How Jack Benny’s Gagmen Lost Their Typewriter

As I realized anew last night, watching John Ford’s splendid Technicolor epic Drums Along the Mohawk, you don’t need historical footnotes or extensive background information to appreciate old-fashioned melodrama, even if such fictions claim to be based on verifiable facts. As an informed viewer, you’d probably be distracted and irked by careless inaccuracies or willful distortions, interacting with the film intellectually, rather than permitting yourself to become emotionally engaged—unless, of course, you are happily equipped with a remarkable ability to suspend disbelief. Surely I would never stoop to advocating ignorance, but such alleged bliss is no hindrance to the melodramatic experience. How different is the response to humor, especially when a bit of arcane trivia is called upon to serve as the centerpiece of a punch line.

Looking for a broadcasting event to highlight in my “On This Day” feature, I came across an episode of the Jack Benny Program, presented live from New York City on 5 October 1941. Like the Burns and Allen broadcast discussed previously, it is a rather self-conscious piece of comedy in which Jack returns to the air after his summer hiatus and finds himself unable to get back into his groove. Not even the script for that night’s broadcast is finished.

As Jack discovers, his head writers—two guys who spent a night at Roseland dancing together (and winning a cup for it)—have lost their typewriter by betting on . . . Lou Nova. Lou Nova? The name pops up again later in the program, as Benny’s valet Rochester calls in after finding himself in a tight squeeze with his bookie. Turns out, Lou Nova was a celebrated prizefighter with a supposedly “cosmic punch” who lost to heavyweight Joe Lewis a few days before the broadcast—29 September 1941. He had been a sure bet until then.

Although there are a few other topical allusions in this broadcast, including references to the Brooklyn Dodgers and comedy team of Olsen and Johnson (pictured above), Benny’s jokes are generally easier to get than the satirical remarks of rival Fred Allen, whose humor was decidedly more topical. 

Explaining a joke is rarely amusing—but rescuing otherwise useless trivia from obscurity is rewarding nonetheless. Now I won’t feel quite so ignorant if ever I come across another “cosmic punch” line.

3 Replies to “How Jack Benny’s Gagmen Lost Their Typewriter”

  1. The Lou Nova jokes would have been big at the time of course, since everyone would have known Joe Louis\’s latest \”bum of the month\” (as they were called) and realised that only a very stupid person would bet against Louis at the peak of his abilities. As I know you know, when dealing with ephemera one of the things you have to realise is that they are of their time, and in most cases there was little reason or little thought that they would be read, watched, heard or enjoyed once they had been presented. It\’s part of what makes them enjoyable and at times valuable.

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  2. Topicality is probably one of the reasons Fred Allen never made it much beyond radio. He was much, much more witty and acerbic than Benny ever was, but his satire was also very topical. Benny, on the other hand, was a funny man, a comedian with staying power because as you imply, his humour was much more broadbased.Sadly, Allen was probably the much more talented individual from the perspective of translating the topical times into humor (somewhat like Jon Stewart and his show is today), but Benny knew entertainment and how to take advantage of staying power.

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  3. Thanks for your responses. Fred Allen is my radio comedian of choice; I am looking forward to reviewing his work on this blog. And I sure don\’t mind digging up pieces of arcane trivia. The challenge is to turn them into useful information.

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