Radio comedy in Australia showed clear evidence of its origins in two older forms of mass media: theatre and film. The broad, laconic view of life that had come to be seen as distinctively Australian translated well to radio from the beginning.
One early radio success, Dad and Dave (1937–53), started life as a book before becoming a stage show and a series of movies 40 years before the George Edwards Players brought the characters to commercial radio. Though most Australians were urban and suburban dwellers by the time the radio program went to air, the image of the battlers on the land remained a cherished part of rural mythology, and their alleged shrewdness, dry humour and puncturing of city pretensions were all good for a laugh.
Another strand of theatre—vaudeville— also worked well on radio, especially when performed and recorded in front of a live audience. During and immediately after World War II, stage comedian Roy Rene brought his persona of Mo, the leering, spluttering master of double entendre, to radio as part of the variety show Calling the Stars (1942–52). Radio extended Rene’s career, and many of his catchphrases entered the language, including ‘Strike me lucky’, ‘Cop this, young Harry’ and ‘You little trimmer’. Something of Mo’s style and persona were transferred to television by Graham Kennedy: an important link here was Fred Parsons, who wrote scripts for them both.
George Wallace Junior was another stage comedian whose work transferred successfully to radio—in his case, via several feature films. Unlike Rene, Wallace was primarily a physical comedian and dancer, and he found radio challenging. Unable to use his physical skills, Wallace’s comedy depended on puns and his deliberately irritating persona as the working-class larrikin George ‘Wallaby’ Wallace, chief identity of the small town of Bullamakanka (a name that has survived to signify the back of beyond) in such programs as the George Wallace Road Show during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Traditional stage pantomime gained a new audience with the radio domestic comedy Mrs ’Obbs (1940–50), created by and starring the English-born vaudeville comedian Dan Agar. Mrs ’Obbs came straight from the tradition of pantomime dames. The show’s plotlines were simple, with the strongest running gag being the determination of Mrs ’Obbs’ husband Alfie (Owen Ainley) to remain unemployed. Alfie supplied the working-class comedy while Mrs ’Obbs specialised in malapropisms.
A spin-off from the schoolroom sketch, a hardy perennial that had long been a staple of stage vaudeville, was Yes, What?, written by Rex ‘Wacka’ Dawe. It was made between 1936 and 1941, and repeated endlessly through the 1950s and on some regional stations into the 1980s. This classroom comedy featured a fussy schoolmaster and his class, consisting of three students: Rupert Bottomly, Cuthbert Horace Greenbottle and Ronald George Stanforth. What made it date less quickly than other forms of gag comedy was the quality and variety of the jokes, ranging from puns and fast one-liners to Bottomly’s long, almost surreal explanations of his failure to do his homework. Bottomly was played by Ralph Peterson, later a well-known comedy scriptwriter and playwright.
In the early 1950s, the big vaudeville and variety shows went into recess as sponsors turned their attention to stunt and game shows such as Can You Take It?, Cop The Lot and It Pays to Be Funny, which were much cheaper to write and produce. With the promise of cash prizes, members of the studio audience agreed to perform various stunts in public, such as trying to give away pound notes for 10-shilling ones, or wheeling a dwarf in a pram through the streets of Sydney at lunchtime. The masters of the audience stunt shows were Bob Dyer and Jack Davey, whose radio programs—with their mixture of quiz and comedy—lasted until the late 1950s, when television began to supplant radio as Australia’s major source of entertainment.
Yet situation and domestic comedy persisted. An important feature of radio programs in the United States and Britain, such programs were also extremely popular in Australia. One of the earliest and most genteel local examples, which went through several changes of name during the 21 years of its existence, was Fred and Maggie, first broadcast in 1932. This was a light-hearted soap opera based around ordinary family life, and its humour came from the guilelessness of the main characters rather than the script’s verbal wit. Its stars, Edward Howell and Therese Desmond, had settled in Australia from England, and there was very little that was overtly Australian in their style or presentation. Fred and Maggie (and its other incarnations, including Fred and Maggie Everybody and Mr and Mrs Everybody) was heard on more than 50 radio stations across Australia in its heyday, and more than 3000 episodes were produced: Edward Howell was the original writer before yielding the typewriter to Gwen Meredith, who subsequently wrote Australia’s longest-running serial, the ABC’s Blue Hills. Howell and Desmond were well-known in both New Zealand and Australia.
Another hugely popular Australian situation comedy was derived from two of the best-known comedy characters in the United States, and subsequently the world. Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead, together with their children and Dagwood’s boss, Mr Dithers, had been part of a syndicated comic strip since the 1930s. A series of feature films starring Blondie and Dagwood were made in the 1940s, and there was also a successful US radio series. Australian producer Ron Beck reworked some of the American scripts for Australian radio in 1952, but received a letter threatening legal action from the agent of Chic Young, the creator of the comic strip and the characters. The Australian show, Blondie, folded.
However, Willie Fennell, who had played Dagwood, reworked the original idea into a show based on an Australian family: the bumbling and henpecked Dexter Dutton, his wife Jessie, his children, Ashley and Janeie, and Dexter’s boss and his wife, the Wilmots. He wrote and produced Life With Dexter (1953–64) and employed the cast, maintaining control over one of the most successful situation comedies of the 1950s. What kept the show on the air was the fact that the Dutton family were embroiled in situations that resonated with many suburban Australians.
A departure from this kind of comedy was the occasionally surreal Idiot Weekly (1958– 62). With the huge popularity of the BBC’s The Goon Show among Australian listeners, the ABC decided it wanted something similar, so Spike Milligan was hired to write an Australian version. The Goon Show had ceased production in the United Kingdom some years before, and Milligan’s scripts for the new program displayed much of the same absurdity and surrealism. Some of Milligan’s Goon Show characters also appeared in the Australian version. However, Idiot Weekly was consciously local, with references to topical events and political figures of the time.
With the coming of television in 1956, a lot of comedy migrated to the new medium: it was no longer possible to have a career solely as a radio comedy writer, as so many writers—Jack Davey, George Foster, Rex Dawe, Hal Lashwood, Dorothy Foster and many others—had done. The craft had created its own discipline and its own legends. Jack Davey, one of the most prolific gag writers the medium produced, as well as arguably being radio’s greatest ad-lib comedian, would pull the page of a script from his typewriter, grab a ruler and say: ‘There has to be a gag in every inch of this’. And actor and writer Dorothy Foster (who wrote in and starred in the long-running radio series Ada and Elsie with Rita Pauncefort and wrote much else) said as late as the 1980s that she always wrote a joke a day to keep her hand in.
From the 1960s onwards, comedy programs on radio became short sketches and quick-fire gags, usually delivered by popular announcers. Radio comedy became sharper and more satirical, with shows such as Mike Carlton’s Friday News Review (1980s) and How Green Was My Cactus (1986– ) ridiculing the politics and politicians of the day.
Comedian satirists such as Roy and HG (John Doyle and Greig Pickhaver), Fred Dagg (John Clarke) and Merrick and Rosso (Tim Watts and Merrick Ross) honed their acts on FM radio during the 1980s, often on the ABC’s Triple J network rather than commercial stations. So too did writers Gary Reilly and Tony Sattler, whose RS Productions wrote and put together several very successful comedy series for ABC Radio, including Chuck Chunder of the Space Patrol (1975), Doctors and Nurses (1976) and The Naked Vicar Show (1976–77), which later moved to television. Reilly and Sattler excelled in sending up the clichés of entertainment genres. One multimedia star was Captain Goodvibes, The Pig of Steel, an icon of 1970s surfing culture and the brainchild of cartoonist Tony Edwards. He and Tony Barrell brought The Pig of Steel to Triple J in the late 1970s.
The freedom that radio gives writers to invent whole worlds of imagination has made it ideal for comedy, and the forms of comedy have shape-shifted over the years. So have Australians’ perceptions of what is funny: early jokes about Aboriginal people, gays and women characteristic of the 1940s ‘big’ vaudeville shows are now considered tiresome, if not downright offensive. With the increasing globalisation of media—and perhaps shorter attention spans— quick-fire parody and satire are much more obvious features of radio comedy in the 21st century. At the same time, it seems, gag comedy will never go out of style.
REF: J. Kent, Out of the Bakelite Box (1983).