Sunday, 10 February 2013

Julius Tannen is the Key to Success

The Dean Martin Roasts on TV were a direct descendant of the Friars’ Club testimonial of top stars of show business going back over 100 years. The Dean Martin affairs were edited, soundtrack-sweetened (sometimes poorly) and corny; the only joy in watching them today is to see some old-time stars in the same place. The Friars Club affairs were private and featured the kind of humour you’d expect from men in private; you couldn’t put it on the air, though it’s probably tamer than some stuff on cable TV today.

So it was the Friars put the obscene gear to Jack Benny in 1963. Broadway columnist Earl Wilson was invited and reported on it. As much as he could, anyway. It’s interesting to read the Friars toned it down during their tributes to Lucy Ball and Sophie Tucker. I’m sure both could have taught the men a few four-letter words.

For years, Jack related how he started telling jokes on stage while in a revue during his time at the Great Lake Naval Training Center. But he tells a bit of different story here and bringing up the name of someone he emulated he never talked about anywhere else that I know of. Wilson’s column was published March 29, 1963.

It Happened Last Night

NEW YORK – The Friars fried Jack Benny and had him for lunch a few noons ago—he was honor guest at a stag-party salute at the Astor where, by accident, six or eight printable lines slipped into the speeches.
“Jack doesn’t have an enemy in the world—he’s out-lived them all,” claimed Marty (Hello Dere) Allen.
“Sorry your contemporaries couldn't be here,” mused Joey Adams. “Harry Lauder, Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s father . . .”
“There’s nobody in show business hotter than Jack, except Lenny Bruce,” explained Harvey Stone.
Roastmaster Johnny Carson casually mentioned Jane Morgan, Jack’s co-star at the Ziegfeld, and from then on the talk was masculine.
Top men in show business, millionaire manufacturers and merchants, leading editors and reporters—but no clergymen!—took time out to hear the humor that was not for feminine ears.
The Friars only soften their phraseology when they roast a lady—Sophie Tucker, Martha Raye and Lucille Ball make up the exclusive group saluted thus far.
George Burns, Harry Hershfield, Al Kelly and Harry Delf, veterans all, boasted of knowing Jack for ages. But youngsters Woody Woodbury and Charlie Manns bragged they didn’t know the old miser.
“Let’s all put $5 on the dias and retire him,” proposed Marty Allen.
Occasionally a speaker forgot to mention Jack and spoke only of himself. Red Buttons digressed to speak of his California community property divorce—“that’s when your wife gets half and her lawyer gets the rest.”
Arthur Godfrey groaned that he didn't have the right sort of improper jokes. Nor did Woody Woodbury.
“You’re going to have a meteoric disappearance from show business," Carson told Woodbury.
(“I went over,” Woodbury confessed later, “like an expectant mother in a bikini. I was as out of place as a male nude model in Playboy.”)
Jack doubled up with laughter the whole luncheon. Reminiscing, he said in his response that he really started as a violinist.
He began telling jokes by imitating great monologist Jules Tannen [sic] whom he deliberately copied. He remembered that the late Jack Lait, reviewing his first Broadway appearance, said:
“Evidently he has seen Julius Tannen, but not often enough . . .”

Tannen was still alive when the roast happened, but the obscure Charlie Manns (who died in 1971) likely wasn’t the only one who had never heard of him. Tannen’s career dated back to the turn of the century and he reached the pinnacle in the ‘20s—he emceed at The Palace in New York City. But Jack Benny did what Tannen didn’t. He adapted to change in the entertainment world. While stand-up star Tannen was reduced to playing bit parts in movies after vaudeville died, Benny parlayed his emcee job on stage into a hosting gig on radio’s The Canada Dry Program. The rest was history. He may have started off as a Tannen copycat, but he became something far greater on his own.


  1. The irony of Joey Adams comment is that in New York, from about the time of Benny's death to his own 25 years later he was the constant brunt of "old" jokes, though in a far less flattering light, due to his Borscht Belt humor that seemed hopelessly dated by the late 1970s.

    (Also, just from personal opinion, the first couple of Dean Martin roasts were actually pretty good, when it wasn't a regular recurring feature and the guest list was more varied. Once Dean, his producers and NBC made it part of the normal lineup, at a time when NBC was tanking just as badly as it is today, the quality sank to the center of the Earth in nanoseconds.)

  2. RIP, Happy Birthday, Mr.Benny..1894-1974.SC

  3. My Grandfather was Julius Tannen. It means so much to read things on him, as he died when I was 2 years old.