Project Description

The Great Radio Comedians

(1972) (RT 90:00)
(Produced and Directed by Perry Miller Adato)

The Great Radio Comedians revives some unforgettable radio moments…for example: the Jack Benny Show segment where a hold-up man says to the famously stingy Jack Benny: “…Your money or your life!”…long pause…“I said your money or your life!”…pause… Benny: “I’m thinking it over!”  Shared coast to coast, this exchange became a favorite joke in every household across America.  In the Forties, Radio played the part in American life now played by television, video games and the internet combined. Radio was the first mass-media news and entertainment form that created a common experience, shared by people of all social classes.  And of all the programs on the airwaves, it was the great radio comedians that captured the hearts and the ears of millions of listeners.

How does one do a television program about an audio medium, radio?   With luck, some imagination and unprecedented cooperation from its subjects, the comedians themselves.  In 1972, some of the greatest stars of radio agreed to appear on-camera to talk about their days in radio and to comment on audio excerpts from their original programs.  Each introduces clips from short movies shot during the 1940’s that mirrored their radio comedy routines: George Burns, (The Burns and Allen Show), Jack Benny (The Jack Benny Show), Edgar Bergen, (Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy), Jim Jordan (Fibber McGee and Molly). Members of the original Allen’s Alley cast remember Fred Allen and perform a contemporary re-creation of their Allen’s Alley routines.  Bing Crosby remembers Bob Hope as star in vaudeville and radio before their memorable motion picture collaborations. All shared vintage photos from their personal collections.  Some surprises include this moment: during our interview, famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen unearths his feisty dummy, Charlie McCarthy and on-camera they perform a typical Bergen-McCarthy routine.

In our research we asked people: “What did you look at while listening to the radio?” Most answered– “We looked at the radio.” With this as cue, we filmed the reactions on faces of these great radio comedians as each listened to a recording of one of his old programs coming from a vintage radio. But The Great Radio Comedians is not a nostalgia trip; it is an in-depth look at an important and influential popular art form. In their close-up interviews, these performers go beyond nostalgia, giving penetrating analyses of their own comedy, what worked, what didn’t and why. They describe the evolution of their radio characters and their jokes as years passed and times changed. When television arrived, each made a successful transition, becoming early stars of the new medium. These radio comedy shows created the basic form of most contemporary comedy on television. And you know what? The old jokes are still very funny.


“The Great Radio Comedians,” produced and directed by Perry Miller Adato, used interviews, old film footage, sound tapes and photographs to revive and review the routines of Burns and Allen, Bergen and McCarthy, Benny and Allen and Fibber McGee and Molly.

Apart from the fact that it is impossible to transfer the content and impact of radio directly to television, the program succeeded in capturing the flavor of the older medium. Nostalgia, competing with life, can be beautiful.”
– John J. O’Connor, New York Times

“It’s a show about the development and technique of a great lost art,” explained Perry Miller Adato. “And the story is told through the people who created it.”

Together they will reconstruct the development of radio comedy from its roots in vaudeville, using old and often rare film footage, sound tapes, and stills. The veteran comics will explain aspects of their own styles and techniques as well as illuminate those of late performers like Gracie Allen, Fannie Brice, Eddie Cantor and Marian (Molly McGee) Jordan.

…In Addition to the reminiscences of the stars, the show will include some of the classic moments of radio comedy- Jack Benny earning his reputation as a miser when he meets a mugger; skirmishes in the Jack Benny, Fred Allen feud; Benny’s descent into his vault beneath the city of Los Angeles; and Charlie McCarthy’s notorious insult matches with W.C. Fields (“Is that your nose, Mr. Fields, or are you eating a tomato?”) and other Hollywood Stars.”
– San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle


Director: Perry Miller Adato
Producer: Perry Miller Adato
Associate Producer: Aviva Slesin
Writer: Stuart Hample
Film Editor: Geof Bartz
Cameramen: Rick Robertson, Jerry Cotts, Bert Gerard
Camera Animation: Craig Devonshire, WNET/13 Art Dept.
Sound: Jack Reed, Jerry Bruck, Paul Lopresti
Mixer: Gary Liebman
Production Unit Manager: Elizabeth O. Davis
Picture Research: Elise Simon Goodman
Radio Tape Research: Martin Halperin (Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters)

Ken Roberts (radio announcer)
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy
George Burns
Jack Benny
Jim Jordan (of Fibber McGee and Molly)
Bing Crosby
Allen’s Alley cast: Kenny Delmar, Minerva Pious, Peter Donald, Parker Fennelly

Special Acknowledgement to:
American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
American Federation of Musicians
Universal Pictures
CBS Photography Dept.
NBC Photos
Reeves Production Services
Jim Harmon
Chuck Schaden’s Hall Closet
Larry Boyer
University of Texas Theater Collection
Dept. of Special Collections, UCLA
The New York Public Library
Over There and One hour with You sung by Eddie Cantor

Executive Producer: Jac Venza

A production of WNET/13 National Programming Division
©1972 Education Broadcasting Corporation