Sunday, 5 October 2014

Ed Sullivan Got It Wrong

It’s pure bunk that Jack Benny’s first appearance on radio was with Ed Sullivan in 1932, something the comedian claimed for years. But the earlier broadcasts we’ve been able to discover were on obscure shows, so perhaps they didn’t matter. After all, Benny landed his own show soon after he dropped in on Sullivan, not the previous shows.

For those who don’t know, before Sullivan was a stiff TV variety host, he was one of a number of newspaper columnists who did a show biz show on the radio.

Here’s a Sullivan column from October 27, 1947, long after Benny was established on radio (and before Sullivan’s huge success on TV). Sullivan shows that you do have a second chance to make a first impression.

Ed Sullivan On
Today in New York
First time I ever saw Jack Benny at the Palace Theater, on Broadway, his poised nonchalance rubbed the wrong way. Here, I resolved, was the most conceited performer ever to play the fabled theater. Backstage, after the show. I confided this opinion to Abe Lyman, forgetting that the hollering Mister Lyman is hardly the type in whom to confide.
“Jack ain't conceited,” roared Lyman. “That's a bum rap, Eddie.” . . . The stentorian tone of Lyman bounced all over the backstage area. The acrobats came to the door, the elevator man looked in. . . . Benny didn't come in, fortunately.
The years were to prove Lyman was right, because Jack Benny and this reporter became the dearest of friends. Tuning in Sunday nights to his program is one of the most pleasant features of the week.
In 1932, Jack Benny made his first radio appearance on my program, just as Jimmy Durante, George M. Cohan, Jack Pearl, Jack Haley, Florenz Ziegfeld made their debuts on that airer.
Even then, Benny kidded himself, as he does now. “Hello, folks,” he said in 1932. “'This is Jack Benny. There will be a short pause for everyone to say ‘Who cares?’” Then he did a routine about his Hollywood picture and I remember this much of it: “It's a mystery picture. I'm found dead in the bathroom—and it’s not Saturday night.”
He never relaxed that attitude. Others could be cocksure, aggressive, fast talkers, but Jack Benny insisted on his writers creating situations in which he emerged as stingy, not overly brave, a middle-aged guy trying to be young.
To underscore these characteristics, he is surrounded by sharp, cynical Mary Livingstone, likeable braggart Phil Harris, naïve Dennis Day, quick-witted Rochester, bland Don Wilson, likeable little Artie Auerbach, with the pickle in the middle and the mustard up on top.
Benny is known in the profession as “the greatest audience” in show business. George Burns. Fred Allen and Larry Adler are his favorite comics, but he loves them all, and Jack Waldron is high on his list. . . . Their ability to get off rapid-fire ad libs convulses Benny, and he'd rather be with them or spend an evening with witty Bill Goetz than pretty nearly anything else.

1 comment:

  1. Jack's earliest sound performances showcasing his MC bits do give you a slight hint of why Sullivan would have found him to be " most conceited performer ever to play the fabled (Palace) theater". His hosting efforts show a very confident style, but the supporting characters and other parts of Jack's stage personality that would burst any ego bubbles for comedy effect weren't in place yet (and even before the characters, Benny's self-depreciating line on his original Sullivan show appearance shows whatever cockiness problem Ed saw with his personality on the Palace Theater stage already had been addressed by 1932)