In 1998’s hit “When Harry Met Sally,” Harry — played by Billy Crystal — asks about the lyrics to the New Year’s tune “Auld Lang Syne.” He wonders if the song was about remembering the old friends we’ve forgotten, which is impossible because, after all, we can’t remember the things we’ve forgotten. Jack E. Leonard is one of those who should be remembered for a style of comedy that has become a classic — the roast. Leonard appeared beside all his generation’s greats, including Frank Sinatra, Jack Paar, Jerry Lewis, and Ed Sullivan. Jack Benny once quipped he could tell a great new talent because he’d laugh so hard he dropped his pencil. (Benny had a reputation for stealing jokes.) Some would argue that the legend Don Rickles imitated Leonard’s act to great success.
Jack E. Leonard was known for opening his shows with the line “Good evening, opponents.” His style was quick and cutting and everyone understood that to be near him meant that you’d be in his crosshairs with a crack customised to make you laugh at yourself with the rest of the audience. But what happened to Leonard? Why doesn’t his name fall from our lips like so many of his contemporaries? After all, this is a man who accused Liberace of being “no Zsa Zsa Gabor, yourself!”
In order to understand a bit of why he’s faded from memory, it’s important to find what was memorable about him in the first place. When he appeared on “What’s My Line?” as a guest in 1962, the panel was stunned by the ovation he received. Even before signing in, the audience recognized him easily. He had also been a panelist on the show. In fact, the panel he faced needed only five questions before guessing who he was. He was very well-known in his time.
Phyllis Diller, who starred alongside Leonard in “The Fat Spy,” was well known for decades after working with him. Her style of humor seemed to be to turn the classic roast inward, putting herself in her own crosshairs of wit. She claimed that on her honeymoon, she wore a peek-a-boo blouse. Her husband peeked, and then he booed.
Leonard’s style has also outlived his memory. Steve Martin and Martin Short have taken the roast on the road. Martin Short claims that it’s nice to be on the road with an organ donor, because it makes him feel safe. Short also remembers first entering Martin’s house and asking where he got all the money, because Short had “seen his show.”
Leonard may have been so closely tied to his time that when the stars of the golden age of television faded, so did his gags. Leonard’s humor needed a target, and if the audience didn’t know or see the target any more, then his jokes also faded. Unlike Phyllis Diller, Leonard passed away suddenly at only 63 years old in 1973.
While his name may have been forgotten, Jack E. Leonard’s humor and style live on.
Watch The Fat Spy on MovieZoot.com.