Classic network radio has no better aural running gag than Fibber McGee’s closet, though you could argue that Jack Benny’s subterranean vault alarm might prove a close enough second. For a better verbal running gag, it’s hard to deny the Benny-Fred Allen mock feud. It’s even harder to believe that Fred Allen may actually feared it couldn’t be done in the first place.
The feud began, of course, after child prodigy Stewart Canin performed a show-stopping “The Bee” on Allen’s Town Hall Tonight. Allen took the occasion to throw Benny a little zinger about musical competence. The following week, Benny answered in kind, saying he’d be more than willing to play “The Bee” the moment anyone requested it. Allen followed up with just such a request, and the fable feud kicked off. But Allen had his own small misgiving:
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 the 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.
Could it ever.
. . . 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 censored Billingsgate at each other, the radio audience perked up. It was akin to dropping a mongoose into a snake pit—things started coming to life.
The feud gained momentum. After two years of vituperative exchanges the mail was bigger than ever. Many people took the arguing seriously. Jack’s supporters were writing to insult me. My followers were busy sending poison-pen fan mail to Jack. When the wrangling had reached its peak it posed problems. When I went home to Dorchester to see my aunt I had to wait until it was dark before it was safe to venture into her neighbourhood. On one trip I went out to see my aunt during the afternoon. One of the neighbours must have seen me. In no time the entire neighbourhood knew I was visiting my aunt. (Long before radar my aunt’s neighbours were beaming gossip to each other with uncanny speed.) When school got out about forty kids gathered in front of my aunt’s house and demanded that I look out. Rather than have them tip over the house with my aunt in it, I opened the window and yelled, “What do you kids want?” Forty shrill voices shrieked, “You gotta beat Jack Benny for Dorchester, Fred. Kill Jack Benny! Beat his brains out!” At Waukegan I imagine kids with shrill voices were suggesting that Jack ditto me.
. . . Jack and I heckled each other for many seasons and eventually made a picture together, Love Thy Neighbour. The feud did do two things—it improved Jack’s violin playing: he told me later that he had to practise for months to be able to play “The Bee” on our program; and the association with Jack increased our audience greatly.
—Fred Allen, from Treadmill to Oblivion.
The gag might have climaxed with the riotous Benny-Allen brawl program on Town Hall Tonight, but the pair still manage to keep it up, right up to the day (and slightly beyond) Fred Allen’s life as a full-time radio host ends (mostly because of his health, partially because of the clobbering he’ll take in the ratings when Stop the Music appears opposite him in due course), and without making a country sick and tired of it.
And for any future reader inclined to believe that somehow, some way, the two mock combatants weren’t kidding, I offer you the following from each man:
People have often asked me if Fred Allen and I were really friends in real life. My answer is always the same. You couldn’t have such a long-running and successful feud as we did, without having a deep and sincere friendship at the heart of it.
—Jack Benny, upon Allen’s death in early 1956.
For years people have been asking me if Jack and I are friendly. I don’t think that Jack Benny has an enemy in the world. He is the best-liked actor in show business. He is the only comedian I know who dies laughing at all of the other comedians. He is my favourite comedian and I hope to be his friend until he is forty. That will be forever.
—Fred Allen, in Treadmill.
The cast eavesdrops on Benny as he wrestles by phone with a telephone operator who can’t seem to find the way to patch him to Western Union, the better to send Allen another challenge to another fight—in case of which he hires a bodyguard. Somehow, Benny and company also find a way to perform an equally pleasant if no great shakes satire of the Hopalong Cassidy Westerns.
Additional cast: Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson (announcer), Phil Harris, Kenny Baker. Music: Phil Harris Orchestra. Writers: Ed Beloin, Bill Morrow.
Further Channel Surfing:
Adventures By Morse: The City of the Dead (mystery; Syndicated, 1944)
Lux Radio Theater: Lady in the Dark (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1945)
The Whistler: Murder on Paper (crime drama; CBS, 1945)
Mutual Coast-to-Coast: Count Basie at the Blue Room: “We Just Got a Little Mixed Up There” (music; Mutual, 1945)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Molly’s Card Party (comedy; NBC, 1946)
The Green Hornet: Escape for Revenge (crime drama; ABC, 1946; KRLD nostalgia rebroadcast)
The Great Gildersleeve: Marjorie’s Hot-Rod Boyfriend (comedy; NBC, 1947)
The Jack Carson Show: Who’s Sending Threatening Letters? (comedy; CBS, 1947)
Our Miss Brooks: School on Saturday (comedy; CBS, 1950)
The Whistler: Burden of Guilt (crime drama; CBS, 1950)
One Man’s Family: Book 82, Chapter 21 (serial; NBC, 1951)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Playing Cupid (comedy; NBC, 1952)