The Peabody Awards

The Peabody Awards

Peabody Decades: Laughing Matters

Noel Holston - 10/3/2014
Peabody Decades: Laughing Matters

Though the Peabody Awards were conceived to encourage broadcasters to do more public service and high-minded shows, Peabody judges soon enough acknowledged that laughs mattered, too. After all, there was a world war going on at the time.

Bob Hope got a personal award in 1943, and his fellow radio comedian Fred Allen collected one the following year. Groucho Marx’ “You Bet Your Life” – the radio version – was honored in 1948, and Wally Cox’s Mister Peepers was the first TV sitcom winner in 1952.

Peabody and comedy go way back, and that’s the history we’re attempting to illustrate and annotate in Laughing Matters: Comedy on the Airwaves, the first program of this fall’s Peabody Decades series. It’s scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 14, at the auditorium of the Russell Special Collections Library, 300 Hull Street, Athens.

Like previous Decades programs, Laughing Matters is free and open to the general public as well as University of Georgia students, faculty and staff.

Unlike previous Decades programs, this one won’t entail live-in-the-auditorium host presiding over a slide show of clips. To make the experience more seamless and TV-like for our audiences, we’re attempting documentary videos, with music, overdubbed narration, the works. And while these videos may not attain the artistry of Ken Burns’ history documentaries, what Peabody video editor Maggie Uhler can do with our shoestring budget is nonetheless likely to impress. It’s she who’s behind all those cool videos of Peabody winners talking about their work and the award.

Laughing Matters addresses three distinct strains of TV comedy: the comedy-variety shows that dominated early television, the situation comedies that remain a prime-time staple, and the comedy-oriented talk shows that began with hosts such as Steve Allen in the early 1950s and continue to thrive today with practitioners like David Letterman at the desk.

The nearly 30 excerpts – all from programs in the Peabody Awards Collection, the largest broadcasting archive in the Southeast – will cover more than 60 years of stars and shows. See Ed Sullivan on his Toast of the Town playing straight man to another Peabody winner, the great Jack Benny. Watch Jackie Gleason go volcanic in a Honeymooners sketch that predates its breakout as a sitcom. Enjoy classic moments from I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, The Cosby Show and Cheers, plus goofy, vaudevillian novelty acts that haven’t seen the light of day in more than half a century.

And stick around afterwards to chat about what’s funny, then and now, and how TV comedy has evolved.

Looking ahead, on Tuesday, November 11, we’ll explore the evolution of crime, cops and mystery on TV in a program titled Watching the Detectives. Here again, we’ll draw on the extensive Peabody Collection for a mean-streets tour that excerpts “Suspense” (a radio winner in 1946), Naked City, The Lawless Years, Columbo, Police Story, The Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, Twin Peaks, Prime Suspect, The Sopranos, The Wire, Sherlock, Breaking Bad and more.

The Decades series will resume in March with a program devoted to animation on television. The excerpted programs from the Peabody archive will include Time for Beany, The Bullwinkle Show, The Flintstones, The Smurfs, Dora the Explorer, The Boondocks, The Simpsons and South Park.

The April Decades will mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. It will feature portions of Ken Burns’ landmark, Peabody-winning series and other relevant documentaries and dramas from the archive, including The Andersonville Trial, Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, 100th anniversary commemorative programs from 1964 and a 1959 documentary based on the war photos of Matthew Brady.

The screening is hosted by the Peabody Awards Collection​, University of Georgia Libraries.

Full details will be announced after the first of the year.