The Great Gildersleeve and the Evolution-Revolution of Comedy

There is a revolution, of sorts, going on amongst professional comedians. Comics have always been at the heart of revolution and political discourse. Some of the earliest professional comedians, court jesters or "Royal Fool" were the only voices allowed to make fun of the King. Of course, that meant that the King would be the only one allowed to laugh (out loud) at the jokes, but that did not make them any less funny.
A few scholars have pointed out that joke telling is becoming a lost art because we are getting more and more of our laughs from internet memes. A proper joke takes time, it is a small story which needs characters introduced, a situation and often conflicts developed, and then the punchline delivered. The explosion of social media means that everyone is on the same page. Rather than developing the involved story a joke requires, a simple meme with a picture and a few words will have to do. Since we are already on the same page, we all get it.

During the Golden Age of Radio, comedy was transitioning from gag humor to character humor, and few artists embodied this transition as well as

Harold Peary and The Great Gildersleeve . The earliest successful radio comics came from vaudeville and burlesque where the jokes were sharp and fast. The more jokes a comedian had, the better, but by the time the local audience had heard all his material, it was time to move on to the next theater on the circuit. Still, many acts used stock characters like "Dumb Dora", the Hick, the Dude, the Overbearing Mother, whatever would be universally recognizable to the audiences in different towns.

Transitioning to radio brought advantages and new troubles to the former vaudevillians. Instead of rewriting the act with new material each season, new material was needed every week, which meant hiring and learning to work with writers. On the vaudeville stage, the comic needed to connect with the audience, but on the networks, it was often more important to impress the sponsor (who may or may not have a sense of humor). Although there was a huge demand for talent on the radio, there were a limited number of sponsors and prime timeslots, so competition could be fierce. Getting a decent radio gig meant an end to constant travel and needing to live out of a suitcase, and many comedy teams found they had a chance to stay at home and raise a family. This was true for

Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, George Burns and Gracie Allen , and Jim and Marion Jordan.

According to OTR legend, Jim and Marion Jordan were between vaudeville tours in 1924, visiting Jim's brother in Chicago, and listening to a disappointing musical act on the radio. The brother made a wager that the couple could not do any better, so they went to the studio and not only showed up the act that was on the air, landed a contract which paid more than they would have earned on the road. The Jordan's had several shows in the Chicago area, and eventually hired a cartoonist who was desperate to break into radio named Don Quinn. The Jordan's were well aware that their career would live or die by their material, and split their fees three-ways, giving the writer an equal share.

The characters, format, and situation that Quinn and the Jordan's developed would be strong and versatile enough to keep on the air for more than two decades,

Fibber McGee and Molly . Although credited as an early situation comedy, the Wistful Vista gang performed more like a vaudeville variety format with gag humor. The gags usually revolved around Fibber's "scheme of the week", and the usual gang of characters' reactions to the scheme. Most of those characters were relatively two-dimensional. Mrs. Uppington, the Old-Timer, and spokesman Harlow Wilcox remained essentially set pieces for their entire runs on the show. Doc Gamble, Mayor LaTrivia, and even Wallace Wimple were allowed to develop enough backstory that they existed as more than simply foils for Fibber. Gamble and LaTrivia might have actually existed beyond the Wistful Vista universe.

Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve was played by California native.  Harold Peary , was created as just another foil for Fibber. He eventually became the pompous next-door neighbor who ran the Gildersleeve Girdleworks ("If you want a better corset, of course, it's a Gildersleeve!"), but as a Chicago "radio row" regular, Peary worked on the show in several parts before developing Gildersleeve. Elements which would eventually shape Gildy were part of the doctors, waiters, and store clerks were part of Peary's early appearances as part of the company.

The show moved to NBC's West Coast studios at the end of January 1939, and a few weeks later Peary played "Homer Gildersleeve" trying to block Fibber from crashing the Rotawannis Club Banquet. In April, he became optometrist Donald Gildersleeve (this episode was also Molly's second appearance after an 18-month absence). Fibber has a terrible toothache in June and goes to the office of Dr. Gildersleeve. The fully developed Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, an autograph hound who offers Fibber and Molly $500 if they can secure the signature of "Killer" Canova on October 3, and three weeks later there is a Halloween Party at Gildy's house next door.

Over the next few months, Gildersleeve joins the rotation of neighbors coming through the door of 79 Wistful Vista to comment on Fibber's schemes, although he actually helps instigate a few. He even gets his own catchphrase for when dealing with Himself goes over the top ("You're a Haaard Man, McGee!").

Fibber and Molly became so popular in their fifth and sixth year that other sponsors were anxious to tap into their success. The Jordan's and Quinn remained loyal to Johnson Wax, but Kraft Foods was able to woo Peary and his Gildersleeve character away for his own show, premiering August 31, 1941.

The Great Gildersleeve had an established lead character, but network broadcasting's first "spinoff" would need a new situation and format for the new sponsor (Fibber would also generate the second spinoff in 1945 with The Beulah Show ).

Gildersleeve moved to the town of Summerfield to administer his late brother-in-law's estate and take guardianship of his niece and nephew. The move also signaled a shift from gag humor to character-driven situational comedy. "The Great Man" grew from merely being a pompous windbag to a lusty bachelor acting as the responsible head of household and member of the community. He has an appetite for fine cigars, good food, hearty songs, and pretty girls but these have to take a backseat to his responsibilities as a family man raising a precocious boy entering his teens and a sweet girl on the cusp of womanhood. Rather than going into business, Gildersleeve enters civil service by becoming the town's new water commissioner, and he enlists a group of respectable gentlemen who will become the Jolly Boys Club for community service projects (but mostly to give Peary someone to sing with).

Not only did Gildersleeve himself become more nuanced and complex as a character, but those around him were also allowed to grow. Nephew Leroy became the model of a slingshot in his hip-pocket scamp, but he was also an astute observer and commentator of grown-up behavior. The housekeeper/cook of the Gildersleeve household was Birdie; although her position as a servant may have filled racial stereotypes, she was also a strong woman who quietly demanded (and received) the respect due not only to an employee but a member of the extended family. Judge Hooker, a fellow bachelor, served as companion and rival to the Great Man and was an important part of the Jolly Boys. Drugstore owner and fountain operator Richard Peavy could have been a "set piece" with his shop being an important meeting place, but he was allowed to develop as a character along with his (never heard on the air) wife.

The women in Gildersleeve's life deserve their own post, but for this discussion, we need to recognize just how important relations with the fairer sex were to develop Gildy's character. There was a Mrs. Gildersleeve when he lived next door to

Fibber and Molly , he arrives in Summerfield very much a bachelor. Not that he objects to the concept of connubial bliss, Gildersleeve is an enthusiastic pitcher-of-woo who would be willing to walk down the aisle with the right lady. Although he does manage to enjoy the company of several attractive women over the run of the program, Gildersleeve is not as attractive as he likes to believe he is. Not that a little thing like that could dampen his enthusiasm.

Although the people of Summerfield are well-developed characters, the jokes are set up in such a way that even a first-time listener would get them in just about any episode, although the humor is more poignant the better we get to know everyone. Contrast this with modern meme-based humor. Because of social media, it is expected that we all understand what is going on, therefore a "joke" does not require much setup, just a quick picture and less than a dozen words for a punchline. We submit, however, that skipping the set up not only excludes a huge portion of the audience from the joke, but the joke itself is also less rich. Humor from the Golden Age, on the other hand, is rich enough to be appreciated several decades past its creation.