The Five Best OTR Shows

As I’ve mentioned, I loooooove old radio shows. Comedies, dramas, westerns, game shows, I love them all. It’s just like any other medium; a lot of it’s filler and crap, but some of it is spectacular. With that in mind, here are The Five Best OTR Shows According to Me, the Universe’s Expert on All Matters!

 

5. Burns and Allen

There were a million husband-and-wife comedy acts that made the transition from vaudeville to radio. George Burns and Gracie Allen were one of the best. Gracie’s comedic talents were top-notch and her publicity stunts (such as running for president on the Surprise Party ticket) were a delight. George was no slouch, either. As a straight man he was grouchy and witty, the normal bystander to the screwball world his co-stars inhabited. His best friend Jack Benny always saw George Burns as the funniest person alive.

Like most of the programs on this list, though, what made Burns and Allen stand out was their supporting cast. Their dopey bandleader, Meredith Wilson, brought his “aw shucks” country mouse naivete to every line without being a Tex Avery-esque caricature like Judy Canova or Carol Burnett, as hilarious as they were. (I have a big soft spot for Judy Canova. Switching from a goofball to a wonderful singer in a heartbeat, she built the mold that Carol Burnett perfected.)

Mr. Postman (Mel Blanc) was also wonderful. I don’t know if he or “Fibber McGee and Molly”‘s Mr. Wimple (Bill Thompson, aka Droopy) was first, but both were abused husbands whose wives threw them around and endangered their lives on a weekly basis. It was comedy gold.

The cast member who put Burns and Allen over the top, though, was their announcer, Bill Goodwin. Goodwin played the most arrogant Hollywood wolf imaginable. He casually talked about his four dates lined up that night and how he bought engagement rings by the gross. And he could steer any conversation back to the sponsor, Maxwell House coffee. Now this in itself isn’t so unusual. All the great announcers did this back then: Don Wilson and Harlow Wilcox especially were able to shoehorn their sponsors’ products into any topic. But they played salesmen where Goodwin played a sleaze. A delightful, charming, funny sleaze that anyone would love to be friends with, but not a salesman. He was just obsessed with that darn coffee.

One of my favorite bits of any medium was the episode when Burns and Allen switched sponsors. In the 1945 season premiere, they approach Bill to see if he’ll return as their announcer for the new season and he flat-out refuses. He says he’s a big movie star now and he loves his new lifestyle. He’s got money and women and fame and women and luxury and women, so he’s through with radio for good. He makes a big scene about it. He says there’s no amount of money Burns could offer him to make him return to radio. George says that’s too bad because they’ve got a new sponsor, Maxwell House. Bill lights up instantly. Maxwell House?!? Oh boy, he could talk about their coffee all day! It’s the best. You know it’s coming, but it’s still shocking how quickly he pulls that 180.

 

4. X Minus One

“X Minus One” is in a genre dominated by other superb programs. “Suspense” is perfect. “The Mercury Theatre” and its reincarnation as “The Campbell Playhouse” are amazing. “Lights Out” is fantastic. But those shows are about ordinary people who, when put in extraordinary circumstances, become heroic. They act like people in a thriller. “X Minus One” has no time for these characters.

The stories start with a normal person who is placed in a strange situation and who remains normal. There are no heroics. They’re reluctant to become a protagonist and just want to go home or get back to work. “X Minus One” takes something as incredible as an alien ambassador coming to town or a colony on Mars rebelling against the government back on Earth and makes the guy at the bottom of the dogpile some schlub with astounding results.

Like the other science fiction shows of its time, “X Minus One” was written by some of the best sci-fi writers of the day. It was always considered a junk genre for kids until fancy storytellers like Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg got involved. Without the pressure of legitimacy squeezing them, these writers were able to come up with some of the most imaginative stories and deepest social criticism of the age. Even if some episodes aren’t 100% solid, there’s always some facet of them that’s really enjoyable: the acting, the dazzle, or the writing. The other science fiction and thriller programs may be perfectly constructed, but like a magician, “X Minus One” gleefully knocks down a few load-bearing walls and keeps the structure up almost by willpower. A spectacular show.

 

3. The Six Shooter

A lot of westerns, like “Frontier Gentleman”, are solidly built, terrifically told shows. “Gunsmoke” is a perfect western. I cannot emphasize that enough. The acting, the writing, the production, the themes, everything. It’s perfect. But those shows don’t have Jimmy Stewart.

“The Six-Shooter” stars Stewart as a man who is the fastest draw, but is reluctant to do so. Britt Ponset doesn’t look for trouble. When trouble arises, he tries to find an amicable way out of it. Like Marshal Dillon in “Gunsmoke”, he’s seen death too many times and too often at his own hands and he’d rather not see it again any time soon. But sometimes he has to draw.

Ponset’s wary, tired, half-stuttering voice maintains that reluctance, unlike when Dillon snaps into action to put a man down like a mad dog. The fact that Ponset just wants to walk away from the trouble and get a meal before moving on to the next job makes him relatable. Few of us would fare well if dropped into the lawless world of the Old West. But Ponset provides a way for the peace-loving world to win the day…until it doesn’t and he’s forced to stop being civil. He’s never happy to take a life, even when his own is in danger. There’s no relief. Just resignation and regret.

This all makes a great show, but what makes “The Six Shooter” extra special is Jimmy Stewart’s narration. He smoothly transitions the story from his reminiscing about a time when he yadda yadda yadda to being in that plot. He usually does it by talking to his horse, Scar, telling him to settle down, and then someone calls out to him. It’s seamless. It’s perfect. When he’s in danger, his narration shifts to a hoarse whisper so the bandits don’t hear him telling us about it. When he’s on the trail, his everyman voice is charming and clear in that unique Stewart way. Few other actors could have carried that show to success. I can imagine Gregory Peck or George Clooney doing a decent job, but it would be a very different show, and we’d be poorer for it.

 

2 and 1 (tied). The Goon Show and Jack Benny

I just can’t bring myself to pick a favorite between these two. The greatness and impact of “The Goon Show” and Jack Benny (officially called “The Jell-O Program”, “The Grape Nuts Flakes Program”, and “The Lucky Strike Program”, depending on that season’s sponsor) are well-established. There are multiple books about each show that go on about how wonderful they are, but I suggest listening to every episode you can find and becoming an obsessive fan like me. They’re the best. The. Best.

Both shows shared many core strengths. The writing is quick and brilliant. The characters are silly and their catch phrases (a bore on most shows) are performed with so much energy that they’re infectious. No one takes themselves seriously. No one is a Star, which makes everyone a star. There’s no one character with all the great lines, so everybody shines. They’re two very different, but perfect shows built on the same foundations.

I first heard Jack Benny in my dad’s truck in maybe 1990 when the local NPR station was playing a Jack Benny episode. I hazily remember it was Halloween and he was being a cheapskate to the neighborhood kids. What struck me wasn’t the great jokes, but how this selfish, miserly, petty old man was so darn lovable. If graded on a rubric, the character of Jack Benny would be a solid The Worst. He’s undeservedly vain. He lies about his age. He’s cheap. He’s a know-it-all. He’s jealous of anyone else getting the attention. But we love him. He’s like a child, somewhere between the angry, whiny preschool age and the serious, suddenly worldly middle school age. But he also wears a toupee.

Jack’s main cast consisted of himself and five people: Mary Livingstone, his real-life wife; Jack’s butler, Rochester, played by Eddie Anderson; Don Wilson, the show’s announcer; the bandleader (Phil Harris, and then Bob Crosby, Bing’s brother, for the last couple of years); and the dimwitted tenor (Kenny Baker for the first few years, then Dennis Day). Generally, Jack was childish, Mary was a smart alec, Rochester found ways of getting one over on Jack, Don got teased for his weight and wedged the sponsor into any conversation, Phil was an illiterate drunk who couldn’t read music, and Dennis was a goofy idiot.

Starting in the 1940s, the Sportsmen Quartet would sing a popular song with new lyrics about the sponsor, Lucky Strike cigarettes. This was the most popular quartet in the business. They were stars in their own right and appeared on the biggest programs, and they acted completely insane and silly, driving Jack crazy. It’s pure delirious joy.

The six of them could carry a show by themselves and their fabulous chemistry (the Sportsmen were more of a device than characters), but the show also had long roster of popular minor characters, many of whom would just pop up in the show for a 15-second bit once or twice a month. These include Frank Nelson (the “Ye-e-e-e-e-es?” guy) as an abusive waiter or store clerk; a racetrack tout giving tips on everything from trains to lunches; two telephone operators played by the inimitable Bea Benaderet and Sara Berner; Dennis’ mother, played by Verna Felton, who played every overbearing mother-in-law type in the 40s and 50s; Ed, the man who’s been guarding Jack’s vault since the Civil War; the Yiddish stereotype, Mr. Kitzel; the “I dunno” guy, Benny Rubin; Jack’s bald secretary, Harry Baldwin (I swear, that’s his name!); and a polar bear, a parrot, Sy (“Sy?” “Si.”), the train station announcer, Jack’s miserable violin teacher, and Jack’s ancient car, all voiced by the immortal Mel Blanc. Any of these could show up at any point, and they were all beloved by the audience.

That paradoxically comforting unpredictability is what made Jack’s show special. Anything could happen. They could put on a parody of a popular movie. They could go Christmas shopping. They could spend the entire show at the diner across the street, where the soda jerk and the cook were played by Jack’s two best writers, Ed Beloin and Bill Morrow. (Oh, how I wish I could imitate Ed Beloin’s voice! It’s a great voice.) You never knew what would happen, but you knew each character so well that their reactions rang true and you knew this joke is a Mary joke and that one is a Dennis joke.

Whew! That was a lot. Now, what about “The Goon Show”?

Like Jack Benny, “The Goon Show” had a zillion characters who were all oddballs, idiots, and weirdos. Unlike Benny’s show, each actor did not play just their one bit character. The main cast consisted of Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan, and Peter Sellers (yes, THAT Peter Sellers). Harry stuck mainly to the protagonist, Neddie Seagoon. Barring the occassional guest star and, of course, their hilariously posh announcer Wallace Greenslade, Spike and Peter played everybody else. They often appeared as two characters in the same scene, with three actors playing five parts. Michael Bentine was the fourth Goon for the first two seasons before leaving. Sadly, most of the surviving recordings don’t include these early seasons.

Spike played the French villain Moriarty, little old lady Minnie Bannister, astonishingly stupid teenager Eccles (my favorite), and minor characters like the nervous soldier, Little Jim, Mr. Throat (aka Gladys), and the frantic Adolphus Spriggs. Sellers played arch villain Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, the flatulent pervert Major Bloodnok, decrepit old man Henry Crun (Minnie’s friend or husband), American announcer Earnest Hern (they called Americans “Herns” because of our accent), and Eccles’ young friend Bluebottle. Most of these characters appeared in every half-hour episode. All three of them also played one-off characters and some recurring minor characters. Each character sounded completely different and very few of their jokes would land if given to another character.

Besides performing over a third of the characters, Spike also wrote or co-wrote almost every episode, usually with Larry Stephens. This workload was so stressful that he suffered multiple breakdowns and had to be hospitalized a few times. This was also due to his PTSD, which he developed while serving in Italy in World War II, which is also where he met Sellers and Secombe. The fact that most of the comedy sprang from three people is likely why it’s so cohesive and can go so far while remaining tethered to its core. When a show or a band is run by two or three close-knit people (often siblings), the creative output is amazing.

What made “The Goon Show” special is a combination of what made all the shows previously mentioned special. It has a deep bench of characters. The performers are at the top of their game and share a chemistry built organically over a decade. It’s written by only one, two, or three people, avoiding the “too many cooks” problem. No one is heroic or amazing; they’re stupid, cowardly, selfish, and petty. The stories have clear protagonists and antagonists; they just happen to be crazy idiots.

Besides starting the electrifying career of Peter Sellers and the less enormous but still wildly successful careers of Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan, “The Goon Show” was also the instrument by which the BBC Radiophonic Workshop went from a simple library of standard sound effects to an innovative studio where truly creative artists constructed made-to-order sound effects based on what Spike’s script called for that week. These were complex, dynamic tracks that could often tell the story by themselves for a relatively long time. Some of the Goons’ best jokes consisted solely of sound effects and the audience’s expectations, such as when Neddie and Henry walk upstairs to the top of a lighthouse and the show becomes 30 seconds of footsteps. It’s normal, then awkward, then hilarious. At the top, Henry says something like “A comedy writer named Milligan said I would help him in his work if I took a long time”.

While Jack Benny’s jokes could be silly and cartoonish, “The Goon Show” was often much braver in its absurdism. Taxis explode into being out of thin air. An announcer abruptly takes us into Neddie’s stomach to hear him digest a bad clam. Henry takes dictation, repeating each of Neddie’s phrases for almost a full minute before saying, “No, it’s no use, I’d better go get a pencil.” These gags illustrate another key quality of the Goons: they had jokes that could only exist in audio. Most radio programs were more or less stage plays or vaudeville routines minus the visual aspect. They were fun and very well-done, but when one of the most popular shows was the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Mortimer Snerd, you’ve got to wonder if anyone was thinking of radio as its own medium. Many of the Goons’ jokes took place in your imagination. When there’s a knock on the door and Neddie calls, “Come in”, to which Bloodnok replies, “It’s you that’s outside”, that’s a joke that only works over audio. It’s a surprise, it’s spoiling the expectation, and if you can see him standing there, there’s no joke. At least not a successful one.

What these five programs demonstrate is mostly common knowledge among successful writers of TV, stage, and screen: great shows come from great characters. That doesn’t mean they have to be relatable or sympathetic or even fully developed (though that helps). But they do need to be specific. You shouldn’t be able to give Joe’s lines to Lisa because they should be distinct from one another. Jack tells Jack jokes and Dennis tells Dennis jokes and Mary tells Mary jokes. Britt Ponset tells Doc Holliday to calm down because that’s how he lives his life. The protagonists of “X Minus One” don’t behave like the protagonists of “Suspense”. Everything else comes second.

So that’s, in my perfect and unimpeachable opinion, the five best old-time radio programs. I haven’t heard every single show that existed from 1930 to 1960, so I might have missed a good one, but boy oh boy are there a lot of them. And now that I’ve gotten all these thoughts out of my big dumb brain, I can get back to work on my own shows.

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