But it was the musical comedy team of Gus Van and Joe Schenck who popularized the catchy song with a recording (Columbia A-3412) that soared to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in August 1921, where it remained for nine weeks. “Music Trades” magazine listed the song as a favourite record.
Ain’t We Got Fun? exploded in popularity, taking over vaudeville shows and speakeasies, and selling well in piano roll and sheet music formats. Several orchestras and record labels recorded it that year, to name a few, Benson Orchestra of Chicago (Victor), Metropolitan Dance Orchestra (Regal), and Erdody’s Hotel Pennsylvania Orchestra (Okeh). Popular tenor Billy Jones also released it on Edison wax cylinder and Berliner Gramophone 78-rpm.
Ain’t We Got Fun? reflects the significant social and economic changes occurring especially in the United States during the Roaring Twenties. In 1920 and 1921, America experienced a post-war economic slump that is mirrored in the lyrics, in which a care-free young couple can’t pay the rent, but they make the best of what little they’ve got:
“Every morning, every evening / Ain’t we got fun?
Not much money, aw but honey / Ain’t we got fun?
“Landlord’s mad and getting madder / Ain’t we got fun?
Times are bad and getting badder / Still we have fun.”
Incisive social commentary on the economic plight of average people hides behind comedy in the line “The rich get rich and the poor get children,” and later, “The poor get laid off.” (Later versions have “the poor get poorer.”)
The song’s comic nature was later enhanced with added amusing dialogue by Doris Day, The Andrews Sisters with Curt Massey, and Bob Hope and Margaret Whiting (composer Richard Whiting’s daughter). In Peggy Lee’s version (1958), the couple owes the grocer and the tax collector.
The middle decades of the 20th century saw Ain’t We Got Fun? performed by guitarist Chet Atkins, pianist Carmen Cavallaro, Rosemary Clooney, Alma Cogan, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Dick van Dyke, pianist Frankie Froba, Joe Loss and His Orchestra, Mitch Miller, Debbie Reynolds, Terry Shand and His Orchestra, The Starlighters, cornetist Rex Stewart, even novelist Jack Kerouac.
In the 21st century, the song remains a favourite of jazz musicians like Renee Olstead, Charlie Hunter, Alexis Cole, and Carol Woods.
The song appeared in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” and the soundtrack for its 1974 movie; and Doris Day sang it in “In the Light of the Silvery Moon” and (with Danny Thomas) in “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” It also appears in “The Eddie Cantor Story,” “The Pride of the Yankees,” and “Zelig.”
Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tune” cartoon characters Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck often sang Ain’t We Got Fun? when hatching mischievous plans; and TV characters Archie and Edith Bunker perform the song on the album “Side by Side.”
American Music Preservation.com declared Ain’t We Got Fun? one of the 100 essential songs of the 20th century.
Raymond Egan (1890-1952, born Windsor, Ontario), moved to the U.S. as a young child. He pursued a successful career as a songwriter for Broadway and Hollywood. Among his best-known songs are Till We Meet Again and Sleepy Time Gal.
Gus Khan (born Germany, 1886 – 1941) and Richard Whiting (born USA, 1891 – 1938) were both internationally successful Tin Pan Alley songwriters.