mad, doomed story, but it can be fun along the way.
As we approach the start of the academic year, sneaking up from the side which has not got sharp teeth this time, we in the alumni association would like to present our side of campus developments to everyone who glances at this article while looking for the columns where they see how many of their classmates who seemed destined for really interesting lives have settled into horribly boring fates where they aggregate content or tell you how to position your brand or something.
The most important change on campus has been the stepping up of the historicization program. We hope by these renovations and reconstructions to bring a world-class sense of historic appearance to our campus and find some pride in the many incidents to have happened on or around here.
The second most important change on campus has been the adoption of a spell checker that allowed historicization to proceed. That can’t be right, can it? There’s no way the program stumbled onto a word like that on purpose. We have to suppose the spell checker was a block of feral code adopted by the public relations department and so overly kind to it.
The major goal of historicization, which just can’t be a thing, has been to locate points on campus in which noteworthy things have happened and find ways to denote them. For example, it has long been a part of campus legend that Marian Jordan of Fibber McGee and Molly once pronounced the Rathskeller in the fourth floor of the Biology Laboratory “confusing”. This historic site has been noted in excessively detailed histories of old time radio as “a thing that exists” and that it “probably happened, I mean, why not?” We are proud to be bringing it out of this obscurity by completing the demolition of the Biology Laboratory and the installation of a concrete fountain with an interactive touch-screen video monitor able to explain in nearly more than 24 languages that a server error has occurred and this interaction will be shut down.
The Werthram Class of 1867 Hall, believed to be the largest building on campus imprecisely named for hard candy, has been almost fully demolished to allow street traffic better lines of sight to the rest of the main quadrangle, and the plans to demolish the main quadrangle to allow for better lines of sight to the Werthram Class of 1867 Hall have been put on hold while we look into the controversy about which demolition we were supposed to do. Maybe we were supposed to demolish the traffic. Anyway the location of the former building, believed to be a spot where legendary bad vaudeville act The Cherry Sisters never played, is now marked by a WiFi hotspot.
Several alumni, and we’re sure you know who you are and will stop asking already, will be glad to know the results of the inquiry into the deconstruction of the Old Sig Ep House, the spot where Christopher Columbus first spotted land, where the transcontinental railroad was built, the battle of the Marne was fought, and where John F Kennedy challenged NASA to land a man on the Women’s Campus and return him safely to the Rathskeller. As a result we have added to the historical plaques one explaining that it turns out our source for these events turned out to be a spoof issue of the student newspaper. Probably that it was called the Campy Push Dizzy Snooze should have tipped us off sooner. We tracked down one of the co-authors of the piece and he tweeted back to us a link to his essay on six ways to tell whether you’re managing your career brand.
The news on the campus beautification front has been no less mixed. The restoration of the 1974 Sculpture Garden saw the chance to add part of the artist’s original plans which were too technically challenging to be part of the original Brutalist installation. While the heat rays, the swinging mallet, and the swarm of bees carrying sharpened cocktail swords have proved controversial they are doing wonders at speeding pedestrians along.
Any questions? Please let us know. It’s important that we be able to make ourselves believe we’re doing valuable journalism work.
Since my recent mention of the Foot-Drawing Hall of Fame there’ve been a number of inquiries directed to this office asking for more information about this Hall of Fame, such as where it may be found and whether I made the whole thing up, and what sort of person gets inducted into the Foot-Drawing Hall of Fame. The last is easiest: it tends to be people who draw feet, although there are exceptions made for people who have made great advances — strides, to use the industry jargon — in public awareness of foot-drawing and its associated fields, such as sock envisioning or the composition of toenail apologias.
The Foot-Drawing Hall of Fame as we know it was inspired by the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame, as many Halls of Fame were. Every baseball player of serious note has or at some point had feet, or knew someone who did, and yet did they get any mention in the Hall? Not a word, and P K Shrelk couldn’t help wondering where all these players would be without their feet? Down a couple inches, was his conclusion, and that was good enough to search out a way to celebrate the drawing of feet, because when he looked into the whole foot there was too much to consider. Just thinking of all the bones alone could make someone have to lie down and come back later. He imagined someday a network of foot-related halls of fame might allow the understanding of the foot in all its complexity for the interested foot viewer. Shrelk died a very tired man.
The Foot-Drawing Hall of Fame opened in 1967 in Sick River Junction, Missouri, making use of the famous sanitarium which was once the Missouri State Home for the Tall. One needn’t worry about the former residents of the home. Medical advances and changing social attitudes allowed Missouri to sort out the patients who could be readmitted to society from those who were incurably tall. Those unlucky persons were few enough that they could be placed in more general-care institutions with cathedral ceilings. Indeed, Anthony Millest — one of the last children to be taken in to the Home for the Tall — was found to be not just healthy but to have a foot-drawing talent great enough that he became one of the earliest docents at the museum. To this day he’s three days a week, greeting kids and sharing stories of the museum’s goals and accomplishments and plucking things off the top of the refrigerator.
The first artist admitted into the Hall of Fame was one Pelter Rebleat, who was of no particular renown in the field of foot-drawing, truth be told, but the directors felt they needed to start with some impressive names. Rebleat was surprised by his induction, as the letter of invitation had been addressed to Peltier Rebleat (arguably the more impressive name) and because of what he described as the kidnapping which brought him to the opening ceremonies. Since then the policy of “once-famous, always-famous” has blocked all attempts to remove him from the hall, and people bring him fresh clothes and adequate food. He often gets together with Millest to play checkers and agree that things have changed and there’s probably not much of a way to stop that, especially on the web sites they use all the time.
Besides hosting the third-largest collection of drawings of feet among states whose names start with M, the Hall of Fame offers informational classes designed to help would-be artists overcome their natural fear of drawing feet. According to longtime museum defender Anabess Sweetkludge, the most common thing artists do wrong in drawing feet is begin too far up the leg, so that the feet fall out of frame. This can be overcome most easily by getting a slightly larger sketchbook or, for those artists who work digitally, holding the drawing tablet closer to themselves. A more complicated solution is to engineer an artistic movement by which ankles and their environs are regarded as the true measure of artistic accomplishment, but that’s regarded as too much work just for some pictures of feet.
I hope this answers some of the more serious questions. If it doesn’t, perhaps this answers some other ones instead.
So I was listening to an episode of Inner Sanctum, the old-time radio series that you maybe heard of from that Bugs Bunny cartoon where he says this creaking door “sounds like Inner Sanctum,”, and it was an episode where the newlywed husband spends the whole train ride back home tying little nooses out of loose pieces of string and warning his new wife that if he ever goes crazy she’ll just have to shoot him, which sounds pretty dire but is actually one of the more upbeat episodes of Inner Sanctum. It’s kind of what I love about the show. That and that the narrator delivers, archly, the kind of jokes that you think are gallows humor when you’re twelve, like, “a bachelor ghoul is someone who knows two can die as cheaply as one”, and I’m not even making that one up. I’m not sure anyone ever made that one up.
Anyway, the villain turns out to be the Creepy Butler, voiced by Jackson Beck, also known as the cartoon voice of Bluto or, in this particular episode, the Other Character In The Story. It turns out he, his father, his grandfather, and so on back for generations have been the servants of the groom, the groom’s father, grandfather, et cetera, going back generations, and each of them have been busy waiting for their employers to get married and then kill their wives in horrible mysterious circumstances so as to perpetuate a curse, all because generations ago the groom’s great-something-grandfather wronged Bluto’s great-something-grandfather.
Gotta say. I admire traditions, especially quirky local traditions that are clearly not mass-produced and supported by commercial interests. I just don’t see how being a lifelong servant of the guy who’s wronged you pays out, especially given the extra workload involved in being a serial killer. And passing that down through generations? I mean, I can barely keep track of my own grudges, and I only have two of them. If my father (hi, Dad!) wanted me to pick up one of his grudges, I guess I’d tell him I was going to, but I can’t see putting more effort into it than making some snarky comments about someone on the Internet. I realize that wasn’t an option in the days of Inner Sanctum, because that series ran from 1941 to 1952 when the Internet was just a big round-robin typing circle, and typewriters were strictly rationed during the War so it’d be hard to requisition one just to insult someone your Dad was angry about, but.
Of course, if all Bluto’s ancestors in this were that good about killing their employers’ brides, how have they got around to like four generations of this? I guess I’m just having problems with the inner logic of this. I hope I’m not hurting the feelings of whoever wrote that episode. I don’t think I’m hurting Bluto’s feelings by saying all this.
Also, you know, killing wives for decades because one guy cheated another guy about a gold mine or whatever it was people in the west did to wrong themselves in the mid-19th century? Besides being a ripe slice of evil there’s also incompetent planning at work here; there’s supposed to be a karmic link in a good story of horror and retribution and here it’s just … what? Yes, the groom are being pretty irresponsible in not mentioning the “long string of horrible, mysterious deaths” to their wives before getting married, and introducing it by giving her the gun she should use to shoot him if he starts getting murder-y is just … you know, I’m glad I don’t live in an old-time radio suspense series, that’s all I can really say about it.