Fibber McGee and Molly: Enduring Radio Comedy

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Jim and Marian Jordan as Fibber McGee and Molly in 1937

Fibber McGee and Molly was once considered one of the best radio comedies during the first half of the 20th century.

Although Fibber McGee and Molly took to the airwaves on April 16th, 1935, the seeds were planted over the previous decade by Jim and Marian Jordan, a husband and wife vaudeville team from Peoria, Illinois. By the time Fibber McGee and Molly aired, both were radio veterans, having appeared in numerous regionally broadcast programs. It was during these years that the characters who became Fibber and Molly McGee were created. Fibber and Molly McGee began as, in the words of John Dunning, “a middle-aged pair of married vagabonds who travel down America’s highways,” but soon settled in at 79 Wistful Vista. Once this happened, a cast of recurring characters was introduced and the show quickly emerged as a radio comedy powerhouse.

After Fibber and Molly settled into their home, each show would open with the announcer (Harlow Wilcox) setting the stage and inviting the audience to Wistful Vista where they would find Fibber McGee and Molly!” The show’s format rarely varied and was built around Fibber’s exploits, which ranged from failed attempts at household chores to get-rich-quick schemes, while Molly and the all-too frequent visitors to the McGee household responded to his misadventures.

The Cast of Fibber McGee and Molly

Jim Jordan portrayed Fibber, who each week lived up to his name, regaling the audience with stories of his past in vaudeville while failing at virtually every task he undertakes. Fibber also felt that as a noted citizen, he deserved preferential treatment and could often be found railing against some perceived injustice be it a parking ticket or gas rationing. One of the more notable recurring jokes for Fibber involved him attempting to open an overflowing hall closet which was invariably followed by the sound of clutter hitting the floor. Molly McGee was Fibber’s long-suffering wife and was, essentially, the foil for Fibber’s buffoonery. She patiently tolerated McGee’s failures while trying to steer him in the right direction. When McGee said or did something that crossed the line, which happened with great regularity, she would exclaim “‘t ain’t funny McGee!”

Although the McGee’s were the central characters, the show likely wouldn’t have been as successful without the supporting cast. Each week, Fibber and Molly received visitors at just the right time. In addition to Molly, Marian Jordan played Teeny, a neighborhood child who dropped by to torment Fibber. Gale Gordon (who also portrayed Osgood Conklin on Our Miss Brooks) was Mayor Latrivia, Bill Thompson was Wallace Wimple and The Old Timer, Arthur Q. Bryan (who was the voice of Elmer Fudd in Warner Brother’s cartoons) portrayed Doc Gamble, and Harold Peary played Gildersleeve (a role he continued in The Great Gildersleeve).

Recurring Jokes in Fibber McGee and Molly

One of the things that made Fibber McGee and Molly so successful was that audiences could almost always sense what was coming. Much of the humor on the show was built around characters having catch phrases or running gags. For example, whenever Fibber and Molly encountered the Old Timer, Fibber’s stories would always be received as “pretty good, Johnny, but that’s not the way I heered it. The way I heered it, one feller said t’ the other feller, he said….”

Another recurring theme involved Fibber and Molly’s interactions with Mayor Latrivia, a hotheaded and easily flustered sort. Each week, Molly and Fibber intentionally misunderstood Latrivia’s explanations about some common-place item and get him so agitated that he would confuse all of his words and eventually threaten Fibber’s well-being in creative ways. These interactions marked the only instance where both Fibber and Molly are in on the joke.

A third oft used scenario involved the show’s sponsors (Johnson’s Wax, Pet Milk, and Reynolds Aluminum). Each week, regardless of what the McGee household was up to, Harlow Wilcox found them. Despite Fibber’s best efforts to avoid the subject, Wilcox managed to steer the conversation towards the show’s sponsor. While the “commercial” was airing, Fibber could often be heard muttering in the background.

The Legacy of Fibber McGee and Molly

The cancellation of Fibber McGee and Molly in 1959 marked the true end of radio’s “golden age”. However, its legacy lives on. In addition to the radio program, Jim and Marian Jordan reprised their roles as Fibber and Molly in four feature films while Gildersleeve made appearances in a number of films, as did some of the other supporting cast. Warner Bros. cartoons made while Fibber McGee and Molly aired frequently made use of the catchphrases and gags used on the show. More recently, references to Fibber McGee and Molly have been made on the television shows Mystery Science Theater 3000 and NewsRadio as well as in the film Paper Moon.

Source:

  1. Dunning, John, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Oxford University Press, 1998.