Peg Lynch, the lady who invented the sitcom died at home last Friday. She was preceded by her husband, and perhaps a dozen collie dogs. Also by several million fans, I’d guess: she was 98, a few months away from 99 years old, and many of the people who enjoyed her work when she was on the air in Albert Lea in the late Thirties have given up the ghost. To say nothing of the people who laughed at her stories in the Forties, the Fifties, the Sixties, the Seventies. It was a long life and a grand career, and we’ve lost a link to the early days of TV and the last days of network radio. The New York Times obit does her proud.
"Ms. Lynch, who wrote nearly 11,000 scripts for radio and television without the benefit of a writer’s room committee (or even a co-writer), was a pioneering woman in broadcast entertainment. As a creator of original characters and a performer of her own written work — every bit of it live! — she might be said to have created the mold that decades later produced the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Schumer."
One minor point: they weren’t all live. The latter shows were pre-recorded - transcribed, to use the old terminology. But the live TV shows deserve an exclamation point. Imagine the terrors. Network TV. Coast to coast. She wasn’t a stage actress; she was a writer. They had one run-through, and strange union rules often dictated whether or not they could handle the props they used. Two summers ago I was sitting in her kitchen watching an old Kate Smith segment that involved a cake, and there were elaborate comic complications that required the cake to be moved around, and had to be done before the hot lights melted the icings. She told how the run-through used a stand-in object, so they practiced the cake-specific skit by reacting to a thing that was Not the Cake At All. Of course, there were fumbles just to build up your confidence minutes before NATIONAL TV.
You wouldn’t know from the finished product. Effortless. In another show one of the actors lost his nerve and bailed, and she had to improvise. Live. Coast to coast. What was it one of her U of M teachers said? As a writer, she wasn’t a bad actress, and as an actress, she wasn’t a bad writer. Meaning: you’re pretty damned good at both.
When it comes to her archives, we’re lucky, and we’re cursed. Her TV shows survive, but haven’t been transferred to digital media yet. We’re lucky because she put stuff in a scrapbook, which her daughter has been posting on her Facebook page. Longtime fans will recognize this plot:
It’s a theme she kept coming back to; from the early Kate Smith shows to the TV series to the “Couple Next Door,” dental anxiety pops up again and again. Most of the scripts rewrite the same idea: old familiar dentist hands off the practice to his son, who’s never had a patient. (There was an episode of dental misery in “The Couple Next Door,” involving a toothache while on a European vacation in a small town where novocaine was surely unknown.) In this one you get a good idea of her early TV work. She never went for the laff line, the boffo yuk; her comedy cooked and simmered. Here Albert goes through manly stoicism, fear, denial, self-pity, mortal dread, and noble selflessness, while his wife responds with mild exasperation and brisk practicality. Between six and seven minutes in it starts to pay off, and seven minutes in you can hear the audience burst into the laughter they’ve been working on since Albert came down the stairs.
When I first called her up two years ago, she was still nursing a small beef against CCO, because they hadn’t run “The Couple Next Door.” Their loss. The local papers had always been in their corner - Will Jones wrote a few pieces, including this thumbs-up for the TV show.
I am not a superstitious man, and I am suspicious of cheap coincidence. But. I listened to Peg Lynch’s “Couple Next Door” radio show Monday through Friday every morning, one episode at a time, and always wondered whether I would get to the end of the 730+ episodes in time to call her up and tell her I was done. As it happened, I finished the show almost two weeks ago, and called her up to say how much I’d enjoyed the run. She was tired, having just got out of the hospital to have some pins put in her hip after a bad fall, but still delighted by the renaissance of her work in the last few years. Her daughter Astrid had worked tirelessly - the cliche applies, believe me - to get her website up, and shows had not only been sold to Radio Spirits, but had begun to reappear on the Sirius/XM radio channel. There’s a lot to play; some day the Sirius audience will hear the last ep of “The Couple Next Door.” Without knowing it’s the last, they might miss how ingenious it was.
Radio execs HATE shows that sound like the Last Episode, because you want people to tune in next week. So she set up the next 300 shows by blowing up the old storyline. Ethel and Albert were going to move to New York, even if it meant giving up the house whose construction and travails and pleasures had provided so many plots. But for now, they were heading off to Montana in a plane flown by Aunt Effie. The listeners were unaware that Aunt Effie had a pilot’s licensee, but she’d been gone for the show for months, married off to a Montana cattle baron. No one expected she’d learn to fly, but no one had expected she would be married, either; she was the quintessential spinster. I suspect Peg made her fly the plane for the last episode because Aunt Effie was played by Margaret Hamilton, and putting the Wicked Witch of the West up on the broomstick in the sky one last time was a great callback.
The show ended with a birthday party for Peg’s character. Laughter, music . . and out. The show date was her birthday. She gave herself a party on the last show she did for CBS.
That was 45 years ago. She did more. I’ve dipped into “The Little Things in Life,” a syndicated revival she did in the early 70s with veteran radio actor Bob Dyden taking the place of Alan Bunce. It’s different, simply because Bunce owned the Husband role so completely; where his deflated responses still have a rueful masculine pride, Dryden’s approached had less spine and chest. Perhaps that was smart - Dryden was like the first guy to play Sherlock after Rathbone, and he wanted to make the role his own. In “The Little Things” Peg seems much more like Peg, to be honest; there’s a sharp, rational, practical side that comes out, with some surprisingly brusque and unsparing honesty about family matters. I look forward to listening to these shows; I think they might be Peg Lynch Unbound.
But there wasn’t any movie. There wasn’t another TV show. Why? Because the people who made the deals for those things were idiots, and probably viewed her character and style as a bygone relic. A few years ago she spoke about bringing the characters back as old folk, and the NYT obit quotes just what she would have done with them. Give it a read; hit her website for more clips. Check out the wealth of old ephemera on her Facebook page, posted by Astrid. She’s gone, but the work remains, and as her old TV shows are converted from kinescopes more of her pioneering plays will be available again.
Albert Lea might want to consider a plaque where her career began. Where the sitcom was invented. Where Peg first cracked the mike, and made people smile.