Sunday, 8 July 2012

Jack Benny and Gracie Allen

It goes without saying that timing is almost everything in comedy. The gag has to hit just right or it can fall flat and die right there on the stage—along with the comedian.

For years, Jack Benny’s timing was lauded by everyone in the comedy business, both of radio and then on television. Jack was helped by a live audience. He fed off the response of the people. You can hear on some of the later filmed TV shows that the canned laughter just doesn’t fit.

But who did Jack admire when it came to timing? The answer shouldn’t be a surprise.

George Burns and Gracie Allen were Jack’s closest friends. George could make Jack gasp for air with laughter and didn’t even need to say anything funny. Gracie’s delivery in front of an audience won Jack’s admiration.

Here’s an Associated Press story from August 20, 1963. He might have loved Gracie, but he wasn’t happy with the below-Paley echelon in CBS executive suite.

Old Pro Benny Says Gracie’s Timing Best
AP television-Radio Writer
HOLLYWOOD (AP) — Jack Benny, the acknowledged master of timing, insists that the performer without peer in this subtle art is Gracie Allen.
Timing is the ability to do the right thing at the right moment, the quality that tells Benny, for example, exactly how long to pause before turning an exasperated face to the audience and exclaiming, “Well!”
Tough Job
Gracie Allen has retired but those old Burns and Allen television shows are still around and Benny is their ardent fan.
“Nobody has Gracie’s timing,” Benny said, “and when I see those shows today I’m constantly more amazed by it. Remember, she had one of the toughest jobs in the world, doing non-sequitur lines. They came right out of the blue, and there was nothing in the feed lines that could cue her responses. They just didn’t make sense. It was a terrible job to handle them. But she’d Ooh and Ah around and come up with them exactly right.”
Loses Good Time
Jack is deep in plans for his 14th season in network television, dismayed but not downhearted because of a CBS decision to separate him from “The Red Skelton Show,” which has preceded him in recent years. This year, “Petticoat Junction,” a new comedy series, will be slipped between the established Tuesday night shows.
“I don’t understand it,” Benny complained. “It was a good setup and we helped each other. But all they seem to care about today is insuring the success of new shows. Now I’m opposite the last part of two hour-long shows and in back of an untried one.”
Never Boring
Isn’t he tired of playing the same vain, miserly character?
“Oh, it never gets boring,” he protested. “The character is a composite of faults you’ll find in everybody—or at least in everybody’s family.
“And besides,” he added, “there's no limit to the cheap jokes. And we can do stingy jokes without “even gag lines, because the character has been established for so long.”

Jack lasted at CBS one more season; whether it was his decision to leave or network president Jim Aubrey’s depends on the source. He was back at NBC for one more season starting in fall 1964. Before returning, he and George mourned the death of Gracie Allen. Jack broke down twice during his eulogy. The Queen of Timing passed away August 27th that year.

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