“How can you fall asleep at the breakfast table?” asks Blanche Bickerson.
“It ain’t easy with all that talking going on,” snarkily replies her husband, John.
I was maybe seven years old, sitting in the front pew of our small town church in northwestern Minnesota during the annual talent show. My parents were acting the characters of the Bickersons on stage.
“The Bickersons,” written by Philip Rapp and voiced by Don Ameche and Frances Longford, was an American radio comedy broadcast in the 1940s and follows a young married couple, John and Blanche Bickerson, who, you guessed it, bicker.
“I’m getting tired of these outlandish dishes you’ve been making,” John complains of Blanche’s cooking.
“Like that rhubarb pie you made yesterday.”
“What’s the matter with it?”
“Matter with it? Whoever heard of a pie two feet long?”
“Well, I couldn’t get any shorter rhubarb.”
The smaller crowd of maybe 75 people at our church roared with laughter.
I, on the other hand, did not. How could my parents be fighting in public like that, and why did everyone think it was so funny?
Money was always tight for the Bickersons.
“I can’t give you any money this week,” John says when Blanche asks him for money for a dress.
“That’s what you said last week.”
“Well, I kept my word, didn’t I?”
My seven-year-old brain couldn’t understand why it was so funny. As I grew older, and as my parents continued to quote “The Bickersons,” I began to understand the humor. Now it regularly plays on my iPhone and I often find myself quoting it, too.
The show was originally conceived as a sketch for another radio program, but the Bickersons became so popular, John and Blanche made further “appearances” and eventually spawned their own show, with Rapp at the helm.
The show’s signature rapid-fire retorts and poking fun at one another seems to both suit the times and also lends itself to a good-many quotes.
“Why don’t you just say it: You hate my cooking,” Blanche complains.
“I don’t hate it,” John replies.
“You do, you do, you do.”
“I don’t hate it. I just don’t understand it.”
It certainly has the same appeal today as it did then, at least for this picky eater. Their squabbles brought many hours of laughter to the masses, but particularly to my family, who I’d say has a healthy but sometimes strange sense of humor. For a celebration, my aunt once made my dad a two-foot-long rhubarb pie, taken right from the script, and has since become a part of family folklore.
The Bickersons eventually went on to run as a television series for a single season in the early 50s, starring Lew Parker as John (a role he took over for Ameche during its radio run) and Longford. But Ameche and Longford’s chemistry and pace together worked the best on radio during those early years.
“You know as well as I do my uncle was knighted for his operations in the stock market,” Blanche defends her uncle.
“It was the black market, and he wasn’t knighted, he was indicted.”
Even amidst all the squabbles, Rapp said that the couple’s bickering was not in arguments, but an affection — something that still puzzles me at times— but there have been moments of affection on the show. In a Christmas episode, after arguing whether John had sent Blanche a Christmas card, they exchange gifts, each gifting each other things they knew the other would love. While affection and warmth may not exude from this show, the snark and snappy retorts — and sometimes hair-brained thoughts — make “The Bickersons” worth listening to. The earliest episodes were really the best, and can be found on most streaming services or anywhere music is sold. If I might suggest a place to start, consider “The Bickersons Fight Back, part 1,” the sketch from which each of the quotes above are excerpted.