Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Elusive Radio Success

Not-altogether-bright husband. Long-suffering wife. Anxious teenaged daughter. Precocious younger son. Loud boss. Misunderstandings. Mix them all together. How many family comedies of the Golden Age of Radio does that describe?

Too many.

I’m not a big fan of most old-time radio situation comedies. Jokes were obvious. Situations were contrived. Characters behaved unbelievably. There were exceptions, of course, but it was easier for writers to take the same old stuff and adapt it for another show. That way, networks could introduce “new” comedies but they would still have an air of familiarity for the audience (and sponsors, who preferred the tried-and-true).

One of the successful comedians of comedy short films in the second half of the ‘40s was George O’Hanlon. For more than 50 years, he’s been known for the role he played in 24 half-hours that were shown over and over and over on Saturday mornings. He was the voice of George Jetson. But almost 20 years before that, he starred in the clever Joe McDoakes “Behind the Eight Ball” series for Warner Bros. The premise? Joe failed to accomplish the goal of the title of the short (eg. “So You Want to be a Cowboy”). What made them fun was the satire going on around the plot. The best ones were pretty clever. Their success hatched the idea of developing some kind of radio sitcom around O’Hanlon’s talents. But it didn’t pan out.

For one thing, O’Hanlon’s show was picked up by the Mutual network. Mutual was a low-financed co-operative venture, known for detective shows, mysteries and 15-minute kid serials (like “Superman” and “Tom Mix”). It didn’t go in for comedies. Yet the network aired O’Hanlon after a month-long delay and with no sponsor. And it sounded like more of the same old sitcom. Here’s a review by John Crosby that appeared in papers around November 30, 1948, a few weeks after its debut on November 9th. Evidently, he wasn’t a viewer of Warners’ shorts.

Radio In Review

The Apoplectic Boss
George O’Hanlon, the head man in a new comedy show on the Mutual Broadcasting System (8 p.m. Tuesdays), is described as a motion picture star, though his name has left no imprint whatsoever either on my memory, a faulty instrument, or on this newspaper’s files, a fairly comprehensive collection of human achievement.
This, of course, is nothing to be held against George and may even be a point in his favor.
The program, a new one, over which he presides, dogs the footsteps of “Blondie” closely and in some respects has overtaken the older comedy. It’s a domestic comedy with office overtones. These are two places, the home and the office, where comedy, at least on the radio, runs rampant. I HAVE NO objections to this folksy approach to our times except that, in practice, it presents a dreary picture of the average man’s life. George—and Dagwood, too, for that matter—perpetually are ground between two tyrannical forces—the boss and the wife—and, while this may be an accurate reflection of middle-class existence, it’s hardly a pleasant one.
In my opinion which on this question is warped beyond repair, the O’Hanlon show is a slight improvement over “Blondie” in that George’s wife is just as dim witted as he is.
This puts the sexes all even—one of the few occasions in radio where the menfolk get a break like that.
GEORGE WORKS for something called the Lamb Paper Box Co., an organization chiefly distinguished by horseplay, intrigue and utter incompetence.
This must have been the outfit that packed all those overseas gift boxes for the soldiers during the war—the ones in which the toothpaste usually tangled interestingly with the marmalade.
The head of the Lamb Paper Box Co. is an apoplectic individual named Harry Lamb, who talks entirely in baseball metaphors like Tallulah Bankhead.
“I’ve got you down for three errors,” he will howl at a delinquent employe, usually George. “Nobody is touching second base around here. Over here, Team! Into the huddle. Our competitor, Amos Hogg, has stolen a base. Someone here has been tipping him off to our signals.”
His metaphors, you’ll notice are almost as confused as Bill Stern’s and not nearly as informed as Miss Bankhead’s.
THE COLLEGE SPIRIT around the Lamb Paper Box Co. even has generated a team song which the employes in moments of crisis gather around to sing.
I took the words down with the idea of introducing it at the next songfest at Bleek’s, but I must have left them in my other pants.
In spite of the magnificent esprit de corps of the Lamb Paper Box Co. and of the exhortations of Mr. Lamb himself, who possesses much of the truculence of the late Knute Rockne, the team play is pretty spotty.
The man who was selling the signals to the opposition is a character called Beechwood, a heel. When he isn’t selling out, George, who isn’t corrupt, just stupid, is usually kicking the Lamb Paper Box Co. a little closer to bankruptcy.
THESE monkeyshines—you get more plot in five minutes than in half an hour of Jack Benny—are just a little elfin for my taste, but there are those who might find them reasonably amusing. When George isn't in trouble at the office, he’s in a jam with his wife, and here again Beechwood offers free advice and assistance to the detriment of all concerned.
The best that can be said of the jokes is that they are good-natured. (“Do you know Fleischmann’s Yeast?”— “I didn’t even know he was west.”) . . . .
Considering the limitations of these gags, the cast performs splendidly. O’Hanlon, incidentally, is a sort of cross between Jimmy Stewart and Eddie Albert, if you can imagine such a thing, and is quite a pleasant fellow.
There is one other thing about the Lamb Paper Box Co. that disturbs my social sense. Good old Harry fires virtually the whole staff every 10 minutes or so.
This just isn’t possible under the present administration, old man. There are union rules, contracts, and all sorts of underwater obstacles in the path of the good old-fashioned apoplectic employer.

The real Eddie Albert, incidentally, went on to work with the producer of the McDoakes shorts, Dick Bare, on “Green Acres.”

The George O’Hanlon Show struggled along until March 1, 1949. It was replaced the following week by “The Casebook of Gregory Hood” but returned as a summer replacement. O’Hanlon and Bare tried unsuccessfully to bring McDoakes to TV (Warners stopped making the shorts in 1956), where it should have worked. O’Hanlon spent the next few years making occasional on-camera appearances (and voiced a cartoon or two for MGM) but made his money writing. He had to be good at it as he was hired by the picky Jackie Gleason. He didn’t get a starring role again until George Jetson came along after an unsuccessful audition a few years earlier at Hanna-Barbera for the part of Fred Flintstone. O’Hanlon loved the Jetson role. In 1989, he fought poor health to come into the studio to record his lines for a Jetsons movie. He finished the last sentence, had a stroke, was taken to hospital and died.

So it was that George O’Hanlon became known for being a not-altogether-bright husband with a long-suffering wife, two kids and a loud boss. Not from radio but from cartoons. The main difference between the two was George Jetson was surrounded by funny futuristic gadgets in the kind of satire of modern living that had made his Joe McDoakes shorts fun. Sometimes, an extra ingredient in the comedy makes all the difference.


  1. Always enjoyed Mr. O'Hanlon's work. Being os a certain baby-boomerish age, I came to McDoakes through his work on THE JETSONS. TCM has run them fairly often over the last few years....

  2. Interesting coincidence that Eddie Albert's name would end up in Crosby's story, since one of the main creative people behind the Joe McDoakes was Richard L. Bare, who went on to be the show runner for "Green Acres" two deades later.