I’ve just had a book published, titled The Funniest Decade (Bearmanor Media)which celebrates American comedy throughout the decade of the1930s. Why was that the funniest decade, you may ask? After all, it was so long ago. There must have been funnier decades since then, right? Believe that if you will, but you would be…well…wrong.
It can be argued that the term “Golden Age,” in any context, has become an overused cliché, yet the entire decade of the 1930s proved to be the true Golden Decade of American comedy. This ten-year span produced the finest films, radio programs, and stage performances by the most talented comedians ever to make audiences laugh. There has never been quite a decade for comedy as there was throughout the 1930s — and what a joy it must have been not only for comedy mavens at the time, but for the nation as a whole, as Americans struggled through the disaster and heartbreak of the Great Depression.
In film alone, the comedy titans of the movies — Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers, and W. C. Fields — all reached their creative peaks within this relatively brief period, as did Mae West, The Three Stooges, and all of the comedy film series produced by the Hal Roach Studios, which, in addition to Laurel & Hardy, included the Our Gang (a.k.a. The Little Rascals) series, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, and still more. It’s a testament to the quality and timelessness of the film comedians of the Golden Decade that they are still celebrated today, albeit often viewed on devices they themselves couldn’t have dreamed of over 80 years ago. We can also add to this list a few teams that are less-remembered today, such as Wheeler & Woolsey, Clark & McCullough, and the Ritz Brothers, but who found great popularity in the Golden Decade, and whose work can still be found, with just a bit of searching online or elsewhere.
The 1930s also saw the birth of the “screwball” comedy, in which comic actors (as distinguished from comedians) played somewhat eccentric characters who tended to get entangled with each other in clashes of romance and/or social standing. The trend created some of Hollywood’s best-loved stars, the foremost being Carole Lombard and Cary Grant.
Radio grew steadily throughout the 1920s, and became a mass medium by decade’s end (the NBC network was formed in 1926, and CBS two years later). It became a truly major entertainment force throughout the 1930s, as it welcomed the arrival of seasoned vaudeville comedians like Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, Fred Allen, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Edgar Bergen, Bob Hope, and Abbott & Costello, to name just a few. Most began as guests on variety programs, hosted by the likes of Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith, before being awarded shows of their own. These and other stage comedians, who specialized in talking, scrambled to find their niche in front of the microphone, hoping to become stars in a medium where tens of millions of listeners could hear them at once, rather than just one theatre audience at a time (there were a few skeptical holdouts in the early years, but their wariness of radio wasn’t strong enough to keep them away for long).
At the same time, the likes of Bert Lahr, Fannie Brice, Jimmy Durante, Beatrice Lillie, and the aforementioned Wynn were performing regularly in stage revues and/or “legit” Broadway comedies, on their way to becoming entertainment legends. None were limited strictly to the stage, and all took their respective plunges into radio and films, with varying degrees of success.
In 1930, just about all of the individuals included throughout The Funniest Decade were between roughly 32 and 41 years old; old enough to have already had at least a decade’s worth of experience in comedy — be it in films, onstage, or both. Many of these comedians had already known each other quite well by the dawn of the decade, having crossed paths at movie studios, or by performing around the country in vaudeville on the same bills. Even with their years of experience, they were also young enough to have their creative energies running at full throttle. Of course, they all had their occasional failures along the way, but this energy nonetheless led to an immense volume of brilliantly conceived and performed comedy for films, radio, and the stage throughout the ten-year span of 1930–1940.
On a personal note, researching and writing of this book has been much like coming full-circle for me. You could say it was about 45 years in the making. When I was 13 or 14 years old, I suddenly discovered the great film comedians of that Golden Decade. I had known about them, but, with a fresh onslaught of their films being shown on New York TV stations (often in the middle of the night) in the mid-1970s, I truly began to sit up and take notice─and laugh like crazy. At first, the Marx Brothers, with their sheer anarchy, wordplay, and eccentric, larger-than-life characters, quickly became my favorites, as did the unique relationship between Laurel & Hardy, and the groaning, put-upon curmudgeon, W.C. Fields. I took an interest in other comedians of the era as well (what teenage boy, of any decade, wouldn’t love the Three Stooges?). As movie theatres in New York began running special Marx Bros. and Laurel & Hardy festivals, I begged my parents — and, occasionally, my older brothers — to drive me the ten miles from our suburban New Jersey home into Manhattan, so I could attend the screenings. Sometimes they’d watch the films with me, but more often, they simply dropped me off at the Carnegie Hall Cinema or Bleeker St. Cinema for a few hours, and killed some time elsewhere in the city. It didn’t matter to me, as long as I got to see the films and laugh along with like-minded fans. And, to my parents’ credit, they agreed to chauffeur me to such cinematic indulgences on a fairly regular basis.
They also once ordered a set of LP records by the Longines Symphonette Society (whatever that was) as advertised on TV. Each record, narrated by Jack Benny, highlighted a different aspect of radio’s “Golden Age” of the 1930s and 1940s. From these, I came to know the comedy of Fred Allen, Burns & Allen, and other legends (those albums occupy a space on my record shelf to this day).
My parents also bought me books about the comedians, so I could learn more of the clowns who had invaded my psyche (being just an early teen at the time, I didn’t even know I had a psyche). Then came the syndicated reruns of Groucho’s You Bet Your Life quiz show, airing every weeknight at 11:00 on WNEW. There was also the re-release of Animal Crackers at the Sutton Theater in 1974, after the film had been out of circulation for the previous twenty years, due to copyright entanglements. Upon my first viewing, I was immediately enthralled with that film. So, with all of this, the age of 14, I was well on the way to becoming a comedy “expert” of sorts — or so I thought. There was much more for me to learn and enjoy, especially from the Golden Decade, and I’m still discovering comedy gems from the 1930s to this day.
My goal in researching and writing The Funniest Decade has been to piece together a chronology of American comedy throughout the ‘30s, not necessarily to provide a complete biography of each and every comedy performer mentioned on the pages, nor to list and critique every single comedy film, radio broadcast, and stage production in America throughout the ‘30s. Even if I had the resources and budget to do so (a full-time staff at my beck and call would have been nice to have throughout this undertaking), chances are the finished product will still trigger cries from assorted entertainment historians, archivists, and aficionados, pointing out how I’ve neglected to include a particular film, broadcast, or performer that must be included in order to make this project truly complete. Screw ’em. I do feel, however, that the abundance of classic comedy created throughout the 1930s deserves to be arranged and organized into a chronology, to put all of these creative milestones into a context that demonstrates how this particular decade saw a virtual explosion of the art form.
Should you decide to seek out and purchase The Funniest Decade (its listing on Amazon is below), I sincerely hope you will find it an informative and enjoyable use of your time. The true masters of comedy, from those many decades ago, deserve to be remembered and appreciated.
Until next time…