It is (almost) universally agreed upon that Americans struggle with that whole death thing.

But the strange case of Digby “Digger” O’Dell offers an elegant counterpoint.

O’Dell was a character hastily written into the long-running radio (and, later, television) show, “The Life of Riley,” which had its debut on radio in 1944, while Americans were dying by the thousands in Europe and the Far East.

As “Riley” creator Irv Brecher recalled in his memoir-cum-gag reel, “The Wicked Wit of the West,” O’Dell was born of desperation—and was very nearly strangled in his crib.

A Time Filler

“I had rehearsed the cast in an office in the studio in Hollywood,” Brecher wrote. “But after I cut it, the script came up a minute-and-a-half short. I needed to fill the time.”

The plot of the pilot radio show had the hapless Riley (voiced on radio by the remarkable William Bendix) disappearing after his shift at the aircraft factory, and his wife, Peg, was frantic.

“Various characters,” Brecher recalled, “drop in to help her, which, by design, turns out to be more comical than comforting. Suddenly I thought: What visitor dropping by would really bring her down, would depress her the most?

“An undertaker,” Brecher said he realized in an epiphany. “That would shatter her.”

‘What’s Funnier Than Death?’

After all, Brecher asked himself, “What’s funnier than death?”

Cast and crew recorded the pilot before a live audience. As Peg Riley grew increasingly panicked, she got a knock at her door.

“It is I, Digger O’Dell, the friendly undertaker,” actor John Brown voiced to surprised laughter from the audience. “You’re looking fine. Very natural.”

As Brecher recalled, “The audience screamed. And they never stopped laughing through the whole 90-second Digger routine. Especially on his exit line: ‘Well, I’d better be shoveling off.’”

But “Riley’s” sponsor, the American Meat Institute, didn’t see the humor in the bit. Since some of the institute’s members sold animal fat to morticians to use in embalming, they were worried.

A Livid Sponsor

The next morning, Brecher got a call from Frank Ferrin in Chicago, the institute’s liaison with Brecher. The institute ordered Brecher to write O’Dell off, but Ferrin said he’d fight for the character.

“Reluctantly,” Brecher recalled, “I wrote in another Digby O’Dell scene. The audience reaction was the same—tremendous. Ferrin called: The sponsor was even more livid. After the third week, I figured the sponsor was exploring how to break the contract when I got another phone call from Chicago.”

Ferrin told Brecher that “ABC has been getting phone calls from listeners. And telegrams. Applauding Digger O’Dell!” But, as Brecher also recalled, there was “more fallout.”

“The Meat Institute,” Brecher wrote, “sent me slabs of bacon. At a time when you had to be a VIP to get a black-market pound of meat, where beef and butter were rationed, big hams started showing up at the house.”

Further Fallout

Brown, the voice of Digger, found his own fortune, too.

“The National Association of Undertakers invited him to their convention,” Brecher wrote. “When he came back, he reported that, partly embalmed by bourbon and Scotch, this merry breed of groundhogs made for a very good audience.”

Brecher was already a noted scriptwriter (he’d written two of the Marx Brothers’ movies by himself and was the genius behind the classic, “Meet Me in St. Louis.”) But “Riley” made his fortune. (It would also launch the television career of Jackie Gleason.)

“How strange,” Brecher thought. “To think of the world in such a dither, and if not for Digger O’Dell, I wouldn’t be here today. How do you like that—an undertaker saving a life?”