Radio was still very a local affair on the U.S. West Coast in the early 1930s. The big network stars were based in New York. As technology advanced in the mid-‘30s, the stars moved out West, more and more of them got into radio, and the networks took up more and more of their affiliates’ time. But before that, the West Coast stations had to come up with their own shows in the evening, some of which rivalled what was coming out of New York; “Blue Monday Jamboree” is one that immediately comes to mind.
Similar to the network shows, the locally-produced shows weren’t off the cuff. A Continuity Department was responsible for the scripts, including gag material.
The story also gets into comedy styles of the comedy stars who had, only within the last couple of years, moved into radio.
RADIO “GAG” WRITERS AGONIZE OVER JOKES
It May Be Funny to the Fans, But It’s Mighty Serious Business to the Boys Who Have to Think Up the Laughs
By CARROLL NYE
The serious business of making radio listeners laugh has developed a unique clan among the writing fraternity who live in a strange world of their own and speak a strange language.
We have interviews temperamental radio artists, business-like executives, smart-cracking comics and level-headed technicians but our encounter with a group of “gag” men in the throes of writing a comedy routine proved to be out most novel experience in gleaning slants from the radio realm.
We were attracted by a low moaning sound from one of the cubicle offices adjourning KHJ’s gaudy hall and poked our head in to investigate.
“Look!” exclaimed a lanky red-haired youth, “he poked his head in.”
“To investigate,” added a tall, dark chap with a dour expression.
“Have you a gag?” they asked in unison. We added our lack of same and the low moan was repeated.
When faced with a direct accusation they admitted they were the station’s gag men. The chap with the dour expression was Jack Van Nostrand, continuity editor, and the lad with the flaming locks was Pat Weaver.
The latter arose, with an apparent effort, out of the deep gloom that enveloped him. “Do you realize,” he said, “that if all the gage in the world were laid end to end . . .”
“They wouldn’t go very far,” supplied Van Nostrand.
“Seriously,” we asked, “what is the funniest thing there is?”
“Apparently the funniest thing in the world to a radio audience is a nudist colony,” Weaver declared. “Almost any gag that can be laid in such surroundings will get a laugh. It seems that nudity is funny. I don’t know why.”
AHA, A GAG!
Through all of this disconnected, seemingly inane conversation there was no sign of a smile on their faces. They were two serious workman-like writers engrossed in evolving a gag for radio continuity.
Much of the comedy material is created during just such séances, while the greater part of it is produced from voluminous records kept by professional gag men, continuity writers and the comedians who dispense it over the air.
Ed Wynn has one of the largest libraries of comedy material and jokes extant and is constantly on the lookout for additional material. He commissioned one of his employees to be on the alert for joke books, regardless of their age or antiquity. The jokes contained in these books are then read and re-read by Wynn’s writing staff—annotated, cross-indexed and filed for future reference.
Grant Garrett, one of Eddie Cantor’s staff, employs another method. He jots down every funny story, situation and gag he hears. In turn, he writes them out in full and files them in a loose-leaf notebook, under his own classifications. In this book, one of three, each containing in the neighborhood of 100,000 gags, Garrett also makes note of any new or original gags. These, however, he lists under the “snapper,” or punch-line classification. The method of underlying this apparent madness is to prevent another writer stumbling across the material and lifting the entire joke.
A TRIPLE JOB
Various radio comedians divide their writing staffs into three groups: Situation men, gag men and rewrite men. The situation men have as their function the creation of the locale for a comedy skit and its underlying plot. The gag men hang jokes on this situation framework and the rewrite men polish up the script.
Different types of comedians require different types of material and, of necessity, different types of radio writers. The mad Marx brothers, for instance, employed the services of Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin, two writers with a distinctive “Marxian” style. They are as lucid and sane as any other members of the writing fraternity—save when they are writing for Groucho and Chico. Then they are Groucho and Chico, and think, act and write exactly as the two mad-caps.
“Gagdom” has its own slang vernacular. The “snapper,” or punch-line, is the laugh line of a joke. A gag that has been “kicked around” is a joke that has been used time and time again. A “build-up” is the dialogue which sets the situation for the laugh which comes with the “snapper.”
Jack Pearl and Ed Wynn are masters of this style because they continue to fatten a comedy situation to the point of “milking” or securing every possible laugh from the listeners.
Sterling Holloway is adept at dispensing “throw-away” lines in which the laugh line is mumbled or spoken carelessly.
Gags are either “smart” or “dumb.” Jack Benny and Gill and Doemling are exponents of the smart cracks, while Gracie Allen and Sylvia Picker are proponents of “dumb lines.”
So goes the business of writing for radio. Writers burn the midnight oil and write in agony as they manufacture laugh lines which last a few seconds over the ether lanes---only to crop up again on another comedian’s routine in a few days or few weeks.
But the classic of unconscious humor occurred when a weary gag man, playing straight for a change, signed off KHJ’s broadcast of the March earthquake with: “The broadcast of this earthquake, originating in the studios of KHJ, comes to you through the facilities of the Columbia Broadcasting System.”