Twenty four years is a long time to do anything, especially to have America come visit you at home every Tuesday night. That is just what Jim and Marian Jordan did from April 1935 until Sept 6, 1959, playing the beloved Fibber McGee and Molly.
In the TV world, a show that lasts more than four seasons is considered a classic. The characters on such a classic will have evolved dramatically in that time, but the Fibber who was still getting laughs at the twilight of his career on NBC’s Monitor had not changed all that much from the Fibber who drove his jalopy to the seashore on April 16, 1935.
As much as any situation comedy, Fibber McGee and Molly found a workable formula and pretty much stuck with it. Some of those elements changed in the later years of the run, which reflected the real lives of the players. The successful formula took a while to be fully developed, but when it did come together, it was one of the most successful in radio.
For the audience, the foundation of that success was Fibber and Molly themselves, played by real life couple Jim and Marian Jordan. A marriage bond as strong as the one enjoyed by the Jordans, especially in the pressure cooker world of show business, will strike us as exceptional today. Jim and Marian’s success, both in marriage and show business, are reflections of their mid-western values.
As important as the characters and the actors who play them are to the success of a comedy program, they would not last without great scripts to work from. This was important enough that from the beginning the fees paid for Fibber McGee and Molly were split three ways- a share apiece for Jim and Marion, and the third full share for their writer, Don Quinn. Quinn was not the most disciplined of writers; often he would wait until the last minute before actually writing the script, and in the final hours would lock himself in his office with a typewriter, a big plate of sandwiches, a big pot of coffee and two cartons of cigarettes. What emerged was usually comic genius, rarely in need of revision.
For most of the years Fibber and Molly were on the radio, the program stuck to a regular framework in its half hour format. The show never forgot that Johnson’s Wax was paying the bills. To that end, Quinn became a genius at working the sponsor’s plug into the storyline. Announcer Harlow Wilcox became more than the guy who introduced the show and read the commercials, he was an important character who always had a comment for Fibber’s foible of the week. For Fibber’s part, he was always amazed at Wilcox’s ability to sneak a plug for the Wax Company into any conversation, and commiserated with the audience who knew the commercial was coming.
Fibber McGee and Molly followed a format that lent itself to running gags. Some of these were the supporting characters themselves, most of whom could get a laugh just by walking up to the microphone. These included Mr. Old Timer, whose amazing powers never quite matched his aged persona, Wallace Wimple who lived in constant fear of his wife, Mayor LaTrivia who Fibber would reduce from civility to a near nervous breakdown on a regular basis, and pompous neighbor Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve who proved popular enough to get his own show. Another spinoff from Fibber and Molly was Beulah, who started as the McGee’s maid; Beulah always got a laugh in the studio, not just for her character, but because she was played by a white male actor.
Fibber McGee and Molly are more than a reflection of a simpler time. They were part of a world which never existed but which we all know as well as we know our own home town. How else could Fibber have gone 24 years with no job other than town busy-body? The time we spend in Wistful Vista is more than a visit home, it is a time to laugh and forget about the trouble of the real world.