One of the leading entertainers of the 20th Century, Jack Benny’s comic timing remains legendary. Be it his signature pregnant pause or his exasperated “WELL!” audiences adored the most famous cheapskate in town. His radio and television family: Eddie Anderson aka Rochester, Mel Blanc, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, and his real life wife Mary Livingston, formed one of the most beloved ensembles of the sitcom format. They were his foils to laughter and his deadpan expressions spoke volumes. Forever 39, Benny hit just the right notes in comedy-his attempts at violin playing notwithstanding.
In a career that spanned vaudeville, radio, television and film, George Burns’ run was a long and fruitful one. Teamed with his wife Gracie Allen he enjoyed enormous success on stage and in the new medium of television. After Gracie’s death Burns continued to work and enjoyed a second career as a movie star, winning an Academy Award at the age of 80 for his betrayal of a faded vaudevillian in Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys.” He followed up his film career playing THE God in films “Oh God” and two sequels. He died at the age of 100 as popular as ever.
Before Ed Sullivan became a household name with his long-running variety show he was a gossip columnist, taking over for Walter Winchell, showcasing Broadway and entertainment news. His “Toast of the Town” television show (later renamed “The Ed Sullivan Show”) premiered in 1948 and had a successful run until 1971. The stone-faced Sullivan introduced some of the most popular names in show business history to his Sunday night audiences, from Elvis Presley to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He also gave up-and-coming comedians a big boost before late-night talk shows took over that mantle. An Abbot of the Friars Club, Sullivan’s stodgy demeanor gave comedians valuable fodder for roasting.
Known to a generation of viewers as “Uncle Miltie” or “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle was the undisputed king of TV during its golden age. His popular variety show, NBC’s “Texaco Star Theater” helped to sell more TV sets in the early days of the medium than any other individual. During his tenure as head of the Friars Club he was the master of the Roasts. Nobody was safe from his skewering–or his legendary wit.
Irish-American singer and radio and television personality Dennis Day found his niche as a regular on Jack Benny’s radio show. He began as a 19-year-old naive boy singer and remained associated with Benny’s radio and televisions shows until 1974. He had his own television program “The Dennis Day Show” telecast from 1952 to 1954 and made numerous appearances as a singer, actor and voice-overs for animations.
The king of late-night television, Johnny Carson dominated evening talk shows for thirty years as millions tuned in to “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Each night he held audiences spellbound and helped them keep up with the hottest movers and shakers in showbiz. Carson’s trusty sidekick Ed McMahon bellowed “Heere’s Johnny” for the last time on his farewell show on May 22, 1992. More viewers than ever watched the man who brought to life such characters as Art Fern and Carnac the Magnificent say good night one last time. The ultimate gentleman when it comes to Friars roasts, Johnny Carson let his quick wit and sophisticated sense of humor guide his clean, yet hilarious, roasting.
Legendary standup comedian Alan King was one of the new wave of comics who found humor in his personal family life and every day experiences. His often angry but humorous rants earned him a special place in audiences’ hearts as he mirrored their own personal struggles. As a serious actor King appeared in such films as “Casino,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” and “Memories of Me,” among others. He became the Abbot of the Friars Club after Frank Sinatra’s reign of 20 years.