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The Bickersons was a radio comedy sketch series that began in 1946 on NBC, moving the following year to CBS where it continued until 1951. The show's married protagonists, portrayed by Don Ameche and Frances Langford, spent nearly all their time together in relentless verbal war.
The Bickersons was created by Philip Rapp, the one-time Eddie Cantor writer who had also created the Fanny Brice skits (for The Ziegfeld Follies of the Air and Maxwell House Coffee Time) that grew into radio's Baby Snooks. Several years after the latter established itself a long-running favorite, Rapp developed and presented John and Blanche Bickerson, first as a short sketch on The Old Gold Show and The Chase and Sanborn Hour (the show that made stars of Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy), and then as a 15-minute situational sketch as part of Drene Time. This was a variety show starring Don Ameche and singer-actress Frances Langford as co-hosts, airing on NBC and sponsored by Drene Shampoo. Announcing the show—and later familiar to television viewers as The Millionaire's presenter and executive secretary, Michael Anthony—was Marvin Miller.
Drene Time typically opened with Langford singing a big band-style arrangement before Ameche and Langford would slip into routine comedy, often aided by co-star Danny Thomas, in routines that often expressed Ameche's frustration that Thomas was more interested in modern technology and discoveries than in women. After another musical number and a commercial spot for Drene Shampoo, Miller would announce Ameche and Langford as the Bickersons, "in 'The Honeymoon's Over'," for the final 15 minutes of the show.
Feud for thought
The typical Miller introduction would set the scene:
- The Bickersons... have retired. Three o'clock in the morning finds Mrs. Bickerson wide awake and anxious, as poor husband John, victim of contagious insomnia, or Schmoe's Disease, broadcasts the telltale signs of the dreaded affliction. Listen...
The listener heard a chorus of low-roaring snoring, punctuated occasionally with something that sounded like laughing. Blanche would awaken John, even at three in the morning, and the feuding would continue with their trademark arguments about John's job, Blanche's domestic abilities, John's alleged eye for neighbor Gloria Gooseby, Blanche's shiftless brother Amos (played by Thomas) or John's taste for bourbon. Rounding out the cast was future children's television favorite Pinky Lee in occasional supporting roles.
- Blanche... is one of the monstrous shrews of all time. She makes her husband... take two jobs, a total of 16 working hours, in order to bring in more money which she squanders on minks and the stock market. Meanwhile, he can't afford a new pair of shoes and goes around with his feet painted black. In the few hours he has to sleep, she heckles him all night with the accusation that he doesn't love her. Her aim appears to be to drive her husband crazy and she succeeds very nicely. The harassed John's only weapon is insult, at which he's pretty good.
As transcribed by John Crosby, this was a typical Bickersons exchange:
- B: You used to be so considerate. Since you got married to me you haven't got any sympathy at all.
- J: I have, too. I've got everybody's sympathy.
- B: Believe me, there's better fish in the ocean than the one I caught.
- J: There's better bait, too.
- B: I don't see how you can go to bed without kissing me good night.
- J: I can do it.
- B: You'd better say you're sorry for that, John.
- J: Okay, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.
- B: You are not.
- J: I am too. I'm the sorriest man that was ever born.
- B: Is there any milk for breakfast?
- J: No.
- B: Then you'll have to eat out.
- J: I don't care, I've been doing it all week.
- B: What for? I left you enough food for six days. I cooked a whole bathtub full of rice. What happened to it?
- J: I took a bath in it.
- B: Why didn't you eat it?
- J: I've told you a million times I can't stand the sight of rice.
- B: Why not?
- J: Because it's connected to the saddest mistake of my life.
- B: You stopped loving me the day we were married.
- J: That wasn't the day at all.
At the time The Bickersons bowed, the typical radio marriage conveyed almost exclusively sweetness and light, no matter what ephemeral disaster might befall. The idea of a lower middle-class marriage whose partners spent what little time together they had at each other's throats was jarring and even threatening to many people at the time. Audiences were becoming accustomed to broadcasting life with loving and stable couples, such as those featured in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or the protagonists of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show; or, such earthily loving couples as Chester A. Riley and wife Peg in The Life of Riley. Fred Allen and Tallulah Bankhead may have sent up the more saccharine of the pre-Bickersons family shows in a skit (the legendary "Mr. and Mrs. Breakfast Show"), and Goodman and Jane Ace (in Easy Aces) may have been a gently tart union of wry exasperation and effortless, brain-bending malaprops, but a regular series featuring a couple as highly combustible as John and Blanche may have been as daring as that era's network radio got when dealing with married life.
The Bickersons seemed to have no business being married at all, but they proved the prototype for such battling comic couples as Ralph and Alice Kramden of The Honeymooners (surely, Jackie Gleason, who admired the show, owed a debt to The Bickersons as a partial model for blustery Ralph and acid Alice; writer Rapp, according to fellow comedy writer Irving Brecher, once tried unsuccessfully to sue Gleason over some of the similarities), Nels and Harriet Oleson of Little House on the Prairie, and—much later, perhaps the closest of them all to the Blanche-and-John prototype—Al and Peg Bundy of Married... with Children. The title couple of the long-running newspaper comic strip The Lockhorns also bear more than a passing resemblance to the Bickersons.
The Kramdens, Olesons, Bundys and others who followed may have made The Bickersons seem tame. But The Bickersons might also have helped marriage by showing, maybe too vividly, what not to do and how not to do it. Writer Rapp based the couple in part on his own rocky marriage; his son, Joel, eventually told radio historian Gerald Nachman, "I've hidden under a lot of tables in my day. My father would scurry off to the typewriter while the dialogue was still fresh." Rapp himself admitted, too, that "so much sweetness" in radio marrieds such as Ozzie and Harriet Nelson or the Andersons of Father Knows Best "was not marriage as I knew it."
The flip side
Though they spent their allotted time together at each other's throats, assuming always that the shrewish Blanche could awaken John from his snoring, there were moments when the couple showed an uncommon tenderness to each other—particularly in a Christmas skit. (It should have been hinted at the outset by Marvin Miller's atypical introduction: "The Bickersons—have not retired.") After arguing over whether John had sent Blanche a Christmas card (he had—it was buried in a stack of newspapers), they exchanged their gifts to each other... with a twist. Tight in the pocketbook this Christmas season, Blanche swapped a fur coat to buy her bourbon-loving husband a portable bar; John—bourbon lover though he is—swapped his stock to buy Blanche a matching fur muffler, before confessing that for all that they're each other's biggest pain in the rump, there really is a love between them.
Jackie Gleason probably knew that Christmas exchange—drawing as did the Bickersons episode on O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," a "classic 39" Christmas episode of The Honeymooners involved blustery bus driver Ralph hocking his brand-new bowling ball in a mad dash to get Alice a last-minute Christmas gift... only to learn the hard way that Alice bought him a stylish new bowling ball bag.
The Bickersons were barely ready for prime time radio (they lasted only two full seasons) as it was, but a 1951 CBS television version didn't last half as long. Lew Parker (later familiar as That Girl's harried, slightly overbearing father Lew Marie) took the role of John Bickerson, as he also did on radio a season earlier. But it did not work as well as the original skits. Parker and Langford weren't seen to have the seamless anti-chemistry of Ameche and Langford. Premiering as a summer season replacement, the television version of The Bickersons lasted only 13 episodes.
Ameche and Langford's work together didn't end with The Bickersons, either. They co-hosted a variety series, The Frances Langford-Don Ameche Show, in 1951–1952, and featured among the few regular performers a very young Jack Lemmon, as a newlywed in a sketch series known as "The Couple Next Door." When Langford hosted a variety special in 1960, there was Ameche to join in the fun with The Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Joe DeRita at the time), Bob Cummings and Johnny Mathis.
But neither did the twosome abandon the characters that made them famous as a comedy team in the first place: Columbia Records eventually released long-playing albums—The Bickersons, The Bickersons Fight Back, and The Bickersons Rematch—that featured newly recorded performances of Rapp's adapted radio scripts by Ameche and Langford as John and Blanche.
A beautiful woman with a honey voice who used sheer talent to turn herself into the venomous Blanche Bickerson, Frances Langford enjoyed a fine career as a singer and actress in film (including a memorable cameo in the otherwise stylised The Glenn Miller Story) and television, as well as radio; she died July 11, 2005. Don Ameche, whose name sometimes became synonymous (and a kind of running gag) with the telephone (thanks to his film portrayal of Alexander Graham Bell), became a familiar television face as well as a well-respected film actor, enjoying a late-life popular revival through his roles in the 1983 film Trading Places and the 1985 film Cocoon. He died in 1993.
Adaptations and cultural references
With the Rapp family approval, an adapted version of The Bickersons was written for a comedy puppet show, Breakfast with the Bickersons, premiering at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The show was adapted and directed by British comedian Jeremy Engler.
In the movie MASH, when Radar O'Reilly bugs Margaret Houlihan's tent as she and Frank Burns have a sexual encounter, Father Mulcahy (who has walked into the room while the others are listening) is told that the conversation (and noises) being listened to are a radio program. He asks if it's an episode of The Bickersons ... until he realizes otherwise, and hastily leaves.
In the Season 1 finale of NewsRadio, Dave and Lisa are called "the magnificent Bickersons" by Bill (at once a reference to the radio show and a play on the title of Orson Welles' 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons). Ameche and Welles shared the same hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and at 8:00 P.M. Eastern Time on the night of October 30, 1938, Welles made his legendary "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast on the CBS network while Ameche hosted The Chase and Sanborn Hour on the Red Network of NBC.
The Bickersons can be heard in the video game L.A. Noire, playing on the radio during driving sequences.
- Frank Buxton and Bill Owen, The Big Broadcast 1920–1950 (New York: Flare/Avon Books, 1971)
- John Crosby, Out of the Blue: A Book About Radio and Television (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952)
- Gerald Nachman, Raised on Radio (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.)
- Ben Ohmart, The Bickersons (BearManor Media, 2007.) ISBN 1-59393-008-9
- Philip Rapp, The Bickersons Scripts (BearManor Media, 2002.) ISBN 0-9714570-1-8
- Philip Rapp, The Bickersons Scripts Vol.2 (BearManor Media, 2004.) ISBN 1-59393-007-0