Friday, May 02, 2008

Old Radio/New Laughs

This week I've been talking about the old-time radio programs I now receive as podcasts from Radio Time Zone. I subscribe to their comedy channel, which sends me a selection of different programs. I've heard episodes of "You Bet Your Life" with Groucho Marx, "Life of Riley" with William Bendix, "Our Miss Brooks" with Eve Arden, and many more.

To folks who've only known the offerings of current radio, it's easy to equate audio comedy with shock jocks. After all, there hasn't really been anything else for some time. People in my parent's generation were often quick to point out that radio humor in "the good old days" was clean and, therefore, better.

I don't totally agree with that. I'm not so concerned with clean vs. dirty as I am with the quality of the humor. Wordplay, comedic timing, delivery of lines -- those are some of the elements that make for humor that can be revisited again and again, even after the punchline's well-known.

Here's a good example from the "Jack Benny Program." Over the years, Jack Benny carefully constructed a public persona as a cheap, vain and somewhat shallow individual who often found himself put upon by others. Jack Benny's show wasn't a sitcom per se, it was about Jack Benny and his cast putting on the "Jack Benny Program." Of course, a real studio wouldn't have an outside line that could ring in at any time, nor an unattended door that anyone could knock on -- but these few simple sound effects allowed many different characters to be injected into the conversation.

In this broadcast from 1945, the cast is entertaining the troops at Mitchell Field. Jack Benny, Mary Livingston (his sometime girlfriend on the radio; his wife in real life), and bandmaster Phil Harris (best know today as voice of Baloo from Disney's "Jungle Book") talk their plans for after the show with guest star Ann Sheridan, a popular actress who starred with Benny in "George Washington Slept Here."

Notice the rapid-fire byplay of the dialogue, and how jokes are built one upon the other to provide even more humor. The description of Benny's girlfriend is funny in itself, but when it's referred to by Elmer towards the end, it seems even more so.

So can something over a half-century old still be funny? After listening to more than a few of these programs, I have to say "yes." Is Jack Benny, et al. better than the current crop of comics? Not necessarily. It's a different kind of humor, and it works on a different level.

All I know is that when I listen to this podcast I laugh all the way down the road.

- Ralph

BTW - you can hear the complete episode here.

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