Although it was the first to broadcast comedy with the likes of Fred Allen and Amos ‘n’ Andy, American radio today is dominated by music and news, having let comedy pack up shop and move to television. Since 1938 when comedian Arthur Askey appeared on the musical variety show Bandwaggon until today, the BBC has recognised that its mission statement “to inform, educate and entertain” must include comedy. Its ubiquitous presence on BBC Radio has value for writers, performers and fans of all types of humour— from observational to satirical, from stand up to sitcom, from the gentle to the harsh.
Light Entertainment dominated the early years with shows like It’s That Man Again and Worker’s Playtime, both of which aimed to boost morale during the War. The ‘50s featured Educating Archie, starring a ventriloquist and his dummy (ventriloquism worked surprisingly well without the audience seeing whose mouth was actually moving), introduced the silliness of the Goons (Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine) and made a star of Tony Hancock, whose Hancock’s Half Hour helped to develop situation comedy through its focus on Hancock’s character and his everyday life. The comedy continued into the ‘60s with Round the Horne and the panel game Just A Minute in 1967 (soon followed by the “antidote to panel games” I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue in 1972).
Political humour also hit the airwaves with the parody of The Men From the Ministry beginning in 1962 and the satire of Week Ending, which began in 1970 and quickly became the proving ground for a whole generation of enthusiastic writers from Andy Hamilton to Harry Hill to Stewart Lee. Political satire and panel games combined in 1977 with the News Quiz, which also meant that comedians were being listened to for their opinions as well as their humour. This trend continued when comedians like Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steel began performing “lectures” on the radio, addressing social and political issues like class, gender roles and the economy. Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci also were given the opportunity to parody current events with their programme On the Hour, from which was born Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge, one of Britain’s greatest comedy characters.
The 2010/2011 Statement of Programme Policy for the BBC lists “ambitious comedy” as one of its five priorities, and therefore the rich heritage of radio comedy continues. There are now BBC Radios 1-5 in addition to digital-only stations as well as regional channels around the rest of the UK. Almost all contain dedicated comedic shows.
The comedy variety style show has been modernized with comedians like Rhod Gilbert, Jon Holmes and Clive Anderson blending chat, music, and comedy. Some breakfast show radio presenters—like Chris Moyles and Chris Evans—embrace comedy (or attempt to) with guests, gags and games interspersed between songs. Saturday evenings on Radio 2 currently belong to Alan Carr and Russell Kane who, despite their different styles and target audiences, bring humour and music to the weekend schedule. Of course, sketch comedy still thrives on BBC radio with shows from Lucy Montgomery and Jason Byrne.
Other stand up comedians have also graced the airwaves: Al Murray, Sarah Millican and Milton Jones have all done variations of their acts on radio. Comedians in character like Count Arthur Strong and the multiple personalities of Simon Day have shows. Radio 4 also has Saturday Stand-Up, live recordings of stand up performances from established and new comics. Sitcoms are still being made for the BBC Radio. Clare in the Community looks at the world of social work, Mr. Blue Sky follows an eternal optimist through various trials, which contrasts nicely with the curmudgeon main character in Ed Reardon’s Week.
Satire and panel shows also still feature. The News Quiz, now chaired by Sandi Toksvig, will begin its 75th series in September, and The Now Show, Rory Bremner and Mark Thomas all use humour as critique. Chris Addison has had series on human evolution and civilisation, and Robin Ince (along with the world’s only funny physicist and pretty boy, Prof. Brian Cox) recently did a programme called The Infinite Monkey Cage, which mixed comedy with heavy scientific debate. I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, having lost its original chairman Humphrey Lyttelton in 2008, will start again this autumn. New show such as The Unbelievable Truth, hosted by David Mitchell and devised by Graeme Garden and Jon Naismith, and Charlie Brooker’s So Wrong It’s Right continue to use the panel game format as an excuse for silliness.
BBC Radio’s commitment, though, spreads beyond the production of comedy to include the analysis of comedy. Programmes like Comedy Connections, Chain Reaction and the extensive coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival illustrate that, to the BBC, comedy is as essential to the past, present and future as any other factor of modern life.
Of course, much comedy that starts off on radio eventually makes the move to television. Hancock’s Half Hour was one of the first to do so. The League of Gentlemen, Goodness Gracious Me, 15 Storeys High and The Mighty Boosh all began on radio. Have I Got News for You, the TV version of The News Quiz, is the BBC’s longest running television panel show; Chris Morris turned On The Hour into The Day Today and his other radio show Blue Jam also transitioned to TV. For some, though, it isn’t an either/or proposition. David Mitchell and Robert Webb continued their radio series That Mitchell and Webb Sound even after making the jump to television. Interestingly, some successful TV comedies, such as Steptoe and Son and Dad’s Army, moved to radio after their initial success on the box.
Why didn’t television kill radio comedy in Britain as it seemed to do in America? It may be partially due to the countries’ sizes. National radio in America changed greatly with the growth of television as the Big Three (ABC, NBC and CBS) moved their emphasis and budgets to TV programming. Generally now when Americans think of radio, they think of local radio produced purely for a local audience. Because BBC Radio broadcasts to the entire nation, it has maintained a varied but committed community of listeners.
It may also be because the BBC is a public service broadcaster. As the Director-General Mark Thompson told BBC News, “The BBC gets the licence fee from the public. It doesn’t have to take cynical or commercial decisions, it should really put its money where its heart is.” This allows the Corporation to meet the needs of the public, rather than of advertisers. And clearly the public wants comedy. This may explain why the only real radio comedy that exists today in America is broadcast on public radio stations. The listening audience supports it, but the advertisers apparently do not.
Comedy is a priority for BBC Radio, which benefits licence-payers and fans around the world. The BBC Radio website has live listening for all of its stations, and the BBC iPlayer replays its recent radio broadcasts (unfortunately, the iPlayer blocks television shows from viewing outside of the country, though an iPad app is currently allowing some European countries to watch, with the intent of expanding this to the US eventually). Additionally, BBC Radio offers podcasts of many current shows and an archive of older ones, so that listeners can move through the history of radio comedy—from the early days to the present—and appreciate the gift BBC Radio continues to give all of us.