Sunday, 4 January 2015

That Ol’ Man Benny

You may have heard a tale that top syndicated radio columnist John Crosby once asked for a copy of an extremely funny Jack Benny script and was aghast to find it contained nothing funny, just “Hmmmm,” and “Well!”

That isn’t quite the way it went and, as proof, I give to you the Crosby column in question that appeared in newspapers in early 1947. He was reviewing the broadcast of December 29, 1946. It’s yet another show where, in the second half, Jack gets jealous and petulant at someone else’s fame. The first half features a running gag about Rochester mixing up an alcoholic eggnog brew with a reputation for potency. Benny’s writers set up the gag in their usual great fashion. Nobody wants to touch the stuff, finding comic reasons not to do so. Finally we come to Phil Harris who, after a brief pause, enthusiastically demands to be led to the stuff (the gag is topped by Harris complaining about the egg mixed in with the bourbon).

Crosby doesn’t include the whole gag in his column. He seems to be in a bit of a conundrum. He isn’t all that crazy about the script, but loves the Benny show so much he can’t be moved to stamp it with the dismissive criticism he pasted on other radio shows.

The Jack Benny Mystery


NEW YORK, Jan. 6.—One of the most mysterious things in the world, at least to, me, is the strange quality of genius that separates a good comedy script from a bad one. A couple of Sundays ago, Jack Benny offered his fans a program which to my mind was as hilarious as radio can ever get. Out of curiosity I sent to the West Coast for the script to determine, if I could, just what curious essence Mr. Benny had blown into this script to make it that funny. After reading the Benny script, I’m as much at sea as ever. Even allowing for Benny’s great gift for pacing, inflection and timing, I still don’t see why the darn thing should have made me laugh like that.
In order that you may, if you like, share my bewilderment I append below an abbreviated version of the Benny script. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the broadcast version was very, very comic.
● ● ●
Rochester: Dat ol’ man River,
Dat ol’ man River,
He must know sumpin’, but don’t say nuthin’,
He Just keeps rollin’, he keeps on rollin’ Along.
Ol’ man Benny, dat ol’ man Benny,
He won’t waste nuthin’, and don’t spend nuthin’,
He just keeps rollin’, he keeps on rollin’ along.
You should see him sweat and strain,
When he spends a nickel, he’s wracked with pain,
Benny: (Off) Rochester!
Rochester: Tote dat barge, lift dat bale.
Benny: Rochester!
Rochester: Git a little drunk an’ you lan’ in jail.
Benny: Rochester, I’ve been calling you.
Rochester: Sorry, boss, I was carried away with my own voice.
Benny: Oh, fine.
Rochester: Well, I’m becoming quite a popular singer. You know they call Bing Crosby, the Groaner?
Benny: Uh huh.
Rochester: And they call Andy Russell the Swooner?
Benny: I know. And what do they call you?
Rochester: The Razor’s Edge.
Benny: You sound more like the Yearling. Now, Rochester, my cast should be here soon for rehearsal. This is the holiday season and I’d like to serve them the eggnog I told you to make this morning. You did make it, didn’t you?
Rochester: Yes, sir.
Benny: Is it good?
Rochester: Wanna smell my breath?
Benny: No, thanks, I’m on the wagon. But you know, Rochester, that’s a strange drink. I wonder why anyone would ever think of mixing eggs and bourbon.
Rochester: It’s psychological, boss.
Benny: Psychological?
Rochester: Yeah. The eggs make you think you’re getting something very healthful.
Benny: Uh huh.
Rochester: And the bourbon makes that fact unimportant.
Benny: Well, that’s logical. By the way, Rochester, how much eggnog did you make?
Rochester: About 250 gallons.
Benny: 250 gallons! For goodness sake, Rochester, I want to drink it not bathe in it.
Rochester: Well, to each his own.
Benny: All right. All right. Make some sandwiches, too.
(Door Opens)
Livingston: Hello, Jack.
Benny: Hello, Mary. Come in. You’re the first one here.
Livingston: Jack, how come you called rehearsal so early?
Benny: Well, Mary, to tell you the truth, I have a date tonight.
Livingston: With whom?
Benny: Gladys Zybisco.
Livingston: Gladys Zybisco? Oh, Jack, surely you can do better than that.
Benny: Look, Mary, Gladys is very nice. She may not be the most beautiful girl in the world but she has a nice figure.
Livingston: I know, but does she have to walk that way?
Benny: Mary, that’s not her fault. She’s near-sighted and she anticipates the curb in the middle of the block. By the way, Mary, would you like a glass of eggnog?
Livingston: Sure, Jack, I’d love it. Wait a minute! Who made the eggnog?
Benny: Rochester.
Livingston: Uh, uh.
Benny: Why, what’s the matter?
Livingston: Well, last Christmas I tasted some of Rochester’s egg nog and the next thing I knew I was at the Rose Bowl game.
Benny: Oh, you saw the game?
Livingston: Saw it nothing. I was playing left tackle for Alabama.
● ● ●
That is just a sample of the Benny dialogue. How he manages to wrest so many laughs out of such harmless stuff is his own deep secret.

If you listen to the version of the show that’s circulating on-line, it doesn’t follow the script above. In 1946, two versions of the programme were still being made, one broadcast for the east coast then a second live show for the west.

The “secret” Crosby talks about wasn’t much of a secret. Benny always said not all his shows were great but he hoped people would tune in to hear what the characters were up to. The show had been on the air long enough that even casual listeners recognised individual character traits. They were ready to laugh as soon as those foibles came through the speaker. Combine that with expert delivery. It’s something a script will never show you.

1 comment:

  1. It's often been true that what reads funny on a page doesn't translate as well to radio or film, while as Crosby lamented what can be hilarious when heard or viewed loses its impact when transcribed. Part of the fun of Benny's show was the fun the cast seemed to be having, especially with the leeway to ad-lib on the fly and bring the audience in on the show. In the scripted world of television, it was harder to get that sort of improvised comedy on the fly

    (Sid Cesar's frantic dive through the studio audience from the "This is Your Story" segment on "Your Show of Shows" was probably the best example of freelancing to boost a skit's comedy potential during the TV era -- in most cases the 'ad libs' on TV had to be blocked for the cameras and pre-planned.)