Today is the birthday of Borscht belt funnyman Jack E. Leonard (Leonard Lebitsky, 1910-1973).
I discovered JEL absolutely backwards. He came to my attention as one of the stars (playing the duel roles of “Herman” and “Irving”) of one of my favorite movies The Fat Spy (1966) which I wrote about here. Later, I realized I had encountered him twice before: he has a cameo in Jerry Lewis’s The Disorderly Orderly (1964) as “Fatty Jackie”, and he is one of the voice-over actors in the 1974 animated television special Journey Back to Oz (posthumously released).
Why I say it was backwards: Most people a bit older than me know him from television — he was constantly on variety and game shows in the 1950s and 60s, which was before my time! But now you can watch him on Youtube, and watch him you must, for he was a dynamo. The rotund comedian in the funny hat and two-small suit made jokes about his weight and his bald head, but mostly he made them about the audience, who he referred to as his “opponents”. He is considered by many to have been an influence on Don Rickles, although I find Leonard much funnier.
Leonard had gotten his start in the twilight days of vaudeville (one of his partners was Buddy Howe), but truly came up in Catskills resorts and nightclubs, which eventually led to tv work.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including comedians like Jack E. Leonard, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
Dick Cavett told a story about how Jack Paar was going to “freeze out” Jack E. one night on his show, over some imagined slight. So
Jack E. comes out, and uses all his best material, getting no reaction of any kind from Paar. By this time, Jack E. is sweating bullets, and out of nowhere, he told Paar, “You know, my wife is a gymnast.” Paar waited for a second and replied, “She’d have to be.”
I seem to remember him too from Ed Sullivan.