In honor of upcoming Valentine’s Day, here’s a tribute to a fairly small but influential slice of the show business population: Married comedy couples.
Throughout a particular period of entertainment history, it became quite common to see (or hear) real-life married couples join forces as comedy partners. In the early 1930s, many came to national attention on radio, when that medium virtually exploded with programs starring comedians who had already made names for themselves in vaudeville. Several may have begun as solo performers on the stage, but at various points in their careers in vaudeville, they struck gold by adding their spouses to the act, thereby setting it off in a new, and more successful direction.
By the end of 1932, there were no fewer than five real-life husband & wife couples performing regularly on network comedy programs: George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jesse Block and Eve Sully (whose popular stage act was quite similar to that of Burns & Allen), Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, and Goodman Ace and his wife Jane, who starred in the popular and highly-praised 15-minute program Easy Aces (Goodman wrote every script himself, creating Jane’s character as one whose dialogue was filled with malaprops and mispronunciations).
These radio stars by way of vaudeville were among the many married teams — comedians, singers, dancers, acrobats — who performed and traveled together for financial as well as creative reasons. The case of Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, who started doing a vaudeville act together shortly after they were married in the mid-1920s, was common at the time. Allen explained, “In vaudeville, when a comedian married he immediately put his wife in the act. The wife didn’t have to have any talent. It was economic strategy. With a double act a comedian could get a salary increase from the booking office. The additional money would pay for his wife’s wardrobe, her railroad fares and the extra hotel expenses.”
Luckily, most of the wives did have talent, even if some felt more comfortable as performers than others. Mary Livingstone famously suffered from stage fright, but out of all the wives, her on-air character was the only one to deviate from the “dumb Dora” type. As part of Benny’s method of using himself as the butt of jokes, Mary usually got the last word in their scenes, at Jack’s expense. And, while it could be argued that married couples performing together run the risk of creating issues the rest of us commoners don’t face, these early stars managed to beat the odds. As Benny pointed out, “We all remained married to our original mates. I know that people assume actors and actresses are bad marriage risks, yet not one couple in that group was ever divorced.”
The same goes for yet another married couple, Jim and Marion Jordan, former vaudevillians who created and co-wrote the legendary radio comedy Fibber McGee and Molly. The program, premiering in 1935, wasn’t an immediate hit, but within a few years, its audience and popularity increased to the point where it became radio’s top-rated series in the late ’30s and throughout the ’40s. One of the many recurring gags on the show was McGee’s opening of a hall closet so fully stuffed with junk that the program’s sound effects man got a good workout conveying the ensuing avalanche that would half-bury McGee each time.
Television brought us still more married couples who teamed to make audiences laugh. The first of these happened to create and star in the very first sitcom ever to air on American television, Mary Kay and Johnny. In November of 1947, married Broadway actors Johnny and Mary Kay Stearns found themselves with an opportunity to take over a weekly, 15-minute time slot on the DuMont network. Johnny became the de facto producer-director and sole writer (even though he admitted that he wasn’t a professional writer). He found the easiest material to create stemmed from his real life with Mary Kay. Her fictionalized character was a perky, enthusiastic screwball, with Johnny as a strait-laced bank teller having to get her out of various minor crises from week to week. When real-life Mary Kay became pregnant, so did her TV character (the first such pregnancy in TV history). The couple was even shown sharing the same bed — and yet our civilization managed to survive. The couple remained married for fifty-five years, until Johnny’s death in 2001.
Then, of course, there was Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who premiered I Love Lucy in 1951 (they divorced in 1960). I hesitate to include Ozzie and Harriet Nelson to the list, despite their long-running sitcom; they were known in the years leading up to their program as a musical couple. Ozzie was a popular bandleader, Harriet his singer (and, let’s face it, the comedy on their sitcom barely passed as such).
Later in the timeline, Richard Benjamin and his wife Paula Prentiss garnered much attention for the launch of their sitcom He and She in 1967. That show, due to tough competition from the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies, lasted a single season (although the couple remain married to this day).
The list of married couple collaborating on sitcoms through the decades goes on, but most latter-day examples aren’t as impressive — to me, anyway. I still prefer the true legends.
For those of you who may not be part of a celebrated, married comedy couple, but who still have good reason to celebrate Valentine’s Day, have a happy one. Hallmark and Lindt Chocolates will thank you.
Until next time…