Sunday, 6 October 2013

George Burns' Eulogy to Jack Benny

There may not have been closer friends in show business than Jack Benny and George Burns.

They hung out together when they were both rising vaudeville stars in the early ‘20s. They both made the jump to radio, then to Hollywood. They golfed together, they pulled practical jokes on each other. And when Jack Benny’s funeral took place on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late December 1974, Burns got three sentences into his eulogy, started crying and couldn’t finish.

Well, in a way, he finished the following day. Here’s a column from the National Enterprise Association. It appeared in newspapers January 17, 1975.

George Burns Remembers The Late Jack Benny....
BY DICK KLEINER

HOLLYWOOD—(NEA)—It was the day after they buried Jack Benny.
George Burns, his friend of more than a half-century, had broken down when he tried to deliver a eulogy at the funeral services.
But now he felt like talking. It wasn't easy, still. Tears came softly to his eyes and his naturally creaky voice broke from time to time. But still there seemed to be almost a compulsion to speak of his—and our—great friend.
Burns had gone to his office that morning as usual. He seemed to feel a need to resume his ordinary routine. The office was cold. Burns sat in his overcoat, clutching it around him and shivering. He lit up an enormous cigar.
At first, we talked of other things. He has a new record album out, a two-record set selling for $25 that he hopes will become a collector's item. It was recorded when he made a one-man concert appearance at the Shubert Theater here.
But the subject both of us wanted to discuss—Jack Benny—was always there. When the talked veered around to the current state of comedy, Burns plunged in.
"Good, honest jokes live forever," he said, exhaling a fogbank of blue smoke. Look at Jack Benny. Nobody knew how great he was until he passed away. I knew him for 55 years but even I didn't know how great he was until he was gone." He wiped a tear away from his eye.
"There was something magic about Jack. Everything he created—the old Maxwell car, the 'stingy' jokes, 'Jell-o Again,'—all that lived for all of us as though it were real.
"The pauses. The look. The nerve he had when he used to go next door to the Colmans to borrow a cup of sugar.
"Even if he told a bad joke, he made it work for him. I remember one show when he told a bad joke and he said it couldn't be a bad joke because a great writer, Norman Krasna, had written it. So he told it again. And the next week he repeated the whole thing and, within a few weeks, he had a whole thing going about that bad joke.
"As Bob Hope said at the funeral, when Jack Benny got on the stage, he owned it—and he did."
Another pause. Another tear. Another big drag on the cigar, perhaps for reasons of security.
"When I met him, he was already a great monologist. His opening joke was this. He'd come out holding his violin and he'd just stand there. A long pause. Already he was a master of the long pause. Then he'd say to the orchestra leader, 'How is the show up to now?' And the orchestra leader would say, 'Fine.' 'Well,' Jack would say, 'I'll stop that.' "
Another puff.
"He was a gentle man. And his humor was as gentle as he was.
"He used to use his violin the way I use this cigar—as a prop, as a kind of comedian's security blanket. But he tried to get rid of it. He wanted to be able to stand up on the stage without it. I remember the first time he tried to go on without it. It was in Schenectady, New York. He told two jokes. Nobody laughed. So he quick borrowed a violin from the orchestra and he was all right after that.
"He never said a mean thing. Jack's idea of being mean was this. Once we saw a certain comic work. I asked him what he thought of the comic. Jack said, 'Well, he's great but I just can't laugh at him.'
"Without Jack Benny, the show will go on, but there will be a big hole in it. It just won't be as good. There's one good thing, though—Jack Benny will stay alive as long as any of us live."
That was the eulogy George Burns was too choked up to deliver at the funeral. It all spilled out of him, as though he had to say it.
Burns himself—he'll be 79 this month—is in good health. He takes pretty good care of himself.
He doesn't work very hard any more.
He says he will never retire but he's taking it easier. He still does some TV guest shots and speaks at a lot of dinners and he's in his office every day.
But his working day, ordinarily, is brief—from 10:30 a.m. until noon. Then he goes over to the Hillcrest Country Club, has lunch and plays bridge for a couple of hours every afternoon.
"Then I go home and have a nap," he says.
Even at such a tragic time, the Burns humor cannot help but sneak out. We were talking about young comedians.
"What do you mean by 'young?' To me at my age, Don Rickles is a kid, Milton Berle is a juvenile and Shecky Greene is just getting started." He says he does some talk shows, now and then, and he likes doing them "because they're easy to do—I can do them sitting down."
But the flashes of humor were fewer than usual, understandably. The death of Jack Benny was too close, too real.
"Everybody I know," says George Burns, "is dead."

1 comment:

  1. I'm 59 and in my youth I watched the comedians named in this article. They were masters of their craft. Today's crop of comedians are a sneering, nasty, aggressively hateful bunch. I hope someday comedy comes back around to the style of Benny & Burns and their peers.

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