Sunday, 10 June 2018

Jack Works For Mel

One of Mel Blanc’s many employers was Jack Benny, first on radio and then on television. But did you know there was a time when Jack Benny was employed by Mel Blanc?

In the 1960s, Blanc set up his own company, first in partnership with Johnny Burton, the former cartoon producer at Warner Bros. Blanc decided to try what Stan Freberg was doing—make funny commercials for radio, as well as provide comedy drop-ins for disc jockeys using some of the top voice talent in Hollywood (the ‘60s was the era of quick, funny recorded bits heard on music shows until consultants came along and said “Just play music”).

Blanc’s company created and produced humorous public service messages as well, and one campaign was designed to counter the massive advertising budgets of cigarette makers. People looking at history through today’s lens are shocked that cigarettes were allowed to be advertised on TV. Why, children could be watching! But back then, no one thought anything about it. Cigarette companies had advertised for years on radio and in magazines. No one knew what we know today. Then medical studies started being published concluding that cigarette smoke did more than irritate your nose and throat (though Chesterfields did it less than the others, sayeth the ads). That’s when the anti-smoking campaigns began. The biggest one was in 1964 by the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the U.S.

Mel’s company became a part of it. And to assist, he brought on board Jack Benny and Jack’s closest friend, George Burns. The irony is Blanc smoked cigarettes and Benny and Burns were both cigar lovers. Oh, and Benny had been sponsored by American Tobacco. But a gig’s a gig. And this particular PSA doesn’t involve cigarettes, but getting a check-up.

Here’s Broadcasting magazine from February 7, 1966 on what Blanc, Benny and Burns put on the radio.
Humor to be used in cancer prevention
Cancer isn't funny. Yet Mel Blanc Associates, Hollywood is trying to sell cancer prevention to the American public with a light touch.
When asked by the American Cancer Society to create a series of public-service radio spots, the commercial-production house analyzed the situation. It found that in the past few public-service promotions on radio were played, fewer still motivated audiences. MBA decided not to emphasize fear but to seek amusing situations with which most people can identify. The objective is three-pronged: to create something stations will want to play, to make the commercials compelling enough so that once played they'd also be heard and to make people buy what the message is selling.
To encourage stations to play the spots and the public to listen, MBA is using celebrities. But not in the usual way. They are not making endorsements. They will not even be identified. Instead their unique talents in selling characters and a line of dialogue are what's being used.
The commercials will feature, for example, George Burns as a doctor and Jack Benny as his patient. Another spot will have Jimmy Durante as an auto mechanic and Milton Berle as his customer.
Pairoffs of these and such other star twosomes as Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert and Mel Blanc (as Bugs Bunny) and Vince Edwards, through entertaining situations, will attempt to sell the idea of taking a cancer test along with a regular yearly checkup. Sample dialogue from the Benny-Burns confrontation goes:
Jack: Listen doctor, you've kept me waiting long enough. I want to see you right now.
George: Well don't get so excited.
Jack: You're darn right, I'm excited. I came in here last month for a simple little examination and look at this bill. I'm not going to pay it.
George: Did anyone ever tell you you're beautiful when you're angry?
Jack: Oh . . . you noticed.
George: And that "simple little examination" even included a cancer check-up.
Jack: Oh.
George: I knew you wouldn't take the time to come in here just for that alone, so I included it as part of the examination.
Jack: Well that's different. You know . . . you're right. I wouldn't have taken the time to come here' just for that. Even though I know how important it is. George: Unfortunately, that's how most people are.
Jack: But your bill. Isn't $300 a bit high?
George: The bill's for $30, not $300.
Jack: How silly of me. Of course it is. There it is in black and white. I don't know how I could have made that mistake.
George: What you ought to do is donate the difference to the American Cancer Society. It's a wonderful cause.
Jack: I will. I will.
George: Then go see an eye doctor. I think you need glasses.
Jack: I know this is going to sound silly. But you don't happen to know an eye doctor who specializes . . .
George:... in blue eyes? No.
Jack: I didn't think so.
Twelve 55-second radio spots are being produced. The on-air phase of the campaign will start April 1.
It would appear the anti-smoking campaign was successful. Blanc’s company was called upon again for a special set of PSA by the American Cancer Society. Broadcasting doesn’t reveal whether Benny was involved in this, but I pass it along only to show you how much power cigarette advertisers and their agencies had.
Antismoking spots to shock through humor

The American Cancer Society is preparing its strongest attack ever on the cigarette-smoking habit. Radio is going to carry the brunt of the attack. Television will be called on to lend additional impact (CLOSED CIRCUIT, Oct. 2).
The material used in the campaign will be strong. Indeed, it's aimed at being stronger than anything ever presented about cigarette smoking on the air before. Many stations are expected not to want to play the antismoking commercials unless forced.
The anticigarette-smoking campaign, which is a special project of the ACS and not part of that organization's annual national crusade, is being handled by Mel Blanc Associates, Hollywood-based commercial producer. MBA is charged with creative supervision and production of radio commercials for the campaign and creative supervision of the TV spots.
Shocking Humor ■ According to Richard Clorfene, creative director for MBA, the premise of the campaign is simple and singular. "We're not out to inform the public," he says. "The public is informed. We're out to scare the public, period. It will be shock through humor, but shock, shock, shock, shock. We know that's the only way you can have an effect.
The first campaign approach Mel Blanc Associates is taking—via a series of probably eight 60-second spots—will be direct lampoons of current cigarette advertising on radio and television.
"We're turning the tables on them," Mr. Clorfene explains. "We'll take their keynote and twist it against them." (One such tactic already being considered would be the following parody of the Winston slogan: "It's not how you make it long, it's how long you make it. Stop smoking cigarettes.")
Actual production of spots is about a month away. Plans call for pressings of the radio spots to be sent to American Cancer Society offices all over the country before the end of the year. From there they will be distributed to just about every radio station.
This ACS project is a paying account for MBA. The production company has handled the cancer organization's national crusade for the last two years and is doing so again next year (the first year on a voluntary basis, the last two for a fee). But MBA feels the special project is sort of a loss leader, one on which "we'll probably spend a lot more than we're getting."
Risky Business ■ And the campaign already has cost the production house dearly in other directions. Reportedly, the company "walked out" on one account that was in conflict with the anticigarette drive and broke off negotiations with a national cigarette manufacturer for the same reason.
"There's no question about it," reports Mr. Clorfene, "this is a calculated risk. If we do this lampoon on Winston, it's unlikely that William Esty is going to give us much of their business. We think it's worth it philosophically as well as economically."
As a condition of taking on this tricky and potentially risky assignment, MBA has asked for a virtual free hand in production. "We're going out on a limb and we want our staff to read exactly as we prepared it," explains Mr. Clorfene.
From that limb, MBA intends to drive home such points as cigarette advertisers spending $200 million a year to encourage people to smoke and that cigarette smoking kills and cripples. Always the objective will be to shock the public's sensibilities.
The tide turned and, finally, cigarette ads were banned from TV in the U.S. after January 1, 1971. Blanc gave up smoking in the 1980s. It was too late. He died of emphysema in 1989.


  1. I worked at a station that had one of Mel Blanc's comedic drop ins album for commercials and morning shows. The album was called " Mel Blanc's Blankety Blanks ". It was quite funny

  2. I also worked at a radio station in 1984-85 where we had some 30-second American Cancer Society spots that spoofed the Warner Bros. characters. I recall that one starred "Pudgy Pig," one had "Dummy Duck," and the third was "Highway Streaker," whom the announcer commented had never spoken on the air before. They were all specified as stars of "Loony Cartoony Films." I have no idea who did the voices, but needless to say, they weren't as funny as Mel.