"If it plays in Peoria"
A short history of humor in Illinois
This piece was published in the on-line magazine of the Illinois Humanities Council. I was then at work on a place-based guide to Illinois history, and had collected a fair pile of material about the state’s rich tradition of humor and humorists. It did not quite fit into such a book, so it was published on the web. The subtitle, which appeared on the original, is misleading; it is anything but short for a magazine article, being more than five thousand words long.
My original typedraft is missing—a virus ate my homework—and the final paragraph(s) are missing from the archived version on the web. This version differs from the original too in having been expanded slightly.
There is no such thing as Illinois humor. This is not to say that Illinoisans don't have a sense of humor. But there is no style of humor that is uniquely Illinoisan, no body of jokes directed at the state per se, no tradition of performance that owes to, and conveys, the peculiar placeness of Illinois. In humor as in so much else, Illinois is two places, each with its own style of humor. There is what might be called Downstate Illinois humor—bucolic in origins and reference, most naturally expressed in parable told over the cracker barrel or the stove—and Chicago humor, whose natural idiom is the wisecrack delivered across a bar in a saloon.
No Illinoisan was more adept at Downstate humor than Abraham Lincoln. Humor was a crucial element in both the public and the private man; his law partner William Herndon reports reliably that Lincoln was known as a jokester and storyteller around central Illinois well before he was known as a lawyer or politician. He did not tell funny stories for the sake of fun but to make a point, and thus favored tales with what Herndon called "the necessary ingredients of mirth and moral." Lincoln's skill with a story in the courtroom and the tavern and on the campaign trail, was unusual among his fellows only in degree.
Regrettably, only a few of Lincoln's stories are in print. They could be ribald and rude, and no wonder, as the atmosphere at country inns and political rallies, even county courtrooms, was not unlike that of a comedy club today, complete with the drunken hecklers. The President's early biographers, out of concern for the President's reputation or their own, did not record such stories as they were recalled by his audiences. Accounts that do survive suggest that Lincoln's sense of humor was of his time and place—sly and self-deprecating, dry in tone and stoic in temperament. That voice found expression in Lincoln's response to a crowd after having been accused in debate by Stephen Douglas of being two-faced. "I leave it to my audience," he said. "If I had another face, do you think I'd wear this one?"
Happily that voice did not die with Lincoln. It enlivened the county histories written around the turn of the 20th century, for example, a generation after Lincoln. Typical is the Lee County history that chronicled the saga of the Rosbrook boys in the days before Progress had come to Lee County in the form of good roads. Local farmers, they'd spent three days scything hay, which they loaded onto a wagon for the trip into a nearby town, where they planned to sell it on the Fourth of July. Unfortunately, they get bogged down in a slough on the way, and are forced to unload the hay, pull out the now-lighter wagon, and reload their hay. By the time they got to town most potential buyers had left, and they got but 75 cents for their load. Our anonymous historian remarked that when the Rosbrooks started for home at 4 PM, "their conversation touched but lightly on patriotism. Indeed, as it is now remembered, they considered Washington's act in saving the country rather insignificant, and in regard to their locality, wholly unnecessary."
Downstate humor has its roots in the soil, and where Illinoisans remain close to the soil the humor survives. (A good thing too; a farmer getting less than two dollars a bushel for his corn had best be able to laugh.) The spring of 2000 lacked the warmth and the wetness that corn seeds need to sprout, which prompted one Downstate farmer to explain to a state crop statistician why he and his neighbors had gotten such an early start on their corn planting. It says on the bag to store in a cool, dry place, the farmer pointed out, so he put it in the ground.
That would scarcely qualify as a joke in Chicago, one suspects. But it is foolish to draw too firm a line between Chicago humor and Downstate humor. To the extent that early Chicago humor was largely Irish humor, and to the extent that the Irish were people not far from the soil, they brought a kindred sensibility to their experience of life in Illinois, however different that experience might have been from the state's farmers. Only the tricky rendering of the Irish accent in print would have kept Lincoln's pals at New Salem from getting the humor in this exchange (reported by Bridgeport's Finley Peter Dunne) when the defiant Mr. Donahue learned he had been bested by his wife and daughter over the buying of a piano. "I'll be masther iv me own house." "Ye will so," said Mr. Dooley. "But don't say it too loud; di' fam'ly may hear ye."
Illinois humor thus is merely humor in the Midwestern style set in Illinois or about Illinois. Illinois humor, like its weather or its cuisine, is indistinguishable from that of the Midwest of which it is so representative a part. This sort of jape could have appeared in any Midwest newspaper during the rationing days of WWII; this particular one appeared in the Arenzville Tattler:
Saw a sign in a small rester. . . restur . . . I mean Cafe, the other day:
T-Bone ———- 30¢ (If you want meat on it, come in and dicker)
One hardly hears an "Illinois" joke that is not a farmer joke—or a redneck joke or a hillbilly joke or rube joke,or any of the ruder ethnic variants—with an Illinois license plate stuck on it. They ring true enough most of the time. But Illinois is changing, and the jokes don't always keep up. Here's one, from the World Wide Web: "You know you're from Illinois if your idea of a traffic jam is ten cars waiting to pass a tractor on the highway." In those great swaths of rural Illinois being undone by urban sprawl, you'd get a bigger laugh with this: "You know you're from Illinois if your idea of a traffic jam is a tractor waiting to pass ten cars on the highway."
Illinois jokes may be rare as palm trees in Pike County but there are plenty of jokes about things Illinoisan. There are Cubs jokes and Chicago jokes, for example, and a few that are both. ("The Chicago Cubs are like Rush Street—a lot of singles, but no action"—Joe Garagiola.) Both the city and the ball club have what the state as a whole lacks as a target for jests, namely a specific identity with traits peculiar to it. Springfield has long been the butt of jokes, perhaps because the capital is a city to which state government types are exiled as a condition of their careers; their resentment at being taken away from the comforts of home gets expressed in dismissive humor. A veteran bureaucrat, for instance, advises that if you find you have but two weeks to live, spend it in Springfield because "it'll seem like a lifetime." A popular T-shirt sold by a local bookshop bears a portrait of the late President with the legend, "They'd have to shoot me to get me back to Springfield."
Springfield patriots have grown deaf to such insults, which they've been hearing for well over a century. In Paul Angle's history of early Springfield we find this story, which was a favorite of Lincoln's:
One day a meek-looking man applied to Thompson Campbell who, as Secretary of State, had custody of the State House, for permission to deliver a series of lectures in the Hall of the House of Representatives."May I ask," said Campbell, "what is to be the subject of your lectures?" "Certainly," was the solemn reply,"they are on the second coming of our Lord.""It's no use," said Campbell, "if you will take my advice you will not waste your time in this city. It is my private opinion that if the Lord has been in Springfield once, he will not come the second time."
The tall tale and the boast figure perennially in Illinois humor, especially in the folklore of southern Illinois. Another southerner—Chicago alderman "Bathhouse John" Coughlin, who ruled the old First Ward south of the Loop—also mastered the idiom. Donald Tingley thought well enough of this anecdote to include it in his 1980 history, The Structuring of a State. The 1908 Democratic Party's national convention was held in Denver, where Coughlin had a summer house. According to the Tribune, tour guide Coughlin explained to his guests:
Colorado is the most important geographical division of the known world outside of the first ward of Chicago . . . . While there is nothing to compare with the variety of climate experience between the torrid regions of the 22nd Street and the rarified heights that occupy the Municipal Voters League, still Colorado has some high altitudes that are picturesque in their own crude way.
Such flights are now rare, alas. Town boosters have not lost their talent for extravagant praise, but the new boasts lack the old poetry.
Bathhouse John was hardly the only politician to use humor to beguile a crowd. One could argue that politicians were Illinois's first stand-up comics. "Big Bill" Thompson, Mayor of Chicago for three terms between 1915 and 1931, would have made a first-rate showman instead of a third-rate mayor; a history of the General Assembly based on the jokes that have been told by and about its members would be more fun than the usual histories, and not much less instructive. Many politicians have had wicked senses of humor but they prudently put most of their barbs off the record. Politicians use humor the same ways non-elected Illinoisans do—to deflect humor directed at them, or to wound an enemy, or (as Lincoln did) to make a point.
The last tradition is by now a bit threadbare, but occasionally an Illinoisan pol has sought to emulate Lincoln and not just praise him. Everett Dirksen, Pekin's gift to the U.S. Senate, is one. Lamenting the federal government's tendency to overspend, Dirksen made a remark that has been repeated thousands of times, sometimes accurately: "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money."
Too much humor in a politician is considered unbecoming, some voters confusing humor with frivolousness. The quips and scripted lines that brightened Adlai E. Stevenson's campaigns for governor and President were thought by some to betray a lack of seriousness. (The Chicago Tribune called him "Adlai, the Side Splitter.") Biographer Porter McKeever gives an example of the Stevenson style on the stump. "At one whistle-stop where an echo kept repeating back his words, he told the crowd, 'I think what I am saying is worth listening to, but it's certainly not worth listening to twice.'" At Notre Dame University, when a young mother, red-faced at futile efforts to quiet her crying baby, arose from one of the front rows to leave, he interrupted himself to say, "Please don't be embarrassed. I agree with you, if not with my opponent, that it is time for a change."
These days, Illinois politicians must worry about a failed joke being replayed a hundred times in the TV news, and so tend not to make any. Because of that, most of the better jokes from political leaders in recent years have been unintentional. The master of the inadvertent jest was Richard J. Daley, whose malapropisms are legend. (One example of many: "The policeman isn't there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder," uttered in response to the 1968 Democratic national convention riots.) Purists will complain that while this sort of remark is funny it isn't humor, and we have to agree.
Stump humor is necessarily aimed fairly low, so as not to sail over the heads of voters (or reporters). Humor directed as the reading public can be pitched higher. Illinois has produced quite a number of literary humorists expert in every genre from the newspaper column to the satiric novel. Chicagoan Edward Tanner, the novelist who, as Patrick Dennis, gave the world Auntie Mame, has been called the Noel Coward of camp. We Called It Music, Eddie Condon's memoir of the early days of jazz in Chicago and other places, was not a humor book per se but it is wickedly funny. Condon was as famous for his wisecracks as he was for his guitar playing. Critics have ranked Walnut native Don Marquis as a humorist only a bit below Twain. His columns in New York City newspapers in the early decades of the 20th century featured several recurring characters that became household names in the 1920s and 1930s, most memorably archy the cockroach and mehitabel the cat. He was a humorist's humorist, a favorite of such masters as E. B. White.
Of the 35 writers enshrined on the frieze of the State Library in Springfield, however, only two are honest-to-goodness humorists—George Ade (born in 1866) and Finley Peter Dunne (born in 1867). (Lincoln's name is also on the frieze, but while he used humor, humor was not the point of his stories. Ring Lardner also is there, but while capable of writing some very funny stories, he too was not a humorist per se.) Indiana-born George Ade composed hundreds of vignettes of everyday Chicago in the 1890s in such newspapers as the Morning News and Record. Colloquial in tone and mildly satiric, these tales featured the antics of ordinary people such as office worker Artie and shoeshine man Pink Marsh. These tales were collected and published in book form, as were a series of loose adaptations of Aesop's fables as told in the Midwestern slang of the day; all were hugely popular.
It was inevitable that a city so crammed with so many immigrants from so many places would yield examples of dialect humor to the anthropologist—among the few people who today dare to sample jokes that once amused millions.
Chicago newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne wrote in the vernacular too, in his case the accented English of the Irish working class who frequented the fictional Bridgeport saloon of his literary alter ego, Mr. Dooley. Consistent with his calling, Dooley was a philosopher whose monologues constitute an unequaled body of social reportage and criticism and were collected in several books. If Dunne is an unfamiliar name to younger readers, it owes partly to the fact that his famous Mr. Dooley pieces were written in dialect. (Another reason is that the Irish are no longer considered an oppressed group except by the Irish, and thus not offered on reading lists of the officially oppressed used in schools.)
Critic Robert Bray finds James Corrothers the literary equal of Dunne when it comes to dialect/ethnic humor and social satire. Corrothers worked at the Chicago Journal at the same time as Dunne. The former’s 1902 book, The Black Cat Club (subtitled “Negro humor and folklore”), is a medley of poetry, jokes and sketches, ostensibly recording the doings of a group of hard-drinking, -talking, and -fighting Chicago black men. As were Dunne’s, Corrothers’ jokes were barbed with satire.
Corrothers (who died in 1917, when black pride and a civil rights activism were beginning to swell) disowned the book, as did many of his fellow African Americans who were still embarrassed by what their grandkids will eventually take pride in.[bray reader guide 26] The current assumption is that Corrothers was forced to resort to stereotypes to attract an readership beyond black readers. (Although one persons’ dialect is another person’s oral poetic tradition.) His biographer reports that the author did not speak the black dialect used in such sketches and had to refer to a book on dialect in composing them.
Leo Rosten’s first and still best-known book, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (published under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross), was born of his experience as a teacher of English to adult immigrants on the West Side. It was first published in the 1930s as a series of stories in The New Yorker, and among its fans were such unlikely admirers as Evelyn Waugh.
Alas, these masters might as well have written on the walls of caves, so unlikely is it that modern readers will have run across their work. Even if they were to encounter them, the humor of these dispatches is, sadly, all but inaccessible to later generations. Some find standard English, much less dialect, to be an intolerable inconvenience while reading; rather more find dialect to be demeaning because depictions of those members of a group that did speak that way insult those members who did not.
Indeed, several writers, or at least several parts of the work of several writers—are today all but ignored because their treatment of ethnic and racial characters transgressed today’s boundaries of taste, or at least of social prudence. George Ade did not stoop to dialect, but his did traffic in vernacular language and stereotyped ethnics such as happy-go-lucky "Pink Marsh" and Chinese laundry workers. His characters not more reductive than, say, the Irish as offered by generations of Chicago reporters, or of WASP suburbanites. But as historian Lisa Krissoff Boehm has noted, “No author could pen such composites today and not face a call onto the carpet.”
The familiar dangers of seeing the past through the eyes of the present. Stereotyped they may have been, but Ade’s characters at least introduced white Chicagoans to other peoples as people, and in that sense had enlightening effects, for all the fact that they were intended merely as entertainments.
For all their differences, much unites Ade and Dunne. For one thing, both wrote about small towns. For another (as the Cambridge History of English and American Literature put it) Ade's humor "bears the same relation toward social things that Mr. Dooley's political vein bears toward national politics." The two authors took vernacular speech—the rural Midwest in Ade's case, Chicago Irish in the case of Dunne—and gave it literary form. They thus served as translators of their people for a wider world, much the way comics who came out of the Yiddish clubs of the 1950s translated the world of the Catskills and the synagogue for white-bread Americans sitting at home watching TV.
Alas, these masters might as well have written on the walls of caves, so unlikely is it that modern readers will have run across their work. In 1947 an editor recalled one of the many humorous adages coined by Ade a generation previously and asked, "Who has not heard 'Early to bed and early to rise' and you'll meet very few important people?'" A half-century later, the answer is, hardly anyone. As for Dunne's work, the humor of these dispatches is, sadly, inaccessible to later generations that find standard English, much less dialect, to bean intolerable inconvenience while reading.
The originator of the Ade-ian humorous vignette may no longer be read, but versions of it reappear across Illinois. The form was recognizable in some of the urban fables of long-time Chicago columnist Mike Royko. In its more bucolic guise it persists in the work of local columnists, usually working for small-town weeklies, whose reports on local doings—humorous, vernacular, affectionate—are Ade-ian in everything except perhaps literary polish. One such is Ken Bradbury, a veteran teacher at Triopia High School in Concord, in rural Morgan County, who is the chronicler (under the name of Freida Maria Crump) of the imagined village of Coonridge, Illinois.
The George Ade of the upscale suburbs is Peter DeVries. Perhaps Illinois's pre-eminent modern literary humorist, DeVries was born in 1910 in Chicago. After odd jobbing during the Depression, DeVries ended up an editor at the famous Poetry magazine in 1938; after four years he ended up at the New Yorker, where he found fame. Before he died in 1993 he published some two dozen novels. One, Tunnel of Love (1954),earned him praise as "something of a national humorist laureate." DeVries in his prime was compared to Oscar Wilde, P. G. Wodehouse, and Evelyn Waugh (the early, funny Waugh). Unusual for such funny works, he wrote his novels in a highly intellectual or at least mental style that relied on puns, goofy aphorisms, and word games. DeVries set some of his stories in his home state—the hero, more or less, of Consenting Adults is Ted Peachum of the fictional Pocock, Illinois—but the real setting for his stories was the treacherous landscape of the suburban mind. His persistent themes were the difficulties of marriage and of religion, which pose similar dilemmas to the faithful.
The roster of Illinois humorists includes an impressive number of cartoonists. By "cartoonist" we do not mean editorial cartoonists, who use humor to make what are ultimately polemical points. Nor do we include the practitioners of the newer art of the comic novel. (Chicago has connections to two acknowledged masters of this new genre in the persons of Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes.) When we say "cartoonist," we mean the author of comic strips and drawings.
Chicago in the decades bracketing 1900 had as many newspapers as it has television stations today. Cartoonists flocked to the city the way pickpockets flock to state fairs. Frank Willard, born in 1893 and raised in Anna at the other end of Illinois, apprenticed at the old Chicago Herald in the pre-World War I years; Willard found fame in New York City with the "Moon Mullins" comic strip, which at its peak appeared in 250 newspapers read by 15 million people. H. T. Webster, the cartoonist-creator of Caspar Milquetoast, also spent his early years in Chicago before moving to New York City. Cartoonist Edgar "Abe" Martin was the author of "Boots and Her Buddies", a popular newspaper strip in the early 1900s detailing the exploits of a popular coed and her classmates in a fictional college town based closely on Monmouth, Illinois and Monmouth College, Martin's alma mater.
Another strip of that ilk that is more familiar to today's readers is "Blondie," a strip created by Chicago-born Murat Bernard "Chic" Young. Young grew up in St. Louis; after graduating from high school, he returned to his native Chicago where he attended night classes at the Art Institute before leaving in 1921 for Cleveland and then New York to do strips for the Newspaper Enterprises Association (NEA). One of them, "Blondie" (1930) became perhaps the most successful comic strip of all time. (When the U.S. Postal Service wanted a cartoon character to grace anew postage stamp commemorating the 1995 centennial of the American newspaper comic strip, it chose "Blondie.") And while he gave up drawing early in his career, Walt Disney deserves mention for his innovations in the art form of the animated cartoon. Disney was born in Chicago, and after a youth in Kansas came back to study at McKinley High School and (at night) at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
Helen E. Hokinson graduated from Mendota High School in 1913, and went on to publish some 1,700 cartoons in the New Yorker, usually featuring befuddled dowager-types. (Typical Hokinson woman at a club meeting: "I just want to say that I'm perfectly willing to serve as treasurer, provided every penny doesn't have to come out exactly even.") Another notable magazine cartoonist was E. Simms Campbell, the first African-American cartoonist and illustrator to receive national recognition in mainstream publications. St. Louisan Campbell moved to Chicago as a teenager when his mother died. Like many black artists in the city, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the few art schools in the U.S. that admitted black students. He left Chicago, eventually landing in New York City, where he was hired by Esquire, where his first byline appeared in 1933. In addition to illustrations—he created the magazine's mascot, among other assignments—he did cartoons. (Campbell's all-white harems are examples of what one critic called "working in whiteface.") Upon leaving Esquire, he became the first black cartoonist to be nationally syndicated.
Among contemporary humorists who draw, several Illinois artists stand out. Chicago Tribune cartoonist Jeff MacNelly died in 2000 at 53. Best known as an editorial cartoonist—he won the Pulitzer Prize for work in that genre in 1972, 1978, and 1985—MacNelly also illustrated humorist Dave Barry's syndicated column and wrote the daily comic " Shoe" beginning in 1977; the latter made working at a newspaper seem much funnier than it is, which is one reason why it appeared in more than 1,000 newspapers.
Among the more highly regarded among mainstream practitioners is Pat Brady, who lives in Sycamore. Several times nominated as "Cartoonist of the Year" by the National Cartoonists Society, Brady is the author of the syndicated strip "Rose is Rose," a sort of Peanuts for the 1990s which chronicles the exploits of the Gumbo family in more than 600 newspapers. Nicole Hollander is the author of "Sylvia," which in 1979 introduced the world to the bathtub philosopher who first pointed out that a world without men would feature "No crime and lots of happy, fat women." Hollander is one of the still-few women whose work graces the newspaper comic pages. She grew up in Chicago, returning there to live after studying art at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. More than a dozen collections of "Sylvia" strips have been published, along with dolls and calendars and, in 1991, a musical play, Sylvia's Real Good Advice, which Hollander co-wrote.
Brady and Hollander are unusual in that they maintain national careers from the Chicago area, unlike so many of their predecessors at the drawing table, who trained or apprenticed in Chicago but had to move to New York to make their livings. Another contemporary cartoonist who stayed put is Lynda Barry, author of the "Ernie Pook" comic strip and the novel-turned-play The Good Times Are Killing Me. Barry was born in a small Wisconsin town. She got her start in Chicago in the late 1970s when the Chicago Reader began picking up her cartoons. Her audience is now national, made up of fans of "alternative" cartooning that is not always about jokes, indeed often isn't meant to be funny.
Comics and comedians: The radio era
Illinois nurtured the man who was, arguably, the Lincoln of comedy—radio and TV star Jack Benny. Benny was an innovator of comedy formats; The Jack Benny Program on radio—sketch comedy with a repertory company that poked fun at pop culture—was the forerunner of "Saturday Night Live" in everything but manners. Unlike the Illinois comics of later generations, Benny did not write his own material; he was however a performer with brilliant timing and taste. It was Benny who elicited from Ed Wynn that essential distinction between a comedian "meaning a man [like Benny] who says things funny, as opposed to a comic, who says funny things."
Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago in 1894 but grew up in Waukegan, where his father owned a saloon and later a dry-goods store. He began playing the violin for money at 15, in the pit orchestra of a local theater; his habit of skipping afternoon classes to make matinee curtains caused his school to expel him at 17. After a few years on the vaudeville circuit as a violinist, Benny discovered he could make people laugh—also in Illinois, as it happened, at the nearby Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1918 where, as a Navy enlistee, he wowed 'em in a base revue.
To say that Jack Benny is Waukegan's favorite son is to say not nearly enough. Benny was perhaps the only reason the world ever heard of Waukegan; his hometown figured in a few of his radio shows, and he broadcast his show from there in 1939. In gratitude the town planted a Jack Benny elm beside the city hall, opened a Jack Benny Center for the Arts located on Jack Benny Drive in Bowen Park, and commissioned a statue of him for the restored Genesee Theatre downtown. Of all these gestures, the one that reportedly meant the most to Benny was naming a new junior high school for him in 1961. The schools' athletic teams are nicknamed the 39ers.
Chicago was the birthplace of another star of the 1930s and '40s—rather two stars, in the persons of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (born Bergren) and his dummy companion Charlie McCarthy. Bergen was born in 1903 in Chicago, where his Swedish parents had a retail dairy; Charlie McCarthy had Chicago parentage too, having been modeled upon a tough Irish newsboy Bergen knew. Like many boys Bergen was fascinated by sleight-of-hand tricks and sleight-of-voice tricks alike; he was tutored in the latter by traveling ventriloquist Harry Lester. Bergen began to work his way part through college at Northwestern University, but learned more doing a magic/ventriloquism act at parties, and left school for vaudeville.
Greater Chicago in those days was rich ground for early performers in vaudeville. The Marx family, for example, moved to Chicago from New York in late 1909 or so, looking for a place they could subject new audiences to what had become tired routines. They lived at 4512 Grand Boulevard (now King Drive) and performed as the Four Nightingales and the Six Mascots before becoming what the world knows as the Marx Brothers. It was at Chicago's Windsor Theater, in 1914, that the group debuted one of their seminal early shows, and the filmed version of their touring show Animal Crackers, now a classic, had it national premiere in Chicago in 1930.
The world owes Peoria for James Edward Jordan and Marian (Driscoll) Jordan, the real-life husband-and-wife team who starred in that classic radio comedy series of the 1930s and '40s, Fibber McGee & Molly. "Fibber" was born on a farm five miles west of Peoria. In Peoria he attended St. Mark's Grade School and later the Spaulding Institute. A singer, he met his future Molly in Marian Driscoll while he was singing in the choir of St. John's Church. Peoria offered no future on the stage, so Jordan ventured to Chicago, where he secured his first stage job.
Marian was a native Peorian who also was raised in the church. She was an avid performer of the sort that keep local amateur theatricals cast; she studied voice, violin and piano at Runnell's School of Music in Peoria. The couple wed in Peoria, after which the Jordans made a stab at vaudeville and, more successfully, organized their own touring concert company which enabled them to see the inside of most of the "opera houses" and church churches in the Midwest. The Jordans faced a dreary professional future until they got their break in Chicago in 1925 on a song program, which led to a modest career as sketch comedians. Skilled voice actors, the pair found their perfect comic personae in Fibber McGee and Molly. The radio series that recounted their adventures debuted in 1935. It struck a chord with all the spiritual Peorians out there in radioland—of which there were a lot then as now; the show remained a radio staple in one form or another until 1959.
Another of Peoria's gifts to the fledgling radio business was Charles Correll, who was Andy in the popular Amos 'n' Andy radio series. Correll was born and raised in Peoria. A jack-of-all-building-trades during the day, Correll apprenticed as an entertainer at night and on weekends, performing in song and dance contests, local theatricals, and playing piano in movie houses before going on the road as a show producer, where he met partner Freeman Gosden. Their show (originally conceived as a comic strip adapted to broadcasting) originated on Chicago's WMAQ in 1928. By running until 1960 on various networks it became the longest-running radio program in broadcast history and one of the most popular; Amos 'n' Andy's national audience in the 1930s was estimated at 40 million, in a country that then had about 130 million people. Correll's white man's take on blackness offends many people these days because of its presumption if not its crudity. The mere mention of the shows induces a cringe of the kind feminists feel watching "I Love Lucy". As a result, sadly, Correll's gifts for characterization and voices are underestimated.
New media—recording, films, and especially television—opened opportunities for a new generation of Illinois satirists, clowns, and comics after World War II. Steve Allen grew up partly in Chicago, with his Irish in-laws, with whom his vaudevillian mother left him while she was on the road. It was there, he explained later, that he honed his skills at repartee that stood him in such good stead as the host of the original "Tonight Show," where he virtually invented the late-night talk show.
Another TV pioneer was "Lonesome" George Gobel, whose award-winning variety shows were a staple of the broadcast lineups in the 1950s and '60s. Gobel was born in Chicago in 1920. The first room he worked was his father's grocery, where he imitated the customers; at 11 he made his debut singing (accompanying himself on guitar) on Chicago radio, on the WLS Barn Dance, and had a bit part of the old "Tom Mix Show." His leisurely delivery led many revved-up city folks to mistake him as slow-witted.
Gobel once complained of being misunderstood as a yokel, saying that he was "really a city boy at heart." But there was always a hint of country in Gobel. His apprenticeship was not the big city vaudeville circuit but radio stations in places like Chattanooga and St. Louis. On screen he was the comic embodiment of the de-ethnicized white small-town American washed up on the nation's cities and their suburbs by a rising tide of postwar affluence. The new world they lived in left Gobel no less dazzled than the rest. (In 1954 an admiring Gobel said, "If it weren't for electricity, we'd all be watching television by candlelight.")
Yokels were not what the critics thought of when they first heard the work of The Second City troupe. An offshoot of a University of Chicago theater group, Second City began offering improvisational comedy with a satirical edge in a Wells Street club in 1959 and was still going strong 32 years later. Second City did for anew generation of satirically-inclined actors and writers—the familiar Chicago wise guy with a college education—what vaudeville had done for their punch-line-oriented forebears. It gave bright but inexperienced talents a place to hone their skills—a place, in short, to be bad and still survive professionally.
Through the 1970s, Second City helped produce some of the era's best-known club comedians and comedic actors. A partial list includes Alan Arkin, Ed Asner, Shelley Berman (who invented the style of comedy that Bob Newhart would later perfect), Barbara Harris, Linda Lavin, Mike Nichols, Elaine May (the last two forever famous as Nichols & May), Paul Mazursky, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara (the last two best known as the team of Stiller & Meara), Paul Sand, Joan Rivers, Avery Schreiber, David Steinberg, Robert Klein, Fred Willard, Peter Boyle, Harold Ramis, John Belushi, and Bill Murray. Among Chicago institutions of learning, only the University of Chicago can boast of such accomplished alumni.
While Second City was improvising a different future of American comedy on Wells Street, two other local performers were expanding the possibilities of stand-up comedy. Bob Newhart was born in Chicago in 1928. After Army service he came back to the city to work as an accountant and then as an advertising copywriter. Unease at the corporate culture plus vague theatrical ambitions coalesced in the routines that filled the record album "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart contains some of his best-written and most effective routines. The first track on the LP, “Abe Lincoln Versus Madison Avenue,” is a comic gem, and it’s also Newhart’s most famous routine. . . .
[And there it stops. Readers should feel free to come up with their own punch line.] ●