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Obituaries : Wrote for Benny, Hope, Lucille Ball : Milt Josefsberg; 'Maven of Comedy'

December 16, 1987|PAUL FELDMAN | Times Staff Writer

Comedy-writing wizard Milt Josefsberg, who created many of the most memorable lines uttered by Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, died Monday at St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank, where he had been hospitalized after suffering a stroke in October. He was 76.

"He was the maven of comedy," recalled Mel Shavelson, three-time president of the Writers Guild of America who began his career writing with Josefsberg, "before there even was a Bob Hope."

"All I know and all I'll ever know about comedy I learned from Milt," Shavelson said Tuesday.

Hope himself remembered Josefsberg as "not only a fine writer but a happy personality."

"You meet writers some of whom are moody, but he had a good personality," the comedian said in a telephone interview. "When I think of him I feel good, you know, because he brought that kind of a personality on the scene."

Josefsberg and a colleague are credited with developing Jack Benny's most memorable gag, in which the miserly comedian was accosted by a crook who demanded: "Your money or your life."

Side-Splitting Pause

As Benny hesitated for almost two minutes, the crescendo of laughter in the studio audience built. Finally, the crook repeated his line and Benny replied, "I'm thinking it over."

Josefsberg won an Emmy in 1978 for best comedy series for his work as a producer on the television show "All in the Family." The tall, bespectacled Brooklyn native was also nominated for Emmys for comedy writing on "The Jack Benny Show" in 1955 and a program for Lucille Ball in 1968.

Until he fell ill in October,Josefsberg, an Encino resident, was still working. He wrote a primer on comedy writing that was published in September and he served as executive script consultant for the weekly television comedy series "You Can't Take it With You."

"He was probably the dean of American comedy writers in broadcasting," said Hal Kanter, producer of the series. "He probably had the best track record of any comedy writer I know of. He was essentially a rather shy person but there probably wasn't a joke ever told he hadn't heard or couldn't remember. He was literally an encyclopedia of comedy."

In the foreword to Josefsberg's book, "Comedy Writing for Television and Hollywood," "All in the Family" producer Norman Lear said:

"I cannot imagine anyone more qualified to write a book on comedy writing than Milt Josefsberg. . . . He has written every type of comedy known to man--from Bob Hope's one-liner monologues and sketches to side-splitting Lucy slapstick to some of the most serious and controversial "All in the Family" episodes ever aired."

Josefsberg began his career in the early 1930s, earning a dollar for sending a "My Most Embarrassing Moment" item--which he had made up--to the New York Daily News. To earn further attention, Josefsberg began contributing jokes and gags--without pay--for Walter Winchell's gossip column.

Eventually, Josefsberg became a Broadway press agent and hired Shavelson as his assistant for $13 a week.

"He told me to write items and he went to the beach," Shavelson recalled Tuesday. "I wrote 20 pages of jokes and he came back with a tan. But when I gave him the jokes, he raised my salary to $15. That was the greatest honor of my life."

The pair were hired as gag writers for Bob Hope in 1938, with whom they later moved to Los Angeles.

Josefsberg wrote for seven years for Hope, 12 years for Benny and eight years for Ball, creating the format for her "Here's Lucy" series.

'Very, Very Bright'

Ball's husband, producer Gary Morton, recalled Tuesday that Josefsberg was "a close friend and one of the best comedy writers around for many years. . . . In his whole life he had an approach of humor, which was great. And he was very, very bright."

Josefsberg also worked on "The Joey Bishop Show" and on the "Happy Days" and "LaVerne and Shirley" TV comedies.

Friends remembered Josefsberg as a mentor to young comedy writers, but there was one thing that annoyed him about them:

"It would always amaze him that they didn't know the old jokes. . . . He kept saying, 'You can't do that, Fred Allen did that back in 1934,' " Shavelson said.

In his recent book, Josefsberg reflected on the rewards of his profession.

"When I'm writing comedy, I'm only 25," he said. "Comedy has not only been my little gold mine, it's also my fountain of youth. Yes, writing it pays well, and making people laugh makes you feel young."

Josefsberg is survived by his wife, Hilda; two sons, Alan Roy and Steven Kent, and two grandchildren. Services will be at 2 p.m. today at the Courts of Tanach Chapel at Mount Sinai Memorial Park.

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