‘Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel’: The Lost Radio Show of Groucho and Chico

We live in an era in which the idea of a “lost” TV show has completely vanished. I mean, I guess you could have a hard drive crash or something, but outside of a weird fluke like that, pretty much every form of entertainment we make from here on out is probably going to live in somebody’s cloud out there. This hasn’t always been the case, of course. In the time before consumers had the ability to record media, and when live TV and radio was the norm, the vast majority of content was “lost” in the sense that it went out live and if you missed it, it was gone.

Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel is one such example of a lost radio show, which notably starred one half of the (then) four Marx Brothers, Groucho and Chico Marx. It lasted 26 episodes beginning in November of 1932, every Monday, when the Marx Brothers were riding a wave of success, having just appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. In the midst of the Great Depression, Groucho and Chico shared a weekly salary of $6,500 for 30 minutes of work while the average American family was making $26 a week. (You might forgive them when you factor in their commute time: three days from Pasadena to New York, then three days back.)

Until 1988, there was no trace of Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel. There were no recordings; just a few brief mentions by Groucho in a few of his memoirs. Then, Michael Barson, working in the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, discovered 25 out of 26 of the scripts had been submitted to the office in 1932. A book was published, and eventually several years later, one complete recording of an episode partial clips of two others surfaced.

But for those of whom reading the scripts is not enough, England’s got your back. In 1990, the BBC adapted the scripts, modernizing them slightly and adding jokes from the Marx Brothers movies. The adventures of the unscrupulous lawyer Flywheel and his incompetent assistant Beagle would live on.

In whatever form one chooses to take in Flywheel, the episodes somehow manage to maintain the Marx Brothers’ breakneck pace of jokes, offering one after another, line by line. An example exchange from the first episode, in which Chico as Shyster attempts to get a job from Grouch as Flywheel unfolds like this:

Chico: Hey! We no speak about money.
Groucho: That suits me fine. If you promise not to say anything about it, I won’t mention it either.
C: Awright, but I gotta have more money.
G: I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you six dollars a week and you can bring your own lunches.
C: Well…
G: I’ll go even further than that. I’ll give you six dollars a week and you can bring lunch for me too.
C: Hey, boss. I can’t live on six dollars a week.
G: You can’t live on six dollars a week. That will make me very happy. You’re hired.

Writing on the newfound scripts in 1988 for The New York Times, Steve Allen remarked, “when judged in relation to other radio comedy scripts of the early 30s, they hold up very well indeed and are, in fact, superior to the material that was produced for the Eddie Cantor, Rudy Vallee, Joe Penner school. The rapid-fire jokes… run the gamut from delightful to embarrassing.”

At the time, however, Variety was not so kind. “That’s fine stuff for children! Chances are that if the Marxes proceed with their law office continuity along lines like this they will never be able to hold a kid listener. Firstly because parents don’t want their children to hear about bad wives and divorces, and this isn’t an agreeable theme to kids. Which means that if the Marxes don’t look out, whatever kid following they have on the screen will be totally lost to them on the air. It’s quite likely the Marxes can make themselves on the air. But they will have to use more headwork than their first effort displayed.”

While Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel is certainly fast-paced for it’s time, when comparing the BBC remake to the only original recording, I was surprised to see what a difference in pacing there was. In the 1990 remake, the audience reacts to the jokes more frequently, whereas the 1930s audience is more reserved, laughing only when it really loves a joke.

The ratings for the show weren’t the greatest of all time, but they were certainly good for the time. Despite this fact, Flywheel only lasted a single season. There are multiple theories as to why this was, some involving the fact that the production was being bankrolled by Texaco. In his autobiography, Groucho and Me, Groucho states, “We thought we were doing pretty well as comic lawyers, but one day a few Middle East countries decided they wanted a bigger cut of the oil profits, or else. When this news broke, the price of gasoline nervously dropped two cents a gallon, and Chico and I, along with the other shows, were dropped from the network.” Michael Barson, the discoverer of the scripts, in the introduction to his book containing the scripts, offers two theories. Either Groucho and Chico were ready to move back into making movies, or nobody wanted to pay for another round of exorbitant salaries for their two stars. Whatever the reason, we could all agree with confidence that those guys had an insane commute to work each week.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” featuring Chris Elliott!

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