The genesis of Fibber McGee and Molly occurred when small-time husband-and-wife vaudevillians James "Jim" and Marian Driscoll Jordan, native Illinoisans who met in church, began their third year as Chicago-area radio performers. Two of the shows they did for station WENR beginning in 1927, both written by Harry Lawrence, bore traces of what was to come and rank as one of the earliest forms of situation comedy.
In their Luke and Mirandy farm-report program, Jim played a farmer who was given to tall tales and face-saving lies for comic effect. In a weekly comedy, The Smith Family, Marian's character was an Irish wife of an American police officer. These characterizations, plus the Jordans' change from being singers/musicians to comic actors, pointed toward their future.
The Jordans teamed with Donald Quinn, an unemployed cartoonist the couple hired as their writer in 1931. For station WMAQ in Chicago, beginning in April 1931, the trio created Smackout, a 15-minute daily program which centered on a general store and its proprietor, Luke Grey (Jim Jordan), a storekeeper with a penchant for tall tales and a perpetual dearth of whatever his customers wanted: He always seemed "smack out of it." Marian Jordan portrayed both a lady named Marian and a little girl named Teeny, as well as playing musical accompaniment on piano. Smackout was picked up for national airing by the National Broadcasting Company in April 1933, and the show endured until August 1935.
A member of the S.C. Johnson company's owners, Henrietta Johnson Lewis, married to the advertising executive who handled the Johnson's Wax account, recommended that her husband, John, give the show a chance as a national program for the company.
Existing in a kind of Neverland where money never came in, schemes never stayed out for very long, yet no one living or visiting went wanting, 79 Wistful Vista (the McGees' address) became the home Depression-exhausted Americans visited to remind themselves that they were not the only ones finding cheer in the middle of struggle and doing their best not to make it overt. With blowhard McGee wavering between mundane tasks and hare-brained schemes (like digging an oil well in the back yard), antagonizing as many people as possible, and patient Molly indulging his foibles before catching him lovingly as he crashed back to earth yet again, not to mention a tireless parade of neighbours and friends in and out of the quiet home, Fibber McGee and Molly built its audience steadily, but once it found the full volume of that audience in 1940 they rarely let go of it.
Marian Jordan took a protracted absence from the show in late 1938-early 1939 (as part of a lifelong battle with alcoholism, although this was attributed to "fatigue" in public statements). The show was retitled Fibber McGee and Company during this interregnum, with scripts cleverly working around Molly's absence (Fibber making a speech at a convention, etc.). Comedienne ZaSu Pitts appeared on the Fibber McGee and Company show, as did singer Donald Novis.
The most unusual character might have been the McGees' black maid, Beulah. Unlike the situation on The Jack Benny Program, where black actor Eddie Anderson played "Rochester," Beulah was voiced by a Caucasian male, Marlin Hurt. The character's usual opening line, "Somebody bawl fo' Beulah??", often provoked a stunned, screeching sort of laughter among the live studio audience; many of them, seeing the show performed for the first time in person, did not know that the actor voicing Beulah was neither black nor female, and expressed their surprise when Hurt delivered his line.
The character of Uncle Dennis (Ransom Sherman), who was the subject of a running gag (see below) and was generally never heard, did appear in a few episodes in 1943, including "Etiquette" on November 23, 1943 and "Fibber Makes His Own Chili Sauce" on November 9, 1943.
When McGee tells a bad joke, Molly usually answers with the line "T'ain't funny, McGee!" Molly's Uncle Dennis is one of the more common unseen regulars; often referred to, and sometimes heard making noise. He lives with the McGees, and is apparently an enormous alcoholic, becoming a punch line for many Fibber jokes and even the main subject of some shows in which he "disappeared."
McGee is never mentioned as having a job, a device later made equally famous by Ozzie Nelson. However, Mayor LaTrivia often offers McGee jobs at City Hall, the jobs usually sounding exciting when the duties are vaguely described, but always ending up being very mundane when the actual job is named. For instance, a job "looking in on the higher-ups at City Hall" turns out to be a window-cleaning job. Another interesting assignment was to be where McGee would need to maintain a disguise to remain deep undercover for days at a time, but as the Wistful Vista Santa Claus.
McGee, apparently, is very proud of past deeds, sometimes recalls an interesting nickname he picked up over the years. Each one of these nicknames is, as usual with Fibber, a bad pun. When someone told a man named Addison that McGee was a glib talker, McGee became known as "Ad Glib McGee." Or, when Fibber made expressions with his eyes, he was nicknamed "Eyes-a-muggin' McGee" (a play on the popular Andy Kirk swing tune "I'se A-muggin'"). From there Fibber jumps headfirst into a long, breathless and boastful description of his nickname, using an impressive amount of alliteration.
Mentioned for a time on the program was Otis Cadwallader, a schoolmate of Fibber and Molly in Peoria, Illinois, and Molly's boyfriend before McGee entered the picture. Fibber has a long-standing grudge against Otis, making him out to seem like a self-centered, overblown hack, despite seemingly everyone else seeing Cadwallader as a lovely, dashing man. Never mentioned are Otis's feelings toward Fibber, giving the impression that Fibber's grudge is one-sided. As revealed late in 1942, Fibber's anger is actually a front to keep Cadwallader away, as Fibber once borrowed money from Otis and never paid it back.
Like many such trademarks, the clattering closet began as a one-time stunt--with Molly the burial victim. But "the closet" was developed carefully, not being overused (it rarely appeared in more than two consecutive installments, though it never disappeared for the same length, either, at the height of its identification, and it rarely collapsed at exactly the same time from show to show), and it became the best-known running sound gag in American radio's classic period. Jack Benny's basement vault alarm ran a distant second. Both of these classic sound effects were performed by Ed Ludes and Virgil Rhymer, West Coast Hollywood based NBC staff sound effects creators.
Exactly what tumbled out of McGee's closet each time was never clear (except to the sound-effects man), but what signaled the end of the avalanche was always the same sound: a clear, tiny, household hand bell and McGee's inevitable postmortem. Naturally, "one of these days" never arrived. A good thing, too, in one famous instance: when a burglar (played by Bob Bruce) tied up McGee, McGee informed him cannily that the family's silver was "right through that door, bud... just yank it open, bud!" Naturally, the burglar took the bait and, naturally, he was buried in the inevitable avalanche, long enough for the police to cuff him and stuff him. On one or two episodes, including "Too Much Energy" (broadcast January 23, 1945), Fibber opened the door to the closet, only to be met with complete silence. As the audience members chuckled slightly and most likely held their breath in anticipation, Molly explained that she had cleaned the closet the day before! This was certainly not the end of the gag, though, as the closet soon became cluttered once again, leading to many more comedic disasters. In due course, "Fibber McGee's closet" entered the American vernacular as a catchphrase synonymous with household clutter.
Each episode also featured an appearance by announcer/pitchman Harlow Wilcox, whose job it was to weave the second ad for the sponsor into the plot without having to break the show for a real commercial. Wilcox's introductory pitch lines were usually met with groans or humorously sarcastic lines by Fibber. During the many years that the show was sponsored by Johnson Wax, Fibber nicknamed Wilcox "Waxy," due to Wilcox's constant praises of their various products. In fact, and in a style not unusual for the classic radio years, the show was typically introduced as, "The Johnson Wax Program, starring Fibber McGee and Molly." Johnson Wax sponsored the show through 1950; Pet Milk through 1952; and, until the show's final half-hour episode in mid-1953, Reynolds Aluminum. Fibber also frequently called Harlow "Harpo".
The show also used two musical numbers per episode to break the comedy routines into sections. For most of the show's run, there would be one vocal number by The King's Men (a vocal quartet: Ken Darby, Rad Robinson, Jon Dodson, and Bud Linn), and an instrumental by The Billy Mills Orchestra. For a short time in the early 1940s, Martha Tilton would sing what was formerly the instrumental.
Before and during America's involvement in World War II, references to about the war and the members of the Axis Powers were commonplace on the show. Just after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Jim Jordan, out of character, soberly ended the Fibber McGee show by inviting the studio audience to sing "America." Also commonplace were calls to action to buy defense bonds (both through announcements and subtle references written into the script), and condemnation of food and supply hoarding. Though understandably part of the backlash reaction toward the Pearl Harbor attack, some jokes about Japan certainly would be considered offensive on today's airwaves. For instance, in the episode "Fix-It McGee", aired three weeks after Pearl Harbor, Fibber tells Mayor LaTrivia his "great slogan" for the war bond campaign: "Every time you buy a bond, you slap a Jap across the pond." The term "Jap" was in common usage in virtually all American media during this period.
On the other hand, the Jordans gladly cooperated in turning the show over to a half-hour devoted entirely to patriotic music on the day of the D-Day invasion in 1944, with the couple speaking only at the opening and the closing of the broadcast. This show remains available to collectors amidst many a Fibber McGee and Molly packaging.
When the shows were broadcast overseas by the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS), all three commercials were eliminated from the program. Harlow Wilcox's middle ad was edited out, and the two advertisements at the beginning and end of the show were replaced by more musical numbers, so that the show on AFRS would have two numbers by Billy Mills and the Orchestra, and two by The King's Men.
The Jordans were experts at transforming the ethnic humor of vaudeville into more rounded comic characters, no doubt due in part to the affection felt for the famous supporting cast members who voiced these roles, including Bill Thompson (as the Old Timer and Wimple), Harold Peary (as Gildersleeve), Gale Gordon (as LaTrivia), Arthur Q. Bryan (as Dr. Gamble; Bryan also voiced Elmer Fudd for the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons, which also borrowed lines from Fibber McGee and Molly from time to time), Isabel Randolph (as Mrs. Uppington), Marlin Hurt (as Beulah), and others. They were also expert at their own running gags and catch phrases, many of which entered the American vernacular: "That ain't the way I heeard it!"; "'T ain't funny, McGee!"; and "Heavenly days!" were the three best known.
Peary returned the favor in a memorable 1944 Fibber McGee & Molly episode in which neither of the title characters appeared: Jim Jordan was recovering from a bout of pneumonia (this would be written into the show the following week, when the Jordans returned), and the story line involved Gildersleeve and nephew Leroy hoping to surprise the McGees at home during a train layover in Wistful Vista, unaware the McGees had gone to meet him at the railroad station. (The Gildersleeve character was parodied in a Bugs Bunny cartoon called "Hare Conditioned", in which the rabbit distracts a menacing taxidermist by telling him that he sounds "just like that guy on the radio, the Great Gildersneeze!")
Jim and Marian Jordan themselves occasionally appeared on other programs, away from their Fibber and Molly characters. One memorable episode of Suspense ("Backseat Driver," 1951) cast the Jordans as victims of a car-jacking; Jim Jordan's tense, inner-thoughts readings were especially dramatic.
The first two RKO films are generally considered the best, as they co-star fellow radio stars Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Harold Peary also appears in both as Gildersleeve, with Arthur Q. Bryan, Bill Thompson, Harlow Wilcox, Gale Gordon, and Isabel Randolph appearing in both their show roles and as other characters. No motion picture in which Fibber McGee and Molly made an appearance has ever been released commercially on home video or DVD. "Look Who's Laughing" (1941) and "Here We Go Again" (1942) have been shown on Turner Classic Movies.
Radio historian Gerald S. Nachman has noted the Jordans were ready to renew with NBC for at least three more years when Marian's battle against cancer ended in her death in 1961. In the 1970s Jim Jordan briefly returned to acting. An episode of NBC's Chico and the Man featured a surprise appearance by Jordan, as a friendly neighborhood mechanic. Jordan also lent his voice to Disney's animated film The Rescuers (1977). He died in 1988—a year before Fibber McGee and Molly was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.
The show also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—right next to the building that once housed the NBC radio studios where the Jordans performed the show for so long. Thanks to the S.C. Johnson company's preservation of more than 700 recordings of the show they sponsored for 15 years, Fibber McGee and Molly remains as widely circulated as it is beloved even now.