I walked into our bedroom. My wife was already in bed, reading. I spontaneously blurted out, “It is I, Digby O’Dell . . . the friendly undertaker (the last part in a low voice).”
“Who?” she said, looking up from her book.
“Don’t you remember the character Digby O’Dell, the friendly undertaker?”
“No,” What TV show was he in?
“Not TV. Radio.”
“Oh, radio was before my time.” (This coming from a 78-year-old lady, not that much younger than me. But she is right. The Golden Age Of Radio only lasted a brief few years before TV took over.)
I heard Digby O’Dell speak from my bedside Philco radio for years, saying that exact sentence, “It is I, . . .” hundreds of times. The audience always broke up in wild laughter (or someone in the studio turned up the laughter volume).
Digby (Digger) O’Dell was a character on the radio sitcom, The Life Of Riley, starring William Bendix as the lead, Chester A. Riley, a riveter in a California aircraft factory. His family was wife Peg, son Junior, and daughter Babs. Digby, apparently a neighbor who stopped by frequently, spoke in puns based on undertaking. His advice often helped Riley “out of a hole,” as he might say himself.
Riley: Hello, Digger. What are you doin’ here in the park?
Digby O’Dell: Why, I was just taking a stroll around the pond. I enjoy listening to the frogs croak.
(The jokes were mostly two sentences long. The setup and the punch line.)
The radio show with William Bendix ran from 1944 to 1951, and later became a TV show starring Jackie Gleason as Riley that may be better known, but that is not the program I am talking about here. That was after my time. and I never watched it.
Much of radio and early TV humor was based on repetition. The audience knew what was coming, and howled. “Fibber McGee and Molly” had the stuffed closet that spilled out when the door was opened on each show. You knew it would happen sometime during the half-hour. The same basis of humor was seen on the early British comedy shows shown on American TV: Are You Being Served (Mrs. Slocum and her innocent pussy comments), and Daisy’s dog barking at Hyacinth in Keeping Up Appearances.
Riley often said, “What a revoltin’ development this is!” that also brought howls of laughter just by its anticipation. It became a catchword for the 1940s.
William Bendix played many movie roles as the bad guy, but I never bought into any of them. To me, he was always the bumbling, kindhearted Chester A. Riley.