Updated: Oct 28, 2019
By John C. Alsedek:
The date is December 30th, 1936. Comedian Fred Allen is doing the East Coast broadcast of the popular CBS radio series Town Hall Tonight; it’s the second half of the show, and the guest is 10-year-old violin virtuoso Stuart Canin. Young Stuart has just finished a performance of Shubert’s "The Bee" when Allen commented that this boy, a fifth grader, was already a better player than a "certain alleged violin player"—a not-so-subtle jab at one of his competitors, NBC’s Jack Benny, whose dreadful violin playing was as big a part of his shtick as a penny-pincher. Benny, of course, took umbrage, and so began the biggest feud in radio history, one that ran for the better part of two decades.
Allen and Benny had both been on the radio nationally since 1932, Benny with The Jack Benny Show and Allen with a number of shows that eventually lead to Town Hall Tonight. But the men, while both comedians, were very different sorts. Allen was the silly master improviser who wrote most of his own material and frequently ad-libbed on the air; Benny’s greatest strengths were his timing and delivery, and he had a team of writers who knew how to maximize them. Noting those differences led to one of the funniest exchanges of their feud . . .
Fred Allen: “Jack, you couldn’t ad-lib a belch after a plate of Hungarian goulash!”
Jack Benny: “You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here.”
The Allen-Benny feud took off running a week after Allen’s initial remark, when Jack Benny was on the air. For the next few weeks, Benny spent time on his own show stoking the fires by disparaging Allen's comedic abilities, while Benny's own cast members were constantly laughing about Allen's most recent shows and proclaiming that he was such a virtuoso that he was able to play "The Bee" when he was ten years old. In fact, Allen promised to perform the piece on the air—only to claim that his violin had been stolen!
All the while, of course, Allen was sniping away at Benny during Town Hall Tonight, at least until the mutual animosity reached such a head that they decided to have it out on the March 21, 1937 broadcast of The Jack Benny Show—with Allen as the guest star. But that night's riotous program was just the beginning. They would occasionally guest on each other's show, did several Hollywood films together, and constantly lampooned each other; the most memorable of those was Benny's take on Town Hall Tonight entitled Clown Hall Tonight.
Even though the Allen-Benny feud would continue well into the 1950s, its crowning moment came on May 26, 1946 during Allen's radio quiz show spoof of the popular Queen for a Day program. The guest was none other than Jack Benny, and he got the full treatment as he answered the lucky question and won a variety of gag prizes.
Fred Allen: "Tomorrow night, in your ermine robe, you will be whisked by bicycle to Orange, New Jersey, where you will be the judge in a chicken-cleaning contest."
Jack Benny: "I'm King for a Day!"
The top prize won by Benny was a steam pressing of Benny's suit—right there on the air. As assistants removed Benny's suit, leaving him in nothing but his skivvies, Benny shouted, "Allen, you haven't seen the end of me!" the perfect setup line for Allen's response of "It won't be long now!"
The last of Fred Allen's radio shows went off the air in 1949, but he and Benny kept at it both on radio (until 1955) and the new medium of television right up until Allen's sudden death in 1956. At the height of their feud, their radio shows were surpassed in audience size only by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "fireside chats." And really, that was the point all along.
As you may have guessed, the so-called "feud" was anything but, as Benny explained after Allen's death: "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." The two men had known each other since their vaudeville days, and they'd concocted the whole thing both as a ratings draw and just for the fun of it.
The two comedians and their cohorts would plan out each move, taking turns being "straight man"; whenever Allen was on Benny's show, he would get the best lines, and vice-versa. The duo also worked together for the benefit of the boy who had indirectly started their feud, Stuart Canin. Allen & Benny set up a scholarship fund for Canin, who went on to become the first American to win the Paganini competition and served as concertmaster for the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Opera, and the Los Angeles Opera.
Jack Benny and Fred Allen were two of the biggest radio stars of the 1940s, and it's not hard to understand why. But a ventriloquist act? Really? Find out how the most unlikely of duos rose to fame on the airwaves next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!