How would the two protagonists (who were actually good friends off the air) remember the origin of the Jack Benny-Fred Allen feud, by anyone’s measure the greatest dialogic running gag in network radio, enduring right up to the moment Fred Allen leaves network radio as a full-time host in 1949? (The greatest sound-effect running gag has to be Fibber McGee’s closet, of course.)
It just started by accident, like everything I’ve ever done. I’ve always explained that everything I’ve ever done on radio or television that was good started by an accident. Because if Fred Allen and I had said to each other, “Let’s have a feud,” I’m sure it would not have lasted over three or four weeks. It would have been lousy. But the fact that it just came up out of nothing . . . made it funny, because then you are saying the right things, you are ad-libbing . . . and when you feel they’ve had enough of it, you stop.
—Jack Benny, to an unidentified interviewer, cited in Mary Livingstone Benny and Hilliard Marks, Jack Benny: A Biography. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1978.)
Jack and I didn’t plan anything. I didn’t want to explain that I thought it would be good for us. The Jack Benny program was the highest-rated show in radio at that time. With our smaller audience it would take an Academy Award display of intestinal fortitude to ask Jack to participate in a feud with me. I would be hitching my gaggin’ to a star. All I could do was to hope that Jack would have some fun with the idea and that it could be developed.
. . . Radio in the ’30s was a calm and tranquil medium. Oleaginous-voiced announcers smoothly purred their commercial copy into the microphones enunciating each lubricated syllable. Tony Wons was cooing his soothing poems. Bedtime stories were popular. Radio was one unruffled day from Cheerio in the early morning through Music to Read By at midnight. Radio was fraught with politeness. No voice was ever raised in public.
When Jack and I started to ignore precedent and bellow uncensored Billingsgate at each other, the radio audience perked up. It was akin to dropping a mongoose into a snake put—things started coming to life.
—Fred Allen, in Treadmill to Oblivion. (Boston: Atlantic Little, Brown, 1954.)
Allen was right—when the two comedians kicked the brickbats off in 1937, The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny just so happened to be the nation’s number one radio show. Benny owned Sunday night and the season as a whole with his 28.9 rating; Allen’s Town Hall Tonight was edged out on Wednesday nights (20.2) only by Burns & Allen (20.9) and finished number six on the season as well.
By this season, Allen is aboard on Sunday nights on CBS’s Texaco Star Theater, and in a time slot wholly advantageous to him for continuing the mock feud. The move was possible when Ford Motor Company decided it couldn’t continue the Sunday Evening Hour with the Detroit Symphony, and Texaco—who’d shifted Eddie Cantor out of the slot three years earlier—moved Allen and company in. The irony: Texaco moved Allen to Sunday for the same reason they’d first moved Cantor out—a better chance at better ratings in a less competitive time slot.
Allen makes the move this month. He wasn’t enough to overthrow Walter Winchell’s Jergens Journal fifteen-minute rat-a-tat news and commentary slow to open, but he was more than enough to murder The Parker Family, a fifteen-minute situation comedy that followed Winchell, but whose 12.8 seasonal rating wasn’t quite so close to Allen’s 14.2. As for Jack Benny, the only show to out-rate his 27.2 for 1941-42 would be Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy’s 28.0.
It would be enough to make no few people wonder whether Allen’s rating would have improved even more if Texaco had found him a Sunday night slot at the beginning of the season, instead of leaving him to be killed on Wednesday nights by Mr. District Attorney to open.
And, to the day each man dies, people will still wonder whether they were really only kidding around . . .
. . . and Sunday night will never be quite the same, now that Fred Allen has moved there . . . at a time late enough to hear him first and zap in kind.
First, however, former sailor Jack (Benny) bounces a few off his own dime in front of a crowd of cheering, laughing Marines, who cheer even louder for Mary (Livingstone) when she complains about the trip down from Los Angeles in the Maxwell (“I’m so black and blue you’d think I’d been dancing at the Paris Inn last night”) and the blowout that caused the delay—not to mention the solution Jack had Rochester (Eddie Anderson) improvise.
Themselves: Don Wilson (announcer), Phil Harris, Dennis Day. Music: Mahlon Merrick, Phil Harris Orchestra, Dennis Day. Writers: Sam Perrin, George Balzar, Milt Josefsberg.
Now that he’s had a perfect opportunity to lance Benny’s boil and Dennis Day’s baboon joke, Fred (Allen) and the March of Trivia march over one of its customary salutes to those in Hollywood who contributed next to nothing to film in 1941.
Special guest Maurice Evans is enlisted to provide the show a little more savoir faire now that it’s on Sunday nights. John J. McDonald of Holy Cross College, a tenor who’s won the Texaco College Competition, stands for an interview by Mr. Allen. And, the Texaco Workshop Players present “The Hardy Family in the Penitentiary; or, Life with Father”—or, they would, if Fred can’t convince them his life story is worth telling.
Themselves: Portland Hoffa, Kenny Baker (vocals), Jimmy Wallington (announcer). The Texaco Workshop Players: John Brown, Wynn Murray, Minerva Pious, Alan Reed. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, Kenny Baker. Writers: Fred Allen, possibly Herman Wouk, Harry Tugend.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
My Friend Irma: Double Trouble (CBS, 1948)—Marie Wilson, Cathy Lewis, Leif Erickson, John Brown, Hans Conreid, Jane Morgan. The morning after a double date between Jane and Richard, and Irma and Al, Jane and Irma hope a home cooked meal will patch a feud between the couples after Irma inadvertently insults Richard’s mother. Naturally.