If you haven’t heard Information Please, an old American radio panel quiz show, give it a try. Two hundred and nineteen episodes are available on the Internet Archive and easy to download. You’ll have days or weeks of good listening. Podcast listeners who like working through series of shows will especially enjoy it.
Before I say more about Information Please, allow me to indulge myself by listing what I think are the best radio comedies:
- Cabin Pressure, John Finnemore’s perfectly written and gorgeously acted BBC situation comedy about four people working at a one-airplane airline;
- Frantic Times, by the Frantics (sketch comedy on the CBC, which evolved into a montage of memorable repeated characters such as the Ultramind, “the greatest evil genius in the history of evil geniuses”);
- The Great Eastern, a Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland arts and culture show picked up by the CBC in the nineties;
- I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, BBC’s “antidote to panel games”, running since 1972 but missing Willie Rushton, who died in 1996, and the great Humphrey Lyttelton, who died in 2008;
- I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, a BBC comedy from 1964–1973;
- Our Miss Brooks, on CBS radio from 1948–1957 with the deadpan and sardonic Eve Arden; and
- Round the Horne, a BBC Radio comedy show from the late sixties, filled with outrageous innuendo, ridiculous and rude words and names, and Polari.
For radio panel shows, though, it’s Information Please. Now, the BBC has a lot of wonderful comedy panel shows, two very difficult radio quiz shows (Brain of Britain and Round Britain Quiz), and one fiendishly hard television contest (University Challenge). All of them make Reach for the Top and Jeopardy! look trivial, and even put Half Wits in the shade.
But there’s no show so good-natured, enjoyable, historically interesting and informative as Information Please. It’s hosted by Clifton Fadiman, with regular panelists Franklin P. Adams, John Kieran and Oscar Levant. Each week there’s a guest (or two, if Levant isn’t there), such as Christopher Morley, Fred Allen, Faith Baldwin, Moe Berg, Clare Boothe Luce. It vibes New York, The New Yorker and the Algonquin Round Table.
It’s a simple format: people send in questions, and if the panel can’t get enough of them right, the sender wins a prize. It starts off that they get a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but as time goes on and the US enters the war, they get war bonds. The show is sponsored first by Canada Dry, then Lucky Strike (“Lucky Strike means fine tobacco”), then Heinz. There’s a break in the middle where an announcer does an advertisement for the sponsor.
Here are a couple of examples of nice exchanges. The first is from 22 November 1940, with guests Deems Taylor and Lewis E. Lawes, then warden of Sing Sing. Note this is over a year into World War Two, but over a year before the US enters.
Fadiman: Elizabeth Strauss, of this city, sends this one in: What have these four men in common? Very simple question. The four men are: John Bunyan, Oscar Wilde, Adolf Hitler, and Warden Lewis E. Lawes. [Laughter.] Well, we have two hands. Mr. Lawes?
Lawes: Their books [were] all written in jail. It’s too bad some of those you mentioned, besides myself, are not now in jail.
Fadiman: Yes, I can think of one. We hate to put you in the company of Mr. Hitler, but it’s just for the sake of of the question, and just for fun. Can you name the four books, Mr. Lawes, that were written in prison by these four—by these three gentlemen and Mr. Hitler? [Laughter]
Lawes: Well, Mein Kampf, by a non-gentleman, and …
Fadiman: Oscar Wilde?
Lawes: Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol …
Fadiman: I don’t know if that was the one written in prison. Mr. Kieran?
Kieran: I think he wrote Suspiria de Profundis.
Fadiman: Just De Profundis; you’re thinking of de Quincey. And Mr. Taylor?
Taylor: I think he did write The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Fadiman: I’m not certain of that. I take it back, Warden, if Mr. Taylor says so, he’s probably right.
Taylor: Pilgrim’s Progress might be right.
Fadiman: John Bunyan’s famous book Pilgrim’s Progress also written in prison, that’s quite correct.
Taylor: Warden Lawes’s Meet the Murderer! I’ll give you the last one, it’s still selling.
Fadiman: Did you write that one while in the prison walls, Warden?
Fadiman: I thought it was Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing.
Lawes: Well, I was in the same walls.
Fadiman: Haven’t moved.
Taylor: Well, he could go home, couldn’t he?
Fadiman: You have a home, haven’t you, Warden Lawes?
Lawes: Yes I have a home, but the radio programs are getting so good, like Information Please, I’d stay home and listen to the radio all the time.
Fadiman: Isn’t he a nice man?
Adams: You trying to flatter me?
Lawes: Yes, Mr. Adams.
Adams: You’re doing all right.
Fadiman: The next one comes from a very eminent author indeed, Mr. Upton Sinclair of Pasadena, California. [The show is] full of famous people tonight. I want you to name five characters from the Old Testament, and I want you to state what each did to deserve the description here given. And you’re going to get five out of five, or I’ll know the reason why. I will probably know the reason why. The most soluble character from the Old Testament. Mr. Adams.
Adams: Lot’s wife.
Adams: She turned to salt.
Fadiman: Turned to a pillar of salt. Let me have the chemical formula, Mr. Adams.
Fadiman: Very good, very good. Very easy. The most indigestible. The most indigestible. Mr. Hart.
Fadiman: Most indigestible? He himself was not indigestible.
Hart: He ate grass, is what I meant.
Fadiman: He himself was not indigestible. Mr. Adams.
Fadiman: Jonah, yes. Terribly indigestible. Lived in the whale’s belly. The great discomfort of the whale. Now who was the strictest vegetarian?
Fadiman: Ah, very good, Mr. Hart. (Laughs.) Nebuchadnezzar, who did eat grass as oxen. And the outstanding monopolist of the Old Testament. The outstanding monopolist. Mr. Kieran.
Fadiman: And why do you say that?
Kieran: Because he gathered up all the crops in Egypt and stored them for seven fat years.
Stout: A more dangerous one was Solomon: he gathered up all the wives.
Fadiman: Say, there’s a monopoly.
Adams: Dangerous to whom? Solomon?
Fadiman: How about the severest music critic? This is really a sticker. The severest music critic in the Old Testament.
Fadiman: Why do you say that? Critic, I say.
Stout: Oh, critic.
Stout: I had David on the wrong end.
Fadiman: Rather pointed criticism. Well, we got one wrong. We were supposed to get five out of five. Canada Dry is going to send five dollars to Mr. Upton Sinclair, with its compliments.
Upton Sinclair! The next question was sent in by Ellery Queen. In the same show it emerges that Moss Hart lives at the Waldorf Astoria. The episode ends with the announcement that Dorothy Parker will be next week’s guest. Dorothy Parker!
The wit, wisecracks and joking make it all worth hearing, but the attention to and insight about current events, especially during the war, make it even more so. The attention Oscar Levant paid to foreign politics and troop movements surprised me.
A small technical note. The shows will work fine as they are, but to clean up the metadata I ran this:
UPDATED on 17 May 2016: I forgot to list Round the Horne.