The Bickersons

The Bickersons

"The Bickersons" was a radio comedy sketch series that began in 1946 on NBC with Don Ameche and Frances Langford, moving the following year to CBS where it continued until 1951. Born as a recurring skit on "The Chase and Sanborn Hour" and refined on the lesser-remembered "Drene Time" variety show, it stood the already-typical domestic presentation of radio and its infant offspring, television, so squarely on its head that there were those who feared the show. The show's married protagonists spent nearly all their time together in relentless verbal war, and many people believed that the show's sourly cynical take on the institution of marriage was detrimental to the nation's post-World War II health. (Similar charges were later leveled against programs such as "Married... with Children" and "The Simpsons".)

"The Bickersons" was created by Philip Rapp, the one-time Eddie Cantor writer who had also created the Fanny Brice skits (for "The Ziegfeld Follies of the Air" and "Maxwell House Coffee Time") that grew into radio's "Baby Snooks". Several years after the latter established itself a long-running favourite, Rapp developed and presented John and Blanche Bickerson, first as a short sketch on "The Old Gold Show" and "The Chase and Sanborn Hour" (the show that made stars of Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy), and then as a 15-minute situational sketch as part of "Drene Time". This was a variety show starring Don Ameche and singer-actress Frances Langford as co-hosts, airing on NBC and sponsored by Drene Shampoo. Announcing the show—and later familiar to television viewers as "The Millionaire"'s presenter and executive secretary, Michael Anthony—was Marvin Miller.

"Drene Time" typically opened with Langford singing a big band-style arrangement before Ameche and Langford would slip into routine comedy, often aided by co-star (and future "Make Room for Daddy" star) Danny Thomas, in routines that often hooked around Ameche's frustration that Thomas seemed more interested in modern technology and discoveries than in women. After another musical number and a commercial spot for Drene Shampoo, Miller would announce Ameche and Langford as the Bickersons, "in 'The Honeymoon's Over'," for the final 15 minutes of the show.

Feud for thought

The typical Miller introduction would set the scene::The Bickersons... have retired. Three o'clock in the morning finds Mrs. Bickerson wide awake and anxious, as poor husband John, victim of contagious insomnia, or Schmoe's Disease, broadcasts the telltale signs of the dreaded affliction. Listen...

The listener heard a chorus of low-roaring snoring, punctuated occasionally with something that sounded like laughing. Blanche would awaken John, even at three in the morning, and the feuding would continue with their trademark arguments about John's job, Blanche's domestic abilities, John's alleged eye for neighbor Gloria Gooseby, Blanche's shiftless brother Amos (played by Thomas) or John's taste for bourbon. Rounding out the cast was future children's television favorite Pinky Lee in occasional supporting roles.

About the only thing that wasn't funny about the show was the couple's apparent attitude toward each other. As "New York Herald Tribune" critic John Crosby described them (in the May 25, 1948 column which gave the couple their nickname, "The Bickering Bickersons")::Blanche... is one of the monstrous shrews of all time. She makes her husband... take two jobs, a total of 16 working hours, in order to bring in more money which she squanders on minks and the stock market. Meanwhile, he can't afford a new pair of shoes and goes around with his feet painted black. In the few hours he has to sleep, she heckles him all night with the accusation that he doesn't love her. Her aim appears to be to drive her husband crazy and she succeeds very nicely. The harassed John's only weapon is insult, at which he's pretty good.

Dialogue

As transcribed by John Crosby, this was a typical Bickersons exchange::B: You used to be so considerate. Since you got married to me you haven't got any sympathy at all.:J: I have, too. I've got everybody's sympathy.:B: Believe me, there's better fish in the ocean than the one I caught.:J: There's better bait, too.:B: I don't see how you can go to bed without kissing me good night.:J: I can do it.:B: You'd better say you're sorry for that, John.:J: Okay, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.:B: You are not.:J: I am too. I'm the sorriest man that was ever born.:B: Is there any milk for breakfast?:J: No.:B: Then you'll have to eat out.:J: I don't care, I've been doing it all week.:B: What for? I left you enough food for six days. I cooked a whole bathtub full of rice. What happened to it?:J: I took a bath in it.:B: Why didn't you eat it?:J: I've told you a million times I can't stand the sight of rice.:B: Why not?:J: Because it's connected to the saddest mistake of my life.

Battling couples

At the time "The Bickersons" bowed, the typical radio marriage conveyed almost exclusively sweetness and light, no matter what ephemeral disaster might befall. The idea of a lower middle-class marriage whose partners spent what little time together they had at each other's throats was jarring and even threatening to many people at the time. Audiences were becoming accustomed to broadcasting life with loving and stable couples, such as those featured in "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" or the protagonists of "The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show"; or, such earthily loving couples as Chester A. Riley and wife Peg in "The Life of Riley". Fred Allen and Tallulah Bankhead may have sent up the more saccharine of the pre-"Bickersons" family shows in a skit (the legendary "Mr. and Mrs. Breakfast Show"), and Goodman and Jane Ace (in "Easy Aces") may have been a gently tart union of wry exasperation and effortless, brain-bending malaprops, but a regular series featuring a couple as highly combustible as John and Blanche may have been as daring as that era's network radio got when dealing with married life.

"The Bickersons" may have seemed to have no business being married at all, but they proved the prototype for such battling comic couples as Ralph and Alice Kramden of "The Honeymooners" (surely, Jackie Gleason, who admired the show, owed a debt to "The Bickersons" as a partial model for blustery Ralph and acid Alice), Nels and Harriet Oleson of "Little House on the Prairie", and—much later, perhaps the closest of them all to the Blanche-and-John prototype—Al and Peg Bundy of "Married... with Children". The title couple of the long-running newspaper comic strip "The Lockhorns" also bear more than a passing resemblance to the Bickersons.

The Kramdens, Olesons, Bundys and others who followed may have made "The Bickersons" seem tame. But "The Bickersons" might also have helped marriage by showing, maybe too vividly, what not to do and how not to do it. Writer Rapp based the couple in part on his own rocky marriage; his son, Joel, eventually told radio historian Gerald Nachman, "I've hidden under a lot of tables in my day. My father would scurry off to the typewriter while the dialogue was still fresh." Rapp himself admitted, too, that "so much sweetness" in radio marrieds such as Ozzie and Harriet Nelson or the Andersons of "Father Knows Best" "was not marriage as I knew it."

The flip side

Though they spent their allotted time together at each other's throats, assuming always that the shrewish Blanche could awaken John from his snoring, there were moments when the couple showed an uncommon tenderness to each other—particularly in a Christmas skit. (It should have been hinted at the outset by Marvin Miller's atypical introduction: "The Bickersons—have "not" retired.") After arguing over whether John had sent Blanche a Christmas card (he had—it was buried in a stack of newspapers), they exchanged their gifts to each other . . . with a twist. Tight in the pocketbook this Christmas season, Blanche swapped a fur coat to buy her bourbon-loving husband a portable bar; John—bourbon lover though he is—swapped his stock to buy Blanche a matching fur muffler, before confessing that for all that they're each other's biggest pain in the rump, there really is a love between them.

Jackie Gleason probably knew that Christmas exchange—drawing as did the "Bickersons" episode on O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," a "classic 39" Christmas episode of "The Honeymooners" involved blustery bus driver Ralph hocking his brand-new bowling ball in a mad dash to get Alice a last-minute Christmas gift . . . only to learn the hard way that Alice bought him a stylish new bowling ball bag.

Television

"The Bickersons" were barely ready for prime time radio (they lasted only two full seasons when all was said and done) as it was, but a 1951 CBS television version didn't last half as long. Lew Parker (later familiar as "That Girl"'s harried, slightly overbearing father Lew Marie) took the role of John Bickerson, as he also did on radio a season earlier. But it didn't work as well as the original skits. Parker and Langford weren't seen to have quite the seamless anti-chemistry of Ameche and Langford. Premiering as a summer season replacement, the television version of "The Bickersons" lasted only 13 episodes.

Beyond "The Bickersons"

Philip Rapp's work didn't stop with "The Bickersons" or with the demise of radio as America's main electronic entertainment medium. Early television viewers were treated to one of his best works, his adaptation (and work as head writer and director) of a popular novel and film series into a television series starring Leo G. Carroll as a banker bedeviled by fun-loving, husband-and-wife ghosts John and Marian Kerby—"Topper".

Ameche and Langford's work together didn't end with "The Bickersons", either. They co-hosted a variety series, "The Frances Langford-Don Ameche Show", in 1951-52, and featured among the few regular performers a very young Jack Lemmon, as a newlywed in a sketch series known as "The Couple Next Door." When Langford hosted a variety special in 1960, there was Ameche to join in the fun with The Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Joe DeRita at the time), Bob Cummings and Johnny Mathis.

But neither did the twosome abandon the characters that made them famous as a comedy team in the first place: Columbia Records eventually released long-playing albums—"The Bickersons", "The Bickersons Fight Back", and "The Bickersons Rematch"—that featured newly-recorded performances of Rapp's adapted radio scripts by Ameche and Langford as John and Blanche.

A beautiful woman with a honey voice who used sheer talent to turn herself into the venomous Blanche Bickerson, Frances Langford enjoyed a fine career as a singer and actress in film (including a memorable cameo in the otherwise stylised "The Glenn Miller Story") and television, as well as radio; she died July 11, 2005. Don Ameche, whose name sometimes became synonymous (and a kind of running gag) with the telephone (thanks to his film portrayal of Alexander Graham Bell), became a familiar television face as well as a well-respected film actor, enjoying a late-life popular revival through his roles in the 1983 film "Trading Places" and the 1985 film "Cocoon". He died in 1993.

Trivia

In the movie "MASH", when Radar O'Reilly bugs Margaret Houlihan's tent as she and Frank Burns have a sexual encounter, Father Mulcahy mistakes their conversation (and noises) for an episode of "The Bickersons", until he realizes otherwise.

In the Season 1 finale of "NewsRadio", Dave and Lisa are called "the magnificent Bickersons" by Bill (at once a reference to the radio show and a play on the title of Orson Welles' 1942 film "The Magnificent Ambersons"). Ameche and Welles shared the same hometown, Kenosha, Wisconsin, and at 8:00 P.M. Eastern Time on the night of October 30, 1938, Welles made his legendary "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast on the CBS network while Ameche hosted "The Chase & Sanborn Hour" on the Red Network of NBC.

With the Rapp family approval, an adapted version of "The Bickersons" has been written for a comedy puppet show, "Breakfast with the Bickersons", scheduled to premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2007. The show has been adapted and directed by British comedian Jeremy Engler. Amongst other work, Engler is notably known for writing and directing a World War II sitcom pilot based around three hapless codebreakers at Bletchley Park, England. "Satsuma & Pumpkin" starred the late Bob Monkhouse OBE, and was also his very last work before he passed away. Monkhouse was a big fan of "The Bickersons" and "The Baby Snooks Show".

Listen to

* [http://www.otr.net/?p=bick OTR Network Library: "The Bickersons" (47 episodes)]

References

*Frank Buxton and Bill Owen, "The Big Broadcast 1920-1950" (New York: Flare/Avon Books, 1971)
*John Crosby, "Out of the Blue: A Book About Radio and Television" (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952)
*Gerald Nachman, "Raised on Radio" (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.)
*Ben Ohmart, "The Bickersons" (BearManor Media, 2007.) ISBN 1-59393-008-9
*Philip Rapp, "The Bickersons Scripts" (BearManor Media, 2002.) ISBN 0-9714570-1-8
*Philip Rapp, "The Bickersons Scripts Vol.2" (BearManor Media, 2004.) ISBN 1-59393-007-0

External links

* [http://www.bickersons.com "The Bickersons" official site]
* [http://www.otrsite.com/logs/logb1024.htm Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs: "The Bickersons"]
* [http://bearmanormedia.bizland.com/id15.html "The Bickersons" by Ben Ohmart]


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