Friday, April 1, 2016


In 1937, Benny began his famous radio feud with rival Fred Allen. Allen kicked the feud off on his own show, after child violinist Stewart Canin gave a performance credible enough that Allen wisecracked about "a certain alleged violinist" who should by comparison be ashamed of himself. Benny, who either listened to the Allen show or was told about the crack, answered in kind on his own show. And the two comedians were off and running. For a decade, the two went at it back and forth, so convincingly that fans of either show could have been forgiven for believing they had become blood enemies. In fact, the two men were good friends and each other's greatest admirers. Benny and Allen often appeared on each other's show during the thick of the feud; numerous surviving episodes of both comedians' radio shows feature each other, in both acknowledged guest spots and occasional cameos.

On one Christmas program Allen thanked Benny for sending him a Christmas tree, but then added that the tree had died. "Well, what do you expect," quipped Allen, "when the tree is in Brooklyn and the sap is in Hollywood." Benny in his eventual memoir (Sunday Nights at Seven) and Allen in his Treadmill to Oblivion later revealed that each comedian's writing staff often met together to plot future takes on the mock feud. If Allen zapped Benny with a satirisation of Benny's show ("The Pinch Penny Program"), Benny shot back with a parody of Allen's early favourite, Town Hall Tonight. Benny's parody? "Clown Hall Tonight." And their playful sniping ("Benny was born ignorant, and he's been losing ground ever since") was also advanced in the films Love Thy Neighbor and It's in the Bag!.

Perhaps the climax of the feud came during Fred Allen's parody of popular quiz-and-prize show Queen for a Day, which was barely a year old when Allen decided to have a crack at it on The Fred Allen Show—an episode that has survived for today's listeners to appreciate. Calling the sketch "King for a Day", Allen played the host and Benny a contestant who sneaked onto the show using the alias Myron Proudfoot. Benny answered the prize-winning question correctly and Allen crowned him "king" and showered him with a passel of almost meaningless prizes. Allen proudly announced, "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," to which Benny joyously declared, "I'm king for a day!"

At this point a professional pressing-iron was wheeled on stage, to press Benny's suit properly. It didn't matter that Benny was still in the suit. Allen instructed his aides to remove Benny's suit, one item at a time, ending with his trousers, each garment's removal provoking louder laughter from the studio audience. As his trousers began to come off, Benny howled, "Allen, you haven't seen the end of me!" At once Allen shot back, "It won't be long now!" Benny was profoundly shaken by Allen's sudden death from a heart attack in 1956. In a statement released on the day after Allen's death, Benny said, "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."

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