Sunday, 22 April 2012

Writing the Jack Benny Show

There were occasions on the old network comedy/variety shows that the script would get tossed away for a while amidst a flurry of ad-libs but, generally, each week’s shown was carefully honed, even to the point of violent disagreement among the honers.

Comedians hiring gag-writers wasn’t anything new. It was common in vaudeville. Writers didn’t care if they got credit. They wanted the money. Besides, whoever heard of stopping a vaudeville show to read credits? Thus gag-writers were hired when vaudeville’s comedians moved into radio in the early ‘30s. The writers weren’t always anonymous; Jack Benny credited his even in the mid-‘30s. But the anonymity chafed. Radio brought huge national fame to comedians, the kind vaudeville rarely did. It brought big exposure, big salaries and big motion picture contracts. Benny’s writer wanted that kind of action for himself, so he rebelled. You can read more about it HERE.

That seems to have prompted this weekend feature story syndicated by King Features on September 24, 1939. Oddly, Edward Misurell goes on and on about “ghost” writers, yet spends half the story outlining how Jack Benny co-wrote his own weekly show. Benny, the story doesn’t tell you, was one of the best editors in the radio comedy business and while the writers may have come up with ideas and dialogue, Benny stood over the whole process to make sure it worked.

Why the Joke-Writer’s Suit Against Jack Benny Is No Joke to the Radio Comedians
By Edwin Misurell
RADIO’S top-flight comedians are looking over their shoulders these days with apprehension. They’re being haunted by “ghosts” and they don’t like it a bit. Yet, paradoxically, the nation’s funny men can’t get along without them for even a single program nor can they get along with them on the whole for more than one radio season.
The “ghosts” are the writers who pound out the mirth-provoking scripts for the big-time comics you hear over the national networks; they're the idea men behind the entertaining continuities “brought to you each week through the courtesy” of so-and-so coffee, tea, shaving cream, face powder, etc.
The comedians are more than annoyed over the way the “ghosts” have been “coming to life” lately. Prompting their uneasiness is the $65,500 breach of contract suit filed by writer Harry Conn against Jack Benny.
Conn charges that Benny has continued to use the characters and dramatic situations devised by him in 1935 when he put fun in Benny’s funny business. He further claims that they were to be used for only 39 weeks; the length of term of his contract. He added that he was to be paid 6% of the comic’s earnings during the time the material was used. He makes the latter the basis of his claim.
Benny holds the Conn charges amount to overcharges, and his friends point to the fact that Benny achieved top-ranking in radio polls after Conn had ceased writing material for the Benny Sunday evening broadcasts. (The Benny “ghosts” now are Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin.)
Nevertheless the suit serves to bring public notice to the little known and virtually unsung crew of men who actually develop the situations and think up or refurbish the jokes with which comedians tickle the risibilities of the nation’s broadcast listeners, and suggests that if other radio “ghosts” decide to follow in Conn’s legal footsteps, the courts would be busy for years to come. For the only well known comic who writes his own scripts and gags is Fred Allen, and the list of “ghosts” who help to keep other comedians high in Crosley rating is long. Among the most important, besides Morrow and Beloin, are:
Hal Raynor—Joe Penner.
John P. Medbury, Bill Burns, Harvey Helm—Burns and Allen.
Ed Gardner — Ken Murray and Ned Sparks program.
Gill and Demling—Joe E. Brown program.
Don Quinn—“Fibber McGee.”
Phil Rapp, Maury Amsterdam and Sam Moore — Good News program. (Irving Hoffman has also written Baby Snooks sayings for Fannie Brice.)
Carroll Carroll — Bing Crosby-Bob Burns program.
Paul Rhymer—Vic and Sade.
Monroe Upton—Al Pearce and Gang program.
Edna Stillwell—Avalon Time.
Dick Mack and Ed Rice—Charlie McCarthy program.
Milt Josephberg, Mel Shavelson, Al Schwartz, Carl Manning, Bob Philips, and Jack Huston—Bob Hope-Jerry Colonna program.
Surprisingly enough, radio “ghosts” are the poorest paid workers in the entertainment field. Usually they receive an average of 1 or 1½% of the entire cost of the program. Writers in show business receive about 6% of the money spent in putting on a play or a musical, while book authors earn about 15% of the profits taken in by the publisher of his work.
Then, too, the airwave script fashioners are always the “nearest to the door” of all the persons who put together radio shows. The moment a program begins to lose its popularity, the “ghosts” are the first persons to be fired. Generally the comedians feel: “I’m an established star—it must be the material that is bad.” Since most comics hire their own writers, they can hand out “pink slips” with a minimum of ease.
When a writer is signed to do scripts for a popular comic he usually finds that he’s tied himself up “body, soul and brain” until the contract expires. He must be on call at all time for any rewriting, patching, or complete changing of a contemplated program.
Typical of the amount of work they must do before they receive the weekly pay-check is the routine followed by Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin in readying the scripts for the Benny program.
As soon as one show is over, and the studio has been cleared of autograph seekers and others, Benny, Beloin and Morrow go into a huddle on the studio stage. Each of the trio suggests his ideas for the show to be broadcast the following week. Some times the ideas flow fast and on other occasions they come hard. Often they battle back and forth for a good while before they decide which ideas are worth developing into a script.
The following day, Monday, Beloin and Morrow work out the gaga and situations they spoke about the night before. They spend a full day on this job. On Tuesday they have a rough draft ready which they take to Benny.
The comedian and his “ghosts” then spend Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday working over this original draft. They polish it, change it, cut it, or build it up into a working rehearsal script. There is no set period on how long they work. They may spend eight hours a day on the job or even as long as 18 hours in actual labor. It all depends on whether or not their minds are clicking right.
On Friday the trio rest as best they can. In all probability, they constantly think up means of improving the work they've already spent so much time on up to that point.
When Saturday comes the entire cast is brought together. It may be in Benny’s home or the studio. He then reads the script to them. Any comments that Andy Devine, Phil Harris, Mary Livingstone, Kenny Baker, Don Wilson, or “Rochester” have to make on their own lines are noted. Occasionally, with these comments in mind, revisions are made. Phil Harris, the orchestra conductor, may feel that he can’t say a certain line right that Beloin and Morrow have written for him. He might have an idea that improves the line. The whole cast may feel that some of their lines ought to be changed. Benny and the writers have the final word in the matter.
Then the group goes over the script once again. This time, however, every member of the cast reads the lines written expressly for them. Usually there are further changes after this reading. They read it time and again until they feel the script is perfect.
After the rehearsal, the cast is dismissed, but Benny, Beloin, Morrow, and the producer for the advertising agency that handles the show, confer on changes. They may talk and make changes in the script for hours and have little sleep before final rehearsals start at 10 a. m. Sunday morning, to continue until the program goes on the air. For their labor Benny pays the writers each $500 a week out of the $10,000 a week he gets from his sponsor.
Conn became Benny’s principal gag-writer in 1932 and stayed in his employ for about four and a half years, which is an unusually long period for such associations to last.
It was during this time, Conn claims, that he devised the characters and situations
he says Benny is still using over the air. In his deposition the writer states that he has been paid nothing for the use of this material since 1936, while the comedian has earned $1,170,000 from radio work and $140,000 from motion pictures.
Benny is not the first comedian to get into legal difficulties with “ghosts.” As a result of similar legal difficulties between Eddie Cantor and his “ghost,” the late David Freedman, it is said that Cantor is unable to sell his autobiography, My Life Is in Your Hands, on which Freedman collaborated, for a proposed movie production.
Freedman brought suit against Cantor for $250,000, declaring he and the comedian had made an oral agreement in 1931 whereby Cantor was to pay him 10 per cent of his earnings. He stated that at the time the agreement was made Cantor was earning $2,000 a week, which amount subsequently rose to $10,000 a week, and that his gags were responsible for the rise in the comedian’s salary.
Cantor denied there was such an agreement, oral or otherwise, and declared he had paid Freedman well, sometimes more than 10 per cent, during their association. A mistrial was declared in the suit when Freedman died one day after the trial began.
In spite of such “hauntings,” however, the comedians continue to employ ghost-writers. They just can’t get along without them.

Jack Benny carried on quite well without Harry Conn’s inventions—dumping both the ditzy version of Mary Livingstone and angry version of Phil Harris, and adding Rochester and a pile of funny, continuing ancillary characters that Benny fans love today. With the help of his new writers, of course.

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