A VISIT WITH RADIO HUMORIST
David B. Kesterson
Thus began each episode of the humorous radio show that broadcast for twenty-four years (1931–1955) and ranks second in longevity only to Amos and Andy. The show was, of course, Lum and Abner. It featured the humorous, trivial daily events in the lives of Lum Edwards and Abner Peabody, co-proprietors of the Jot’em Down Store and Library in the mythical village of Pine Ridge, Arkansas. Many a chuckle was provided by the inane activities of the gullible old timers—Abner with his whining voice and shortage of gumption that led to one misunderstanding after another, Lum with his steadier, "Edderds sayin’" approach to every problem (but just as vulnerable in his own way). Along with other characters such as Grandpappy Spears, Cedric Wehunt, Squire Skimp, and Mousy Gray, Lum and Abner became regular fixtures in the imaginary depiction of small town American life.
Lum and Abner and other reruns of old radio humor are currently quite popular, some radio stations devoting portions of nightly programming to these shows. Besides being entertained anew by radio comedy, we are reminded of the importance of this form of humor to America during roughly the second quarter of the twentieth century. Recent books such as John Dunning’s Tune in Yesterday, J. Fred MacDonald’s Don’t Touch That Dial, and Arthur Frank Wertheim’s Radio Comedy1 have all caught the spirit of that contribution and studied the phenomenon of radio humor from popular and scholarly standpoints.
Much of the old radio humor seems to be a direct descendent of the literary and platform humor of the nineteenth century: the witty, cracker-barrel aphorisms of Josh Billings and Mark Twain survive in Will Rogers and Scattergood Baines; the verbal nonsense of Bill Nye in Vic and Sade in the inflated rhetoric of Fibber McGee; the dialect humor of James Russell Lowell, Seba Smith, and count-
less others in Amos and Andy and Lum and Abner; the comically confused happenings of Downingsville in Pine Ridge; the brag of Old Southwest and frontier humor in Fibber, the Old Timer, and Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve; the droll, deadpan technique of Mark Twain and Bill Nye in Jack Benny and George Bums. On and on one could go without stretching the point too far. Obviously, with the harnessing of the air waves, much of the stock humor of old simply changed forms.
It was my distinct pleasure in November 1979 to interview one of the giants of old radio humor—Mr. Chester (Chet) Lauck, of Lum and Abner fame. When I called on Lauck in Hot Springs, Arkansas, I found that the Jot’em Down Store had moved to a modem office building and operated under the name "Lauck Enterprises." Lum’s office was shockingly modern: tape recorders and a gleaming Sony sat on his desk and shelves, replacing the pickle jars and cracker barrels of old. As it turned out, my encounter with Lauck was fortuitous, for he died February 20, 1980, at seventy-eight, mine being possibly the last recorded interview with him.
I found Lauck to be a kindly, soft-spoken, quick-witted individual—very relaxed and congenial. He impressed me as a genuine, natural humorist rather than an actor who had merely learned to play a comic role for a livelihood. His speech was alive with drollery and with an unguarded presence of understatement and anti-climax. An innate sense of comic timing and humorous verbal emphasis was evident even in his ordinary conversation. He had a Twainian mastery of the pause. Though he was obviously Chester Lauck and not Lum Edwards, there was a definite resemblance in voice inflections, and occasionally he purposely lapsed into the voice of Lum to emphasize a point—for example, when explaining how the last name Edwards becomes Edderds in Arkansas dialect. Throughout the interview, in fact, I was constantly aware of the relationship of humorist to humorous persona; in his own way Lauck was uncannily remindful of Samuel Clemens-Mark Twain, of Charles Farrar Browne-Artemus Ward, of Henry Wheeler Shaw-Josh Billings. I have heard one recorded speech of Lauck’s before the Arkansas legislature in which he slips in and out of the role of Lum so much that the listener can hardly discern which personality is the primary speaker.
The desk, shelves, and walls in Lauck’s office reflected the tools of his trade. He had a humor magazine in front of him, a typescript of witty sayings to one side; somewhere, though he was
unsuccessful in finding it, he had a book of his favorite American humor to show me. (I was reminded by his interest in literary humor that he had edited a humor magazine, White Mule, while a student at the University of Arkansas.) Across from his desk hung a group picture of three famous comedy teams: Lauck and Norris Goff (Abner), Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (Amos and Andy), and Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy; it was the last time all six were together (and now only Gosden is living). Tapes of Lum and Abner shows and other humorous routines were scattered about the office. While I was there, Lauck played a rerun of a Lum and Abner show on which his good friend Jack Benny was guest and also let me hear a tape he was planning to market—Chic Sales’ "The Specialist," about a champion privy builder—a piece he had recorded in the voice of Lum. He seemed to enjoy listening to these tapes as much as I did, though there was nothing boastful or immodest about him.
When I asked Lauck about his interest and reading in classic American humor, he immediately mentioned his favorites: Mark Twain, George Ade, and Bill Nye. In the case of Mark Twain he said he particularly liked the humorous situations in his fiction, an observation certainly consistent with the predominance of situational humor in Lum and Abner. In fact, when I asked him how he and Goff typed themselves as humorists, he answered, "Well, maybe humor is the right word, but certainly not comedians. It was situation comedy. And that’s the reason these old shows are playing so well today, because they’re not jokes—they’re just situations that will always be funny and timeless."
I soon learned that Lauck also had a ready and selfless appreciation of other humorists contemporary with himself. He praised partner Norris Goff as being the better half of their team: "I’ll say one thing: Tuffy (I always called him Tuffy) was the best at comic timing I’ve ever heard." Goff, he felt, played the most effective character on the show, Squire Skimp: "I think Tuffy did such a great job with him. He was the heavy." He also spoke fondly and praisefully of Fred Allen, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (whom he knew very well), Red Skelton, and especially Jack Benny and George Gobel. Of Benny he reminisced, "I just loved that guy. He was a guest on our show, and then we did a spot on his show. We traded out with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Jack Benny. I’ve got real funny ones here on tape with Jack Benny and Bing Crosby."
Of George Gobel, he told a whole episode of emceeing a horse-
show banquet in Houston, spotting Gobel in the audience, and inviting him up on stage. Gobel then told about his personal association with horses in a ludicrous story that sounded, as Lauck related it, remarkably close to Mark Twain’s hilarious account in Roughing It of trying to ride the "Genuine Mexican Plug." (Lauck told the episode so well that I asked him if he knew Twain’s account, but he said he did not.) The climax of the Gobel horse-story, remindful of the Twain fiasco, comes when the tenderfoot Gobel is conned by a stable owner into mounting a horse never before ridden. To quote Lauck paraphrasing Gobel:
Our discussion of twentieth-century humorists concluded with his comments on the Rogers family. He knew Will and was close friends with Will Rogers, Jr., and Jimmy Rogers.
Like Seba Smith peopling Downingsville or James Russell Lowell adding a Birdofredom Sawin and Homer Wilbur to Hosea Biglow’s circle of acquaintances, Lauck and Goff invented a knot of caricatures to complement the two store keepers. Mousy Gray, Squire Skimp, Cedric Wehunt, Snake Hogan, Dick Huddleston, and Grandpappy Spears—all played by Lauck and Goff themselves2—were vivid creations of comic and straight characters (and were all products of Lauck’s and Goffs creative imaginations). The small town Arkansas dialect they spoke was so universally rural in flavor that the characters were variously identified by listeners as Midwesterners, Carolinians, New Yorkers, and even Green Mountaineers of Vermont,3 reminiscent, perhaps, of the universality of Mark Twain s Pike County speech.
To keep a true ring to their character creations, as well as a sense of spontaneity to the whole show, Lauck and Goff wrote all the scripts themselves for some fifteen years, usually the morning before the show was aired in the afternoon. Lauck admitted that he and Goff made the script "about three or four minutes short so we could embellish it." And since the shows were live and were broadcast to different time zones over the country, they had to be repeated. "When we were working Chicago and New York, we had to do one show for the West Coast and one for that area. And when we were in Hollywood we would do an earlier show for the East and, about an hour to two hours later, do the same show live
again—but it was always a little bit different," Lauck said with a knowing grin. When the team began making motion pictures, they were forced to employ writers. "There just weren’t enough hours in the day." Afterward, the luxury was too pleasant to abandon; thus, "we kept them on and continued to work with them. We had script sessions to decide what we were going to do. They put it down on paper. Thus, Lauck and Goff always retained proprietary control of the circle of folk in Pine Ridge.
We are, of course, familiar with such nineteenth-century comic platform combinations as Twain and George Washington Cable, Nye and James Whitcomb Riley, and the stories of their friendships and professional associations are fairly well known. Lauck’s account of the origin of his and Norris Goff’s personal and professional relationship is intriguing. As boys, they both lived in Mena, Arkansas, and met at a birthday party when Lauck was nine and Goff five. Said Lauck of his future partner, "He was just a little punk kid there at the party." Further along in school they discovered their talent as a comic twosome and by high school days were performing skits—usually blackface routines—at hometown productions. "Chet and Tuffy," as they were called, were always in demand. Their reputation soon grew beyond Mena:
The Hot Springs audition went so well, mail response being heavy and favorable, that Lum Edwards and Abner Peabody were invited back for five consecutive Sundays. Quipped Lauck, "People wrote a lot of fan mail—I think just to let you know they had a radio."
The station manager at Hot Springs was so enthusiastic about the
program that he arranged an audition for the two with NBC in Chicago. The Quaker Oats Company offered to sponsor them, forcing Lauck and Goff, who were quite satisfied with their lives in Mena, to return home and take leaves of absence from their jobs.4 "We were more surprised than anybody else when it [the show] went on for twenty-four and a half years." When I remarked at the long leave of absence, Lauck chortled, "Yes, I don’t know whether that job is still open or not!"
After the show caught on, a sense of locale was needed as fictional setting, and Lauck and Goff founded the village of Pine Ridge.5 The name of their establishment, Jot’em Down Store, originated from a contest held while the show was being broadcast from Cleveland. Lauck explained,