I don’t think it’s a spoiler for this week’s episode of Better Call Saul to say that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul finally made their long-awaited return as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Listening to the two argue, Saul Goodman says, “I was enjoying the Laurel and Hardy vibe, but I’m not such a fan of the Bickersons.”
John and Blanche Bickerson were a squabbling married couple played on radio by Don Ameche and Frances Langford. The characters were created by veteran writer/director Philip Rapp. The Bickersons began in 1946 as a feature on two different network variety shows. Eventually, Ameche and Langford had their own series, Drene Time, on which Danny Thomas was a regular. (Drene Time was sponsored by Drene shampoo. Drene is a terrible name for a product and an even worse one for a radio program, but it surely seemed like a good idea at the time). Each Drene Time episode had a Bickersons sketch as the centerpiece. Ameche and Langford also appeared in a short-lived TV show together as John and Blanche. Langford also played Blanche on TV with Lew Parker as John. (Parker later played Ann Marie’s father on That Girl.) Ameche and Langford recorded two albums of Bickersons sketches in 1962, and they reunited for a Bickersons sketch on the variety show Hollywood Palace in 1967.
Ameche was a native of Kenosha, Wisconsin. (He briefly attended the University of Wisconsin; years later his cousin, Alan Ameche, would become Wisconsin football’s first Heisman Trophy winner.) He started on radio in Chicago, but after he went to Hollywood in the early 30s, his good looks soon put him in demand as a leading man, including famous roles in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, The Three Musketeers, and Swanee River, in which he played songwriter Stephen Foster. He returned to radio in the mid 40s and like many stars of the time, eventually moved into television work. His most famous TV role was probably as host of International Showtime, a program showcasing circus acts from around the world, in the early 60s. He had a late-life renaissance as an actor in the 80s, playing Mortimer Duke in Trading Places and winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Cocoon. He died in 1993 at age 85.
Langford got into radio about the same time Ameche did, circa 1930, as a teenager. She came to Hollywood to act (with notable roles in Broadway Melody of 1936, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and The Glenn Miller Story) but was known mainly as a radio singer. In 1941, she joined the cast of Bob Hope’s Pepsodent Show, and in that role traveled around the world with Hope to entertain soldiers. By the end of the 40s she was working in television, and she hosted self-titled variety shows in 1959 and 1960. She traveled with Hope as late as the 1980s before retiring to her native Florida. She died in 2005 at age 92.
As the Bickersons, Ameche and Langford’s comic timing is great and their characterizations are very strong, but your mileage may vary regarding just how funny the Bickersons are, considering our vastly different attitudes and expectations regarding gender roles and relationships today. Blanche comes off as selfish and needy and sometimes a harridan; her demands of John are often portrayed as unreasonable. John is assumed to be the more reasonable of the two, although he has his own quirks (he drinks bourbon to excess, bounces from job to job, and wants duck eggs for breakfast). He’s continually exasperated by Blanche, although he often gives in to her, if only so she will let him sleep. (Many, many Bickersons sketches opened with John’s unique snoring, which you can hear in the opening of “The Bickersons at Sea”, and they often take place in the middle of the night.) But through all of their arguments, John and Blanche stay together, and occasionally even demonstrate a degree of affection for one another.
A few people on Twitter caught the Bickersons reference on Better Call Saul the other night, but not enough for it to trend, I don’t think. But clearly, there are still a few of us who remember. Before I had records of my own, I played the ones in my parents’ collection, and in that collection were the two early 60s Bickersons albums.