t took me a while. Four, five episodes. I can’t remember how I first found “The Couple Next Door” — one entry the long list of shows that start with C on an old-time radio site. Loved the jaunty fifties theme, something that sounded like it would play in the supermarket when I went shopping with my Mom. The characters weren’t like anything else I’d heard on old radio shows; they sounded like actual adults, not gag machines or archetypes. In the first episode the actors behaved as if they’d been doing this for a long while, too — the rapport was easy and familiar, with a history built into their reactions, like a real married couple. I’d listened to a lot of old radio, but nothing sounded like this. Fresh, brisk, smart, paced and plotted with an effortless command of the medium.
So I downloaded a few more. Like I said, it took me a while:
Starring Peg Lynch and Alan Bunce, the man said. But it was the other line.
Written by Peg Lynch.
Light bulb: so the comedienne who’s doing this marvelous character wrote the show as well? Aside from The Goldbergs, which I never really listened to, women didn’t write shows. A few dozen episodes into the run I realized that you didn’t know what was better: the writer’s acting, or the actress’ writing.
Let’s take the first one. Peg Lynch is a delightful actress. In outrage and surprise you can plot her voice on music staves; when she’s angry she can clip off the syllables and bore in with a tone that could drill a hole through the wall. When she’s giddy you can hear the delight take over her brain and push aside the very things that might just need attention later on; in panic, you can hear her mind race like a Waring blender processing a handful of sand. When she is certain about something her voice has the authority every husband knows full well, the equivalent of a decision from a court that will brook no further appeal. When she laughs, you smile — because that’s usually at the end of the show, and things turned out all right.
They usually do. Which brings us to the writer. Peg Lynch is simply this: one of the greatest humorists of the 20th century. The fact that she worked in dialogue makes people think it’s not Thurber or Perelman, but let those guys write 750 self-contained but intimately connected scenes, and we can talk. The fact that she never strived for a ha-ha line, one of those things set on fire and rolled out on a cart with a sign that said JOKE, makes one think that “humorist” is an inexact description, but her speciality was the humorous situation, one that arises naturally from the characters. It’s not funny because of this line or that; it’s funny because of what it is. Like a story you tell to friends later.
Again, think of radio: the predecessors were the ensemble shows that trotted out characters to bark catch phrases and conform to a narrow set of attributes. Jack Benny is cheap, Phil Harris is vain, Fred Allen’s sarcastic, Mrs. Nussbaum’s broadly Jewish, Digger the Undertaker is mordant, and so on. Formula. It worked; people loved it; much of it still holds up. But Peg’s work rests in the domestic adventures of two absolutely normal, decent, middle-class people with aspirations and optimism - and an abiding, unquestioned affection.
It was the only thing on radio that seemed familiar to the listener. A slight exaggeration of their own lives. The show provided a vicarious experience when it came to a new house or a trip abroad, but otherwise, yes: recognizable. These were people you’d like to know, because you sensed they’d like to know you too.
She didn’t just write for herself and Bunce, though. (Her ability to plot opportunities for his slow-burn and blow-up bluster is worthy of another article.) Several comic characters come to mind: the laconic contractor, Mr. Dibble. (To this day when a house project goes awry I find myself saying “that’s the way it gooooes.”) Charlie and Madge Beamis, a wonderful look at some post-war archetypes — the loud-mouthed braying glad-hander and his “artistic” wife whose casual attitude towards life and rules and housekeeping must have struck a loud tuning fork for the audience; every neighborhood had one. (It was one of Peg’s clever ideas to make Charlie not just annoying, but supremely competent in everything he did.) Betsy is a delightful little girl any parent recognizes. (Francie Myers was wonderful as Betsy, poised nd earnest and sweet — unlike all the wise-cracking juveniles who populated TV and radio.)
And of course: Aunt Effie. Margaret Hamilton’s thin-lipped censorious judgmental spinster. Peg wrote for her cadence and tone with intuitive precision; she knew the way Hamilton would lance the second word in a line with a half-octave jump. (Listen for the number of times her lines begin with “Well, I think” or “Well, I’ won’t” or some such variant.) It would have been tempting to give Hamilton a Miss Gulch character. Peg wrote her not as a counterweight to the wife, but an ally. Brilliant move: if she created tension it would amuse the audience but discomfit the characters, and this was not a show about domestic abrasion. Minor friction, sure. Squabbles and disputes, of course. But Aunt Effie, for all her dry archaic certainties, was someone we loved. When you realize that, you realize something else about the show:
You like everyone.
Not to say she didn’t drop in a villain now and then; that’s another essay. Point is, the conflict — and the humor — came from misunderstanding more often than ill will, and misunderstanding can be fixed.
This is what her stories do: they fix things. Over the course of hundreds and hundreds of stories, you see the same reassuring theme. The little things in life, which seem so large at the time, work out — but only if events play out, or someone speaks up, or someone finds the thing that was lost, or someone puts two and two together. (Not zero plus zero, though. Don’t get her started on that.) Fate, chance, personality, coincidence, kindness — these will set things right.
As I write this, I haven’t finished “The Couple Next Door.” About 200 episodes to go. I have no idea what will happen when they get back from Europe, and I almost hate to think of Peg setting up the next great plot arc only to have it felled by the axe, when CBS nixed fiction in ’60. I’ve seen some of the TV shows, and they’re quite different: seeing the plays makes them laugh-out-loud funny, and you watch them with a big stupid grin as you see Peg and Alan work. (There’s the matter of her physical self-possession as a TV actress, but that’s another essay.) I know I’ll listen to the syndicated run of “The Little Things in Life” and relish how she did it again, but it’s like Father’s Day at your Mom’s house after she remarried.
Don’t get me wrong: the TV stuff is so good it should put Peg up there with Sid and Lucy and Jack and all the rest. The earlier “Ethel and Albert” shows are delightful, and the path she took to get the story from a small-town radio station to the networks is a story that ought to be the subject of a lavishly reviewed biography. Because it has it all. Small-town girl wants to tell stories. She sits at the typewriter. Scrolls the paper. Starts to type.
Ink on pulp; script in hands; voices into mikes; radio waves to boxes all across the nation. People sat down and lit a Lark and settled in for 15 minutes. My friends have dropped by. You know. The couple next door.
PS. After I discovered her work I found her phone number and called her up. (That’s another essay.) A few months later I drove up to her house to meet her, and I had a phrase in my head I wanted to say, just to let her know that her work survives and people who were mewling infants when she cracked the mike find her just as funny and delightful as listeners a half century ago. “My favorite genius,” I said when we met. Three true words.
Oh, the look on her face. The thing you have to love about Peg: she knows she’s good. She knows she did something remarkable. But I’m not sure she really knows how remarkable she is. That’s where we come in. We listen to her work. We spread the word. We let her know: there’s no point talking about humor and theater in 20th century American culture if you don’t talk about Peg. The best actress who ever wrote for radio and TV; the best writer who ever acted on TV and radio. It may take you a while to decide which you prefer.
But you don’t have to choose. It’s both, right? Right.
— James Lileks, 2014