John Hetherington, adjunct professor of history, discussed his recent book, Vic and Sade on the Radio: A Cultural History of Paul Rhymer’s Daytime Series, 1921-1944, with faculty curator Christopher Davidson.
CD: What kind of a program was Vic and Sade, and what did the show demonstrate about depression era culture?
JH: Vic and Sade was a radio comedy that aired on NBC (and for a while also on CBS) from 1932 to 1944, and had a few radio and TV revivals thereafter. The program aired most weekdays, and all of the episodes were written by a single man, Paul Rhymer, a brilliant comedy writer who produced more than 200 episodes a year for twelve straight years.
The series featured “radio’s home folks”: Victor Gook, his wife Sade, and their adopted son Rush. Each episode dealt with a small, everyday problem and took a unique approach. While the program made reference to an astonishing number of characters and locations, drawing vivid and unforgettable portraits of the Gooks’ friends and neighbors, for most of the show’s run the only voices heard on the show were those of the Gooks themselves, later joined by Sade’s Uncle Fletcher. This meant that the program used verbal and literary devices to create a world out of a the perspectives of just a few characters as they gossiped, discussed, and talked about everything going on around him. As a result, the show’s writing was key to its success, and its folksy, humorous writing still seems fresh and engaging eight decades later.
In the book, I look at the way the show reflects specific aspects of Depression-era culture, particularly leisure activities, education, and community involvement. I show that the Gooks had some interesting ideas about movies, for example, recognizing the formulaic nature of most Hollywood films but also understanding that “the movies” were also a social phenomenon and a specific choice among many types of leisure activities available. In one characteristic scene, the Gooks escape to the movies to avoid having to read a long, boring personal letter from Sade’s sister. In other words, as a cultural text, Vic and Sade doesn’t just show us what people were doing in the 1930s and 1940s but why they were doing it and how they felt about it. Audiences were asked to identify with the Gooks, and they recognized in their humorous approach to daily life a reflection of their everyday triumphs and tragedies.
CD: According to the description, your book “examines the program’s depiction of many aspects of American culture—leisure activities, community groups, education, films—in light of the critiques put forward by the era’s critics such as William Orton.” What cultural connections do you see between Vic and Sade, and the popular TV series of today (on both cable and broadcast?)
JH: Every program reflects its own era, whether it’s Vic and Sade in the 1930s, All in the Family in the 1970s, or Modern Family today. Vic and Sade was first and foremost a very funny comedy, but it also reflected 1930s culture in terms of the entertainment of the era as well as its economic realities. Like many sitcoms today, it focused primarily on a family and their humorous interactions with people in their community. In the way the show remained upbeat while also taking into consideration the challenges of the Depression, the show has some similarities to shows like ABC’s The Middle, which depicts the lives of people who aren’t rich, powerful, or famous. On another level, though, the humor of Vic and Sade has been very influential, and the show counted among its fans Ray Bradbury and Jean Shepherd. Shepherd’s A Christmas Story has some clear resemblances to Vic and Sade. Andy Griffith said that The Andy Griffith Show took some inspiration from Vic and Sade, and one of Vic and Sade’s stars, Bill Idelson, wrote for Andy Griffith and went on to a distinguished TV writing career, bringing his early experience on the show to scripts for programs like Get Smart and M*A*S*H.
CD: Can you tell us more about William Orton and perhaps compare him to a cultural critic that our readers might be familiar with today?
JH: While William Orton features in my book, he isn’t a major focus, so readers don’t need to worry if they haven’t heard of him! Although best known as a classical liberal economist, Orton was also a culturally conservative critic of the 1930s who worried about the way Hollywood was corrupting the arts and the way mass-produced entertainment on stage, screen, and radio was training audiences to expect vulgar entertainment and worship celebrities. If he were alive today, he’d probably have a show on Fox News or talk radio, though his style was probably more William F. Buckley, Jr. than Bill O’Reilly.
CD: You mention that Vic and Sade offered its own subtle cultural critique that reflected how ordinary people experienced mass culture of the time.” How did they experience mass culture at that time? And has ordinary people’s experience of mass culture been completely transformed today, or are there parallels with the 1940s, or both?
JH: People of the 1930s experience mass culture in many of the same ways we do today: through movies, radio, newspapers, magazines, and so on. While they didn’t have TV or the internet, radio did work to bring people together much the way TV does today. In fact, because radio was in people’s homes and bringing real-time mass culture to people at all times of day and night, the people of the Depression were the first to experience the non-stop access to mass culture we experience today. One of the great similarities between mass culture then and now is that much of what we consume is homogenized and designed to appeal to a broad audience rather than to really express an artist’s vision. Today there’s a lot more mass culture, and audiences are more fragmented than in the past, but when you’re talking audiences in the millions of people, there’s still a great deal of homogenization that has to occur to appeal to enough people to make a product profitable.