I love old-time radio (OTR). An 80s kid, I grew up on three-camera sitcoms about loving families and six thousand good-enough comedies being run four times a week on HBO. At some point around the age of 10, I found out about audio comedy. We had some standup records and I had a few favorite comics, but that was just a guy talking. Then one day, my older brother got a Monty Python cassette. Here were fully immersive worlds with characters that appeared in your mind. You occupied them for a few minutes, and then it went to the next sketch. I was amazed. Looking back, they were just two or three guys talking with one or two stock sound effects, but those simple tools in the hands of terrific writers and performers exploded into worlds of hilarity.
Later on I found out about other audio shows, but it was all from the 70s or earlier. The Firesign Theatre, Cheech and Chong, Abbott and Costello. The local NPR station played Jack Benny on Sunday nights, which was great, but it was older than my parents. The only new comedy albums were standup or Weird Al (which I obsessed over). Anyone who could write a show like that was working on a sitcom or Saturday Night Live. Audio comedy seemed lost to the ages, a finite resource.
And then Adam Sandler’s first tape came out. It had sketches! Real life sketches with characters and plots and sound effects and everything! You could still do it, even in the 90s! It’s not dead! (I was like 12, so the concept of making stuff that you wish there were more of didn’t occur to me.) As I grew into an arrogant teenager and my horizons expanded, I found these things popping up more frequently. Rap albums had tracks where they just talked. The Tenacious D album had a few sketches between their songs. My buddy and I made a couple of funny music albums with some sketch-y bits. My college radio show, “The Big Waste of Time”, included a satirical wrestling show (I know, but it was incredible). And then podcasts were invented.
Podcasts changed everything. Sure, most of them are “Three Wacky White Guys Funnin’ Around About Whatever!”, but some replay these old radio shows. (Buck Benny’s is the best by far!) Along with YouTube and Archive.org, podcasts have made it possible to find thousands and thousands of old radio shows. Then people started making new ones. “The Thrilling Adventure Hour” is the best known, and it’s easy to argue that true-crime shows like “Serial” belong to the category, too. Call it radio drama, OTR-style programs, the theater of the mind, audio series, whatever. But there are hundreds of podcasts (like mine, “Bunkum”) inspired by those fantastic old radio shows and creating new ones for today. It’s a good time to be alive if you’re an obsessive nerd like me.
So if you have a long commute, spend a lot of time on planes, or have a job where you can turn your brain off (and won’t get injured because you can’t hear some machinery coming your way), look for some of these. Buck Benny’s podcast (called, handily, “Jack Benny Show – OTR Podcast”) is a great place to start. He’s played all sorts of different shows from the 30s, 40s, and 50s like Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, “Suspense”, “You Bet Your Life”, “Lights Out”, “The Great Gildersleeve”, and “Gunsmoke”.
Once you know what tickles your fancy, google them to see what shows are similar and check if they’re on Archive.org. They have at least a few episodes of most old programs, even precursors to successful TV shows like Lucille Ball’s “My Favorite Husband” and Rod Serling’s “Adventure Express”. It’s like movies and books — there’s a genre for everybody. Happy listening!