A “revoltin’ development”; in The Life of Riley

Complaints about the excesses and irresponsibility of broadcasting are nearly as old as the first broken crystal set. During World War II, producers and sponsors of US radio entertainment were obliged to exercise some restraint for the sake of the ostensibly common good by making room for public service announcements and planting overt propagandistic messages into their melodramatic or comic offerings. Not long after VJ Day, though, it was high time for all in the radio game to accelerate profits and squeeze the most out of a medium that was rumored by some to be obsolete within a few years.

Radio was getting shriller, more vulgar, more profligate by the advertising minute, critics lamented in denunciations no less crass than the purportedly noisome programming. In September 1947, NBC made a token gesture in response to such bad press, half-heartedly vowing to ban thrillers from its early evening line-up. That did not stop NBC censors from permitting a gun to end up in an infant’s mouth, as the man living the Life of Riley turned babysitter in arms on this day, 11 October, in 1947.

“Now we’re in for a crime wave,” the father of Riley’s wife Peg declared when hearing the news about young Chester’s plan to become a copper. The story of this doomed undertaking unfolds in retrospect, as Peg tries to set the record straight for the benefit of a dinner guest who thinks about joining the police force after hearing Riley boast about his past exploits. Not only was Riley incapable of preventing a robbery in the store of Peg’s father, but downright criminal in his community disservice.

As ear-witnesses of Riley’s night beat, we follow the eager rookie as he picks up a few suspicious noises. The first is merely the sound of his own flatfeet on the pavement; but when he hears the bawling and choking of an infant, he decides to put his misplaced authority to some use. Entering the home from whence the wailings wafted, Riley finds himself in charge of a neglected baby. “No, now, now. You mustn’t touch my badge. It will stick you. We don’t want you to get hurt,” he gently admonishes the little one. “Oh, you want something to play with? Well, here. You play with this. Riley-Wiley’s nice pretty gun.”

At this point you can hear the women in the studio audience gasp and wriggle uneasily in their seats. Is this a laughing matter? Should Riley—or the producers of this show—get away with such behavior? “Aww, look at the cute little fellow, puttin’ the barrel in his mouth. He thinks it’s a bottle.” It is a disturbing moment that lasts just a little too long to be ignored, let alone tolerated. “Mustn’t pull the trigger,” Riley keeps cooing, “It’s loaded.” Those words, followed by a burglar alarm going off next door, rouse the doting gun-father and put an end to this disquieting episode.

Riley is forced to surrender his badge in the end and continues his bumbling search for a “permanent position”; only his friend Digby O’Dell, the undertaker, can “guarantee” his ultimate success in the matter. “I generally hit the nail on the head,” brags the morbid pal. Riley is tired of having dirt thrown in his face; but O’Dell assures him that it “happens to everyone, sooner or later.” It happens to sitcoms, too, once their short supply of puerile humor gets a bit long in the tooth—and O’Dell seems to have uttered the gallows humor of overworked, underappreciated radio artists faced with a hostile takeover by television.

Well, I think I’ll saunter over to Duffy’s Tavern. The wit is not quite as dim there. Unless you know of a more cheerful watering hole to which I could kilocycle when I am inclined to while away the odd half-hour . . .

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