71 Years Ago Yesterday..

…a famous comedy bit appeared for the very first time on an NBC radio program:

For those not in the know, the overflowing hall closet was a running gag on the Fibber McGee and Molly program, a radio comedy that ran for 24 years starting in 1935 (nowadays, when a show hits seven seasons, the critics are required by law to simultaneously start using phrases “lost a step or two over the years” every time they write about it). If it looks visually unimpressive to you, it’s because it wasn’t meant to be seen. This clip is from the only time it ever happened in visual form, and with good reason. The overflowing hall closet was one of the original (and yet also one of the finest) in a category that simply no longer exists– sound gags. “Let me get my coat,” Fibber would exclaim. “It’s right here in the hall closet.” Sound of door opening. Sound of large objects falling, in a seemingly endless stream getting louder and louder. Often, an incongruous noise is thrown into the mix, like the honk of a bicycle horn. And it always ends with the tinkling of a small bell. For the audience, the absurdist humor came from trying to imagine just what could be in the hall closet that would make those sorts of noises on the way to the ground. It was the same way when a character had a goofy voice: you don’t laugh because you can picture the goofy person they must look like; you laugh because you can’t picture them without resorting to a cartoon.┬áThere’s just no way to make a joke like that anymore.

The clip, by the way, is from the movie Look Who’s Laughing, which was one of the original “comedy ensemble” films, featuring nearly the entire cast of both the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show, and Fibber McGee and Molly, two four biggest comedy programs of the decade. To up the ante, Lucille Ball also makes an appearance, meaning that the only apt modern comparison would be if everyone from “30 Rock” and “The Office” teamed up in a movie with, say, Ben Stiller.

UPDATE: Folks who feel really bold can stream the entire program on which the “hall closet” gag debuted here. The audio quality is poor, but the key moment starts around 6 minutes in.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to 71 Years Ago Yesterday..

  1. Moominmamma says:

    Seventy-one years? That doesn’t seem possible. Loss of the sound gag really is a shame, but I think loss of that kind of radio show is a shame in general. Thanks for pointing out the historic date. Do you know who came up with the idea? Was it originally supposed to be just a one-time gag?

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