Sunday, 27 January 2013

No Shock Comedy

The Jack Benny show tried something novel on its season-opening broadcast of 1949-50. It had the Benny cast and incidental players talk about him for the first 22 minutes before Benny himself appeared on the show. The writers built up the gag so Jack’s appearance came as an unexpected, but inevitable, surprise.

Not everyone liked it. The novel show was panned by a columnist for the New York World-Telegram for not being “surprising.”

Frankly, she didn’t know her typewriter ribbon from a hole in the ground.

Harriet Van Horn doesn’t seem to have understood either audiences in general or the Benny show in particular. She appears to have been another culture vulture who detested much of radio and television, but was quite willing to accept a good salary covering them.

You can read her column below. It’s from the December 4, 1949 edition of the Pittsburgh Press, which would have been responsible for the sub-headline about a “girl columnist,” which strikes me as superfluous and an unnecessary put-down based on gender.

Jack Benny Slapped Down For Late Start on Radio
Comic Is Given Verbal Spanking By Irate Girl Columnist

It’s traditional in the theater that the star make his (or her) entrance only after the proper atmosphere of expectancy has been created.
A tingling hush, and almost tangible tension—and on sweeps the great one! It’s a fine moment in the theater, in its way every bit as exciting as that glorious split second just before the curtain rises.
In radio, fine old traditions have been mightily abused. One night Jack Benny, returning for what must be the 100th year in radio, postponed his entrance until seven minutes before the end of the show. By then it didn’t matter a thought that prompts the irreverent sequitur: would it matter if he hadn’t come on at all?
No, I don’t think it would have. After all these years the Benny show runs by automatic pilot. Namely, the familiarity all listeners have with the established characters and their established responses. Pavlov’s dogs, obediently drooling when the master ran the bell, demonstrated no more faithful adherence to the principal of the conditioned response than do members of Mr. Benny’s company (Not to mention the studio audience).
There is almost no spontaneity left in the program. Its pattern, plotted on a graph, would change scarely at all, week after week, year after year. One can almost envisage the jokes being turned out a full season in advance, Willow Run style. Faithful designs by experienced hands.
But where is the “shock” element, the swift and stunning surprise that’s half of every laugh?
I find it not, except occasionally in the remarks of Dennis Day. Here is one of the funniest men in radio. Listening, nobody at my house managed more than a bored smile—until Dennis and his shrewish mother came on.
She said “This year, Dennis, I think you should insist that Mr. Benny pay you in American money.” Seems she found it inconvenient to run down to Mexico to cash his checks.
Dennis protested loyally. Had not Mr. Benny come to his rescue when he was ill and needed an operation? “Yes,” conceded his mother, “but I still think you took a chance letting Rochester take out your appendix.”
There followed numerous jokes about Dennis’ incision being held together with scotch tape. Surprisingly, each one seemed funny. Other repetitive jokes, such as the one about Mr. Benny buying everybody a dinner at the Brown Derby, gathered only moss. When he finally made his entrance—having driven to the studio on a sight-seeing bus with the most noxious, offensive conductor I’ve ever heard, on the radio or off—Benny revealed that he’d forgotten his script. Left it on the bus.
He had no cause for alarm. Mary, Dennis, Phil, Rochester and all the rest of the cast could manage without him indefinitely.

Miss Van Horn decries the lack of spontaneity on the Benny show but then praises the routine between Dennis Day and his mother (played by Verna Felton), ignoring the fact the scene isn’t spontaneous in the slightest. Each word has been, like everything on the Benny shows except the occasional ad lib, carefully checked over and weighed by Benny and his writers. There is no “shock” element any more than there is a “shock” element in a performance of The Tempest or La Scala. The audience knows what they’re going to get. That’s why they go to see the performance. Radio is no different. I doubt Miss Van Horne would compare a theatre audience watching The Importance of Being Earnest to Pavlov’s dogs for reacting predictably to scenes it is intimately familiar with. After all, it’s the uplifting THEATRE, not something common like, ugh, radio.

The challenge the Benny show met—and won—year after year after year was to have enough familiar elements that they didn’t need to be part of each broadcast, and when they appeared, to make them a bit different to surprise the audience. Benny had to have learned from someone like Joe Penner, who had three catchphrases and after burning out the audience with them, had nothing else. Of course the conductor (played by Frank Nelson) is “noxious.” That’s the idea. He’s supposed to conflict with Jack. The conflict is the comedy.

Miss Van Horn apparently never really understood the job of a radio/TV columnist. She once complained to Esquire magazine about the prospect of reviewing “I Love Lucy” or “Gunsmoke” 20 times. Didn’t she understand that isn’t the job of a columnist? One writes about a subject if they have something to say about it. They don’t write about a TV show solely because it’s a TV show. If “20 times” is another bit of her facetious exaggeration, like her crack about the Benny show being on “100 years,” it falls flat.

If anything, Benny’s writers proved the remark of her opening sentence, not disproved it. Jack made his entrance “after the proper atmosphere of expectancy has been created.” His audience was delighted with the surprise. Jack didn’t abuse “fine old traditions” at all. He reaffirmed them.


  1. This just shows how disgusting and ill-mannered journalists and columnists can be.

    The Jack Benny Program has always been a delight. To listen to and watch.

    1. Let's not go overboard. I think the opinion is specious, but hardly "Disgusting", or even unfair necessarily. There are jokes on the show that easily could have been written a year in advance. I'm sure they sat down one day and thought of all the jokes they could think of about Mary's sister Babe, and then rationed them out over a lot of shows.

  2. FWIW, Ms. Van Horne was still projecting an air talking down to her lessers in columns in the pre-Rupert Murdoch New York Post from the 1970s. But I didn't realize her disdain for broad-appeal shows went back to the radio era until now.

  3. Because the critic in question is female, this is not very apt, buy I once saw critics compared to eunuchs: They know how it's done; they see it done every day; they just can't do it themselves.