Life of Riley: Early Situation Comedy

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Riley and son Junior.

The Life of Riley was a radio comedy that aired from January 16, 1944 through June 29, 1951. Originally airing on ABC, it jumped to NBC after one season.

William Bendix starred as Chester A. Riley: war worker, family man, card carrying member of the BPLA (Brooklyn Patriots of Los Angeles), and ignoramus. Riley always looked out for his wife Peg and his children Barbara (Babs) and Junior. Often, though, his familial concern was to the detriment of those he was trying to protect. A film actor who usually played “hard-boiled” characters, Bendix and Irving Brecher (one of the creators of The Life of Riley) saw the role as an opportunity to branch out and avoid being typecast. It certainly worked. The character of Riley is certainly Bendix’ most memorable. The Life of Riley was among the more popular radio shows shows during the first half of the 20th century.

The Cast of The Life of Riley

  • Chester A. Riley – William Bendix
  • Peg Riley – Paula Winslowe
  • Babs Riley – Sharon Douglas (1944-1947), Barbara Eiler (1947-1951)
  • Junior Riley – Conrad Binyon, Scotty Beckett, Jack Grimes, Bobby Ellis, Tommy Cook
  • Uncle Baxter – Hans Conrad
  • Digby O’Dell – John Brown
  • Jim Gillis – John Brown
  • Francis Trout – Waldo Binny
  • Charlie Cantor – Uncle Buckley
  • Shirley Mitchell – Honeybee Gillis
  • Alan Reed – Mr. Stevenson

For a radio comedy, The Life of Riley had a big supporting cast of characters. However, all of the show’s humour was built around Riley’s interractions with the world around him. Lacking intelligence, each week Riley found himself embroiled in some new misadventure. One week, he might be trying to show Peg how to run a household on a budget, the next he might be pitying Babs’ inability to find a date. His efforts were always misguided and even though his widespread troubles were self-inflicted, Riley never learned from his mistakes. Whenever the troubles seemed too much he’s exclaim “What a revoltin’ development this is!” while being bailed out by his long-suffering family.

Recurring Jokes in The Life of Riley

Like many radio comedies, The Life of Riley relied on “running gags” for the show’s humour. Digby O’Dell was the “Friendly Undertaker” and gallows humour was the order of the day. Riley would be wallowing in self-pity, hoping for the “earth to swallow him up” or some similar phrase. Conveniently, Digger would be within earshot and caution Riley against such thoughts. After dispensing his wisdom, he would conclude by saying “I’d better be shoveling off” and citing some meeting of the Undertaker’s Embalmers and Pallbearer’s association.

The Legacy of The Life of Riley

The Life of Riley was one of the shows that made the transition from radio to television, and actually had two separate runs. Due to a film contract, Bendix was initially unable to play Riley on television. Instead the role went to Jackie Gleason. Fans of the radio program had difficulty connecting to Gleason and due to difficulties with the show’s sponsors the show was cancelled in 1950. However, Bendix was again available by 1953 and the show was resurrected. It went on to have a distinguished run for the next 5 years.

In 1949, a movie version of The Life of Riley was made starring Bendix, John Brown, Rosemary DeCamp, and Lanny Rees.

Unquestionably, the character of Riley inspired other television and film character from Ed O’Neil’s Al Bundy on Married with Children, to even Homer Simpson. All of these characters are “blue-collar” Americans and all struggle to integrate themselves into their world due, in part, to a lack of intelligence. Where the characters differ, however, is that while Simpson and Bundy appear lazy, Riley is actually quite motivated and hard-working.

Sources:

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