Fred Allen was a United States comedian
best known for his witty, pointed radio programs of
the 1930s and 1940s, including a comic "feud" with comedian
Jack Benny. Allen was famous among his peers for his
ability to ad-lib - a skill that Benny famously paid
tribute to, responding to a mock insult with the line "You
wouldn't say that if my writers were here."
Allen was born John Florence Sullivan in Cambridge,
Massachusetts to Irish Catholic parents. He started
off his professional career as Freddy St. James, but
a mix-up at a venue turned out to be a blessing. Edgar
Allen was booked at the same place as Freddy James,
but the front office accidentally promoted the appearance
of Edgar James and Fred Allen.
Fred Allen started his career in radio the same year
as Jack Benny, 1932. Allen hit it big with the program
Town Hall Tonight in 1934, the same year Jack Benny
rose in the ranks of radio with 'The Jell-O Program'.
Their feud started in the mid-1930s and, in a testament
of the times, people believed in this feud so much
that a boxing match between the two was staged, and
it was sold out.
Benny and Allen made guest appearances
in each other shows and movies, needling each other
with lines like, "Benny was born ignorant, and
he's been losing ground ever since."
as themselves in the 1940 film "Love Thy Neighbor",
and Benny can be seen in Allen's neglected comedy film
It's In The Bag (1945), along with William Bendix,
Robert Benchley, and Jerry Colonna, among others.
Allen's humor was topical, with a more absurdist
and literate slant than other comics, which limits
its appeal to modern audiences. He fussed and moaned
about corporate America and the absurdity of the times.
Allen wrote most of his own material. He employed a
few writers but they more or less served as consultants
and sounding boards in the rough drafts.
Allen's comic stereotypes make many people today
cringe. His Allen's Alley segment, for example, contained
four stereotype characters: the Southern politician,
the New England farmer, the Jewish wife, and the ranting
Fred's female second banana was his wife, whose role
was to simply stroll on-air exclaiming: "Mister
Allen! Mis...ter Allen!" and then launch into
a routine with Fred, usually about her mother. Hoffa
remained with Allen throughout his entire radio show.
Unlike Jack Benny, who used his wife Mary Livingstone
as more or less his ego deflator, Fred used Portland's
child-like un-professional delivery to comedically
prop his ego.