Groucho as Chester Riley? The First Sitcom- The Life of Riley
I enjoyed getting to meet and know some of the brilliant comedy writers from film, radio and television. To listen to their fascinating stories about how they basically created radio and television was amazing. These men and women didn’t just tell stories- they regaled you about the era and the performers with wonderful anecdotes- trying to top each other.
The greats such as Austin “Rocky” Kalish who told us how he co created Gillian’s Island (and his trail blazing wife- Irma Kalish), Ben Starr on Mr Ed, Hal Kanter on Julia, Larry Gelbart about the writers room on Caesars World ( and Carl Reiner), Sheldon Leonard and many others.
These men and women created the template for the type of programs that we watch today in 2017 They did not have any blueprint for this new medium- of which they were its creators
One of my favorites was a witty raconteur named Irving Brecher. Irv , who started writing jokes for newspaper columnists of the day including Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan, eventually became a screenwriter at MGM. He wrote two of the better MGM Marx Brothers films, Go West and At the Circus. Even though he was 25 younger than Groucho, Irv did resemble him- so much that he filled in for Marx in a PR picture for Go West. Irv was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for Meet Me in St. Louis.
However, Irving became very wealthy through what started out as a radio show he created to star his friend Groucho. It was to be the first situation comedy
Groucho had an unsuccessful variety show (one with Chico- Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel) and was seeking a vehicle to create a separate identity from his brothers.
Basically, Irving created the first “sitcom” that featured a working class family that would star Groucho Marx as the head of the family. It was titled The Flotsam Family. Marx played a totally different character that he played as one of the Marx Brothers. He played a role completely straight, as a real actor. That sponsor for the series, would not accept Marx as the character. So the pilot episode was all that was made.
Eventually, Brecher retooled the sitcom and cast veteran character actor William Bendix as Chester A Riley , a lower middle-class working stiff- specifically a wing riveter at an Aircraft plant The title “Life of Riley” is play on the phrase “Living the life of Riley,” which means living an expensive lifestyle
Riley was the prototype of later characters such as Ralph Kramden or Archie Bunker. Bendix became a star as Riley. His catchphrase as Riley was (which lives on today in the pages of the Fantastic Four via Ben Grimm, the Thing), “What a revoltin’ development dis is!” The Life of Riley was the first sitcom.
When they wanted to transfer the show to television in 1948, Bendix was unavailable due to his film contract. Thus it was Jackie Gleason who played Riley for one year. However, Riley was too identified with Bendix and the show was cancelled. Three years later, Bendix returned as Riley and the show had a long run.
Itv Brecher had other successes. He created the TV series ” The People’s Choice” with Jackie Cooper and Cleo the talking dog. He also wrote the screenplay for Bye Bye Birdie for the film.
Irving passed away, brilliant to the end, at 94 in 2008- having just finished his wonderful memoirs.
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