Sunday, 22 March 2015

Jack Benny's History of Comedy

Jack Benny’s name appeared in guest columns from time-to-time, especially after he moved to the West Coast. The major columnists, and a few on the lower rungs, occasionally got mentions on his radio show; Louella Parsons appeared at least twice.

Benny expert Laura Leff speculates many of these guest columns were ghosted by Benny’s writers. That’s likely the case in this column from 1936. It appeared in the Albany Evening News on May 11, 1936. The paper’s radio columnist had been getting correspondence from Harry Conn, Benny’s writer, and it seems quite probably Conn wrote this piece. Incidentally, this same column appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of September 16th that year.

Conn helped come up with some of the characterisations which made the Benny show so popular, though they were refined by other writers—with input from Jack Benny—to become what we remember today. Some critics say that epitomises the Benny broadcasts written by Conn—that he served up corn that other people eventually turned into a meal. While the assessment isn’t altogether fair—radio humour was something new and it was still evolving while Conn worked for Benny—one can’t help but read the following column and be struck by its hokum.


Or, in this case, let Jack do it. We sour-minded radio critics have had so much to say about the staleness of the jokes our comedians use and call "scripts"; we have sneered in type and "Hee-hawed" in print at their lack of novelty in material, that it is time one of them was permitted to have his say about fun and where you find it.
"I've taken my fun where I found it" said Kipling, and most of us seem to think that the radio comedians find their fun in the dust of an old, deserted garret.
So here goes ole Jack Benny, who needs much less defense than the rest of his guild, but who wants to have his say.
AFTER 34 years of passing out what in some lucky instances get by as laughs, I have come to the definite conclusion that there is no such thing as a new joke and I'm not kidding. There are a few basic quips that have lasted through the centuries and with mighty few exceptions all the gags we hear today are variations on an original theme. Every once in a while a comedian gets off what he honestly believes to be a brand new one. But the wind is taken out of his sails immediately after the broadcast when some well-wisher comes up and says.
"Jack, that was a swell joke. But I liked it when I heard Tommy Harrington, the old New England wit, spring it 25 years ago."
Of course the basic wisecracks, thought up for the first time anywhere between 250 and 3,000 years ago. were very good. They had to be able to stand the rough treatment they have received since from alleged rib-ticklers like myself. After considerable ransacking. I found that about a dozen jokes form the basis for the 5,000,000,000 that crawl out of loudspeakers, jump at us from the screen and are hurled across the footlights at us nowdays. To illustrate this essay, I shall use six of these gems, giving full credit to their original sources.
One of the earliest funsters was a fellow named Samson. He is responsible for this pearl—I copied it right out of his script:
Samson: "A person I've known for 10 years cut me this morning."
John: "Well, that's strange. Who was it?"
Samson: "My barber."
We leave Samson and his barber, and investigate the Golden Age of Greece. It was during this period that a lad by the name of Socrates was flourishing on the Acropolis Circuit. He is reputed to have originated the one-line joke, as contrasted to the "he said" then "she said" variety of humor. The records show that Socrates used to slay them with this one:
"I met a man last night who was so mean that when his wife asked to see the world he gave her a map."
Not so very far away from Greece, what we how know as Ancient Rome was Beginning to grow up. It to Julius Caesar and one of his consuls (classic name for stooges) who will go down in history as the progenitors of this honey:
Consul: "It's no use getting sore at me. I take orders from no man."
J. Caesar: "That's what I noticed when you were working for me."
Everyone knows how Mr. Caesar ended his days. He was the first jokester taken for a ride by his rivals. They knifed him as he was going to the studios on the Ides of March for a political broadcast.
STRINGING along with those noble Romans for a while we find that the one and only Nero was instrumental in producing one Of the most heavily-leaned-on standbys. Everyone says that I stole my violin act from him. You know—people burned while he fiddled To get back to the point. Nero was sitting in a box at the Coliseum watching some of the local lads mangle each other. This brilliant piece of dialogue soon ensued:
Nero: 'You shouldn't hit your opponent when he's down."
First Gladiator: "What do you think I got him down for?"
For that bit of rugged individualism the gladiator got thumbs down from Nero, but the expression has lived on and in its various disguises is frequently heard on our best comedy programs.
Neither the Middle Ages, Renaissance nor Reformation Periods contributed much of lasting nature when it came to jokes. However, with the entry of America into world history the humorous vein comes to light again. Leif Erickson, who inaugurated the transatlantic boat service, thought up this one while fishing off the coast of Maine:
Sailor: "I'm going down for the second time."
Leif: "Well, have a look at my bait and see if it's still on the hook."
Another wit, apparently influenced by being in the vicinity of what later became these United States, was the blood-thirsty pirate. Sir Henry Morgan. He used to cruise off Florida, taking in Cuba. Bermuda and Nassau. Sir Henry endowed posterity with this piece of sure-fire radio material:
First Mate: "Where did you get those swell boots?"
Morgan: "At a store."
First Mate: "How much?"
Morgan: "I don't know. The owner had gone home for the night."
OF COURSE, if all these fellows were alive today it would be a little embarrassing for the comedians. There would probably be a Society of Comedy Writers and announcers would be required to state" at the end of broadcasts something like this: "The three jokes heard on this program are by "Socrates" or whoever the author was. As it is, about all these lads can do is collect imaginary royalties.
Once in a while somebody comes along with a gag that has all the ear-marks of being pretty original. For example, my friend Colonel Stoopnagle told me the other day that he had been trying to sell some funny stuff to the movies. He apparently had been having a pretty tough time of it.
"I submitted a script to Warner Brothers, but it was so bad, they had to re-write it before tearing it up," he said. There is a possibility that the Colonel lifted it from Pericles or Herodotus, but I never came across it as I was giving my scissors a work-out.

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