Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

When Great Comedy Was Sponsored by Big Tobacco

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

When Great Comedy Was Sponsored by Big Tobacco

Article excerpt


Stickup man to Jack Benny: "Your money or your life!"

Jack hesitates, so the robber repeats, "Your money or your life!"

The cheapskate comedian finally replies, "I'm thinking it over!"

A lot of younger folks probably don't know that famous punch line from radio comedy in the late 1940s, but it was a classic.

It and many others from the late '40s and early '50s have made my wife and me big fans of comedians from radio (and later TV), such as Benny and Bob Hope (who spent decades entertaining U.S. troops) and the hilarious duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, best known for their fast-talking routine "Who's on First?" (If you don't know it, you must Google it.)

Because we are such fans of those funny men, it hurts to say this: I am profoundly saddened and disappointed that so many comics and entertainers of that era relied on cigarette companies to sponsor their radio programs (and fill their pockets).


Over the years Beth and I have collected dozens of CDs and audiotapes of the old radio comedies, as well as crime/mystery shows.

Camel cigarettes sponsored Abbott and Costello; Benny touted Lucky Strike tobacco; Hope pushed Chesterfields. Another cigarette maker, Marlboro, used a sexy 1950s singer named Julie London to coo its praises on radio.

Perhaps the strangest ads were for a radio program called "Tales of Fatima," sponsored by long-forgotten Fatima cigarettes. It starred Basil Rathbone, best known for playing Sherlock Holmes in the movies in the 1940s.

The entertainers, of course, never even hinted that cigarettes could cause cancer or other serious health problems, such as the emphysema that killed my father in 1965 at the age of 45.

The power that tobacco companies have wielded over American society for the past 100 years is hard to overstate, and of course continues today. Look at the movies from the 1930s to the '60s (and beyond) and watch nearly every major character light up. That subtle act was no accident.

Look at "Mad Men," the present-day cable TV series that correctly portrays the power of cigarette advertisers in the early 1960s. The health danger of tobacco was just beginning to be known back then (in my teenage years). Tobacco companies did their best to cover it up and concentrate on "the mildness and pleasure" that smoking a cigarette supposedly brought.

No question, they succeeded in brainwashing millions of people. Teens everywhere continue to light up, apparently thinking it makes them look tough or adult; they never think about getting sick 10 or 20 or 30 years from now.


The Abbott and Costello program opened with upbeat music and an inane jingle about what the name "Camel" supposedly stood for. An announcer says, "It's C for comedy, A for Abbott, M for Marilyn Maxwell (a singer on the program), E for (bandleader Skinny) Ennis and L for Lou Costello. …

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