Old Time Radio 101: Popular Comedy/Variety Shows

This is an article series that’s really written for people who have little to no background in the Golden Age of Radio. You might wonder what old-time radio programs are out there, and what are the sort of well-loved must-listen-to shows that are staples of the Golden Age.

By no means are these the only shows or even the best shows or the shows you might like best. In most of these genres I’ve enjoyed series that are a bit more off the beaten path or a bit more specialized. But these are a good place to start to find out what programs you might enjoy from the shows that other generations of fans have liked. In most cases, there’s a large number of episodes available, so if you really connect, you’ll have a lot of entertainment in store.

I’m basing these recommendations on factors such as induction into the Radio Hall of Fame, as well as observations on what the most popular programs seem to be and which come up most with casual old-time radio fans and not necessarily my favorites.

In this first article, we’re going to cover comedy/variety programs that are a combination of sketches and musical numbers, as opposed to sitcoms. Next week, we’ll include sitcoms and game shows.

The Jack Benny Show

Simply put, Jack Benny was the biggest name in the golden age of radio comedy. The Jack Benny Show was a top-rated program for twenty years. Benny showed himself adept at evolving his style and performances to change with the times, while also building one of the best supporting casts in radio, including announcer Don Wilson, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, bandleader Phil Harris, and singer Dennis Day. The latter two actually had their own successful sitcoms. Benny’s running gags, such as his character’s cheapness, his attempts at playing the violin, his claim to being thirty-nine years old for decades, and Benny’s ego were established pop culture ideas and even served as fodder for other comedians.  Benny’s success continued with Emmy- and Golden Glove Award-winning work on television. The earliest Jack Benny shows are interesting as historical artifacts but he really hits his stride in the mid-late 1930s.

The Fred Allen Show

Fred Allen was a master of wit and sarcasm, and was a trailblazer in the realm of radio satire. He hosted radio comedy programs for various sponsors from 1932-49, with his wife, Portland Hoffa, appearing in most of them. Allen was best remembered from his long-running comedic feud with Jack Benny. Also, Allen’s later radio shows (beginning in December 1942) featured a segment called Allen’s Alley, where a cast of wacky characters answered a question or commented on a news item of the day.

The Bob Hope Show

Bob Hope hosted radio programs for Pepsodent, Jello, and finally Chesterfield Cigarette over a 16-year period from 1939-55. Hope enjoyed immense popularity that was buoyed by his his invaluable work entertaining US troops overseas. Hope delivered snappy opening monologues that were filled with topical jokes, which can leave modern audiences unfamiliar with the news of Hope’s day a bit confused. However, Hope was a strong ad-libber. For most of his radio run, he was supported by “Professor” Jerry Colonna, a mustached comedian whose absurdist lines drew nearly as many laughs as Hope. Hope also featured some of the best stars in Hollywood as guest stars.

The Red Skelton Show

Skelton probably had fewer guest stars on his show than any program on this list. After a bit of monologing, most episodes became a mix of songs and sketches, all of them starring Skelton. Skelton created multiple beloved characters: Clem Kadiddlehopper; the outlaw Deadeye; Willy Lump-Lump; and, most popular of all, Junior, the “Mean Widdle Kid”, a young boy who was easily far more dangerous than the outlaw.  He was great at ad-libbing a sketch, and when he or anyone else flubbed a line, he was sure to let listeners know and make it a hilarious moment. While Skelon was light-hearted, he would often surprise listeners with a poignant or thought-provoking piece. He also considered coming into people’s homes via radio to be a trust that should not be abused. Skelton’s program ran from 1939-53.

The Abbott and Costello Show

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are best known for the “Who’s on First” baseball comedy routine, but fans of classic comedy know them as one of the best teams on the silver screen. Their films have maintained enough popularity that their radio program remains a natural draw. They had their own radio series as a summer replacement in 1940 before getting their own time slot. On radio, you get typical Abbot and Costello verbal comedy with all the clever wordplay and the brilliant delivery. The radio show didn’t have any way to feature Costello’s brilliant physical comedy skills, but the show makes up for it by allowing the two to play off some interesting guest stars, including Lucille Ball, Bugs Bunny, Cary Grant, and Alan Ladd. In the later years, they also did an Abbott and Costello Kids program that was tied to the work of the Lou Costello, Jr. foundation.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Shows

One of radio’s quintessential acts, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen found success with his dummy Charlie McCarthy on the Royal Gelatin Hour. In 1937, they became a featured comedy act on the new Chase and Sanborn Hour. The series would change names and sponsors over the years, becoming The Charlie McCarthy Show and eventually The New Edgar Bergen Hour. The series had varying lengths and features, but until the end seem to feature Hollywood’s A-list as guest stars, from Mae West to Liberace. Charlie McCarthy was a mischievous character who made cutting remarks to guests, argued with Bergen, and also got into all sorts of trouble, and even had a romance with Marilyn Monroe at one point. Bergen was the straight man to Charlie, making for a fascinating one man comedy team.

Next week: Sitcoms and Game Shows

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