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.