Radio Comedy During the Great Depression and World War II

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Radio: The Internet of the 1930s (Photo: Library of Congress)

As radio’s popularity peaked between the late 1920’s and 1940’s, laughter and comedy played an important role in broadcasting.

Radio’s emergence as a mass media coincided with a number of other significant events including the Depression and World War II. In his book On the Air: the Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, John Dunning discusses how radio is a “living history” and suggests that “scholars will always look to those three decades of American broadcasting as the prime force in shaping its generation.” Nowhere is this truer than in the role that radio comedy played in grabbing the consciousness of the American public. For many people, the opportunity to laugh at shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy was a welcome relief. Some comedy shows even had philanthropic efforts integrated into them.

Varieties of Radio Comedy

Radio comedy was a wide open genre and listeners could choose to listen to a variety of different shows, from vaudeville acts and situation comedies to variety shows. Popular shows included:

  • The Jack Benny Program
  • Fibber McGee & Molly
  • Amos ‘n’ Andy
  • Great Gildersleeve
  • The Life of Riley
  • Our Miss Brooks

Although these shows are based around humor and comedy, music was often front-and-center in the structuring of these programs. Many shows had dedicated orchestras and bands that played during “scene” changes.

Origins of Radio Comedy

Many radio comedians started their careers in vaudeville which was a very different experience from radio broadcasting. In Great American Broadcast, Leonard Maltin quotes George Burns describing how vaudeville allowed performers to “play for eight or nine years without repeating one theater. So you never had to change.” This was certainly not the case with radio.

Because new content was needed weekly or twice weekly, comedy writers were constantly sharing ideas with one another to the point where, as Maltin puts it, “ tried-and-true situations, catchphrases, running gags, and supporting characters with their own unvarying ‘schtick’ were part and parcel of radio comedy.”

Radio Comedy Aids Propaganda and War Efforts

As World War II began, radio broadcasts began to play a fairly significant role in the war effort or, at least, in ensuring public support for the war effort. Radio comedy was very much involved in this. Shows such as Fibber McGee & Molly regularly drew audiences of 30 million people and were, essentially, a captive audience. In Radio Goes to War: The Cultural Politics of Propaganda during World War II, Gerd Horten describes how, as wartime measures such as rationing were implemented, shows began to reinforce the necessity of these actions. There were a number of ways that this was done. One method was simply through a sponsor’s advertisement.

Other shows chose to be more direct and have their characters encounter the restrictions and learn to cope with them. This was definitely true of Fibber McGee and Molly. Hot-tempered Fibber would, as the show opened, invariably feel slighted by some form of government rationing. By show’s end, though, Fibber, through the urging of his wife and neighbors, would relent and recognize the benefits. Often, the airing of these episodes coincided with the announcement of the war measure.

Although radio comedy’s primary goal was entertainment, its greater effect was as an important component of, as Dunning says, the “shaping” of America during the Great Depression and through Wold War II.

Sources:

  1. Dunning, John, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Oxford University Press, 1998.
  2. Horten, Gerd, Radio Goes to War: The Cultural Politics of Propaganda during World War II, University of California Press, 2002.
  3. Maltin, Leonard, The Great American Broadcast, Penguin Books, 1997.