An old joke in broadcasting goes something like this: When is the best time to put drama on the radio? Answer: About 1936.
The golden age of "Fibber McGee and Molly" and "War of the Worlds" may be long gone, but original radio plays aren't quite dead. Starting Monday, National Public Radio will air a new made-for-radio comedy, reviving (if briefly) a form that flourished in the Time Before TV.
The most unusual aspect of the NPR production, titled "I'd Rather Eat Pants," may be when it will air. The Washington-based network will carry "Pants" in five daily taped installments during "Morning Edition" -- the popular and long-running program known for its serious news coverage.
Which means that in between "Morning Edition's" reports on Iraq and bioterrorism and the federal government, the program's 11 million listeners will hear "Pants" stars Edward Asner and Anne Meara doing scripted shtick in eight-minute segments.
A bit unorthodox, no? Yes: "I thought, you can't put a drama smack in the middle of a news program," says Ellen McDonnell, "Morning Edition's" executive producer, who commissioned the play. "But then I thought, this is something we've never done, and if we could get it to fit our format, it would be jazzy, zany, outside the box."
Indeed, given the state of the news, McDonnell says listeners may be ready for a little comic relief, along with a brief respite from the pressures of the approaching holidays. "Morning Edition" is heard beginning at 5 a.m. on WAMU-FM (88.5) and beginning at 6 a.m. on WETA-FM (90.9). The serial will air in the last 20 minutes of "Morning Edition's" first hour.
"Pants" tells the story of an elderly couple (Asner and Meara) who ditch their Manhattan grocery store and take off on a motorcycle to find fame and an estranged daughter in Hollywood. The westward migration theme was included at the request of NPR, which wanted to remind listeners subtly of its own westward expansion: The organization recently opened NPR West in Los Angeles, its first full-scale production studio outside Washington.
In addition to the leads, NPR was able to lure a number of Hollywood veterans to the production, including actors Ed Begley Jr. and Dan Castellaneta, better known as the voice of Homer Simpson. Peter Ackerman, who co-wrote the animated movie "Ice Age," wrote the radio script, and veteran TV sitcom director Gordon Hunt (father of actress Helen Hunt) directed.
In addition, "Morning Edition" host Bob Edwards and NPR legend Susan Stamberg briefly play themselves, in a kind of human product plugola for NPR.
Despite this, Edwards isn't entirely sold on the concept. "I'm withholding judgment," he said this week. "It is a news program, after all. I don't know how tolerant our listeners are. I'm concerned whether there'll be some kind of outcry. We'll see."
On the other hand, he says, "our listeners do go to the theater. . . . They're pretty tolerant, and they're interested in more than just Saddam and the European Union and the Law of the Sea Treaty. We've been accused of being grim and dour. Here, we can show that we can lighten up once in a while."
Stamberg calls the new radio comedy "a gift to our listeners. It's supposed to be an early Christmas present. If it flops, it flops. Our listeners won't desert us."
She says the only time one of NPR's newsmagazines has aired something like "Pants" was in 1987, when a series of famous novelists created a chain audio novel for the debut of "Weekend Edition Sunday." It was, she recalls, "a nightmare."
At a time of tight budgets for public broadcasters, producer McDonnell says she kept a close eye on production costs. The actors were paid scale ($750 each) for their work, and the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills provided the facilities for the recording of the show before an audience in November. Much of the $30,000 budget for the play, she said, was covered by an NPR grant reserved for dramatic productions but never used before.