Sunday, 27 April 2014

How Billy Graham Got Laughs

The Reverend Billy Graham has been a towering figure in evangelism. In his heyday, his heavily-publicised crusades were huge events. He commanded a tremendous amount of respect. He was not the sort of individual who would likely appear on a television comedy-variety show. But he did. He appeared on the Jack Benny show.

The Benny show was the ideal choice. Benny always made his guests look good. He gave them the best lines, the big laughs. But Billy Graham was no stand-up comic. So the writers had to figure out a way to get laughs without turning Dr. Graham into a jokester. And making fun of religion was out, too.

For writer George Balzer, the solution must have seemed pretty simple. The Benny show’s humour had been based—for years—on Jack Benny being the butt of the jokes. Why should a show with the Reverend Graham be any different?

Here’s a column from the Knickerbocker News of September 11, 1963. This may be one of the few solo interviews that Balzer ever gave about writing for the Benny show.

Graham on Benny Show; Writers Pen Fun Lines

What's funny?
“Everything. Everything in the world is funny.”
That's the opinion of George Balzer, a writer for Jack Benny the last 21 years.
“A broken leg, for instance.” He was addressing a medical society meeting and the doctors didn't agree.
“It isn't funny to the man whose leg is broken,” he said. “And it isn't funny to you when you're working to set it. But just step back far enough and think a minute. How did he break his leg? Look at the ridiculous position he's in.”
He paused for a minute. Then a few doctors chuckled, closely followed by a round of guffaws.
Remarked the meeting chairman later, “You've got a point. Humor is where you're willing to look for it.”
BALZER and the others on Benny's writing quartet looked long and hard for humor when the program's guest star for the Sept. 24 Jack Benny Show (which will be seen on Chanel 10) was announced.
“Billy Graham? The evangelist? You must be kidding,” Balzer said when he answered the phone the day he returned from his summer vacation.
When work started in earnest, he learned the restriction-filled ground rules: Graham was to be a straight man, with no jokes to be directed at him.
“We decided to use factual material and in a conversation between the two we hope to get great laughs,” he said.
HOW'S that accomplished? Here's a sample from Balzer's pen:
Benny: Billy, we almost met on one occasion in 1954 when I was playing the Palladium in London.
Graham: I recall that.
Benny: I was a tremendous success. I played to 30,000 that week.
Graham: Fine.
Benny: How many did you play to?
Graham: About half a million.
Balzer, who's been with Jack Benny since 1942—a time when Jack already had turned 39 and was a confirmed tightwad—admits the four writers are “in a happy rut, and we're in no hurry to get out of it.”
His boss likes modernization of his stingy character (“after all, the Maxwell jokes are out of style in 1963”), and refinement of the violin jokes.
JACK tells the writers: “Don't say my violin playing is terrible; after all, I do have a name now.”
Says Balzer: “We still indicate it's bad.”
The four writers work both jointly and independently, with Benny as the editor of the final script, and, according to Balzer, now pretty lenient with the black pencil.
“We agree on a central idea before we leave for a weekend, then we develop it independently.
On Monday we get together and hash out our thoughts, then get the material on paper and in concrete form starting Tuesday. About Friday we have a script. We think about it carefully over the weekend, meet again Monday and frequently make changes. Then when Jack's free, we sit down with him.
“Sometimes he'll OK a script just as is, Sometimes he'll ask for changes. If we don't agree with him, we hash it out until we're agreed or arrive at a compromise. Later, at rehearsal, there may be other changes, but the script that emerges from our meetings is pretty much the final one.”
THERE was an additional hurdle for the Sept. 24 script. Graham had to approve before he'd go ahead with the show.
Jack showed him the script and he was delighted. “He didn't ask for a single change,” Balzer said.
Does he like working for the ageless Benny?
“My 21 years with him is the answer. If it weren't nice and pleasant, I'd have moved on long ago.”

Actually, the dialogue didn’t quite go the way Balzer put it. You can watch the show below. It was the season premiere. There’s a funny bit with Frank Nelson and you’ll see Benny Rubin on the left in the opening scene. The “no-insult” routine is based on a Benny radio show where critic Gilbert Seldes was the guest. It looks like Frank Remley and Dennis Day got in some ad-libs.


  1. That was a very entertaining episode as was the background info on it. I loved Jack, Don, and Dennis' Peter, Paul, and Mary bit. And I still marvel at the ways in which Jack broke with the standard formulas for how these shows were commonly done. I always find the countless ways in which his openly monologue was interrupted on the TV show to be hilarious.

    I wonder how Dr. Graham's guest spot was received within the religious community. Although nowadays it's pretty common for the religious and entertainment worlds to bleed together, in the sixties I can't help but wonder if there wasn't some skepticism and outright condemnation of Dr. Graham's appearance, at least from the more fundamentalist sectors...

    1. Pete, I've seen nothing, and I'm not surprised. Not only was Dr. Graham very respected, fundamentalist figures in those days generally stuck to talking to their flocks instead of carping and sniping. Making statements on public figures raised the possibility of an equal-time "answer" because of the Fairness Doctrine. And the downfall of Father Coughlin was likely still fresh.

    2. Good insight. Thank you! It truly was a different time...