Sunday, 31 May 2015

Benny By Vilanch

Jack Benny touched many lives, and the proof was in the seemingly countless eulogies in newspapers across North America after his death in 1974. It seemed everyone had some kind of personal story, either from meeting Jack or through his weekly appearances in living rooms via a box with tubes and dials.

One remembrance was written by Bruce Vilanch. He’s known today for a number of things, including gag writing for the Oscar telecast, but at the time of Benny’s death, he was a writer for the Chicago Tribune. That’s where this story appeared on December 31, 1974.

Remembering a 'tightwad' who enriched our lives
ONE OF THE EARLIEST television memories among members of my generation is the vision of Jack Benny.
Just standing there, one arm across the chest, the hand clutching the opposite elbow, the fingers placed pensively on the cheek, looking for all the world like somebody who has just had his foot run over by a Prussian regiment that he just found leaving his bathroom.
Eternally perplexed, forever befuddled, Benny mastered the art of letting everything go on around him and only then making you laugh by his reaction. He was the king of the slow burn, the absolute ruler of the throwaway line or ges- ture. He was funnier standing still than any 10 comics on the hoof.
UNLIKE MOST other people who are writing about him now, I never really knew Benny. I interviewed him once-in the middle of a Mill Run engagement that had him more perplexed than usual because he was working on a stage that wouldn't stop twirling, and it kept distracting him. At the time, he was chuckling over an offer he had just received from David Merrick.
"He wants me to play 'Hello, Dolly!' in drag," Benny said, with a half-ironic smile on his face. After we had finished laughing, he quietly added, "Of course, I'll do it ... but only if he lets George Burns play Horace."
The Benny-Burns practical joking was one of the longest-running merry pranks in show business and, toward the end, when Benny was making most of his impact on talk shows, it had achieved legendary proportions.
My own favorite story was the one about Benny and Burns at a big party. Benny was standing silently in a corner of the room, just about to light up a cigar. Suddenly, from across the room, Burns called out In a loud voice, "Stop! Everybody stop! Jack Benny is going to do the match bit!"
OF COURSE, there was no match bit. Benny just stood there, holding the lighted match and the cigar, as 100 Hollywood eyes bore down upon him, waiting to be doubled over by his trick.
"So what could I do?," he later related, "I just turned on my heel and walked out of the room."
The crowd roared.
Of course, there was much more to Jack Benny than his slow burns or his George Burns. He knew timing like no one else, he knew story-telling like no one else, he knew silence like no one else. He was as funny without words, sometimes even without gestures, as anyone ever has been.
More than that, tho, he knew how to make fun of himself in a way that few performers ever figure out.
LIKE LIBERACE, who anticipates the audience's mild outrage at his manners and dress and, therefore, comes on in the brightest sequins imaginable, with a joke to match, Benny understood his myth and wasn't abashed by it.
They said he was a tightwad, and he joked about it, but outrageously. I'll never forget one of his early television shows, where he had to get the money out of the vault in order to repair the Maxwell which, after 135 years of service, had finally broken down.
"Just a minute," he said to Rochester, "I'll be right back." And he then led us on a half-hour descent to the sub-sub basement of his home where, in order to reach the money, he had to cross a moat filed with alligators, an elaborate booby-trapping system, and finally a 200-year-old man, covered with cobwebs, standing poised next to the vault, a bow and arrow at the ready.
You don't run across this sort of self-placed humor any more. Maybe it's because comedians today aren't as self-defined as Benny, or maybe it's because, in the new age of fear and loathing, no one intentionally sets himself up as a fool.
Whatever the reasons, we won't be seeing anything like Jack Benny ever again-they don't make 'em that brave anymore.
HOLDUP MAN-Your money or your life!
HOLDUP MAN-I said your money or your life!
BENNY-[a shout] I'm thinking it over!
Oh, Rochester. Get him his blue suit.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting Vilanch mentioned the TV versions of the vault gag and (presumably) the hold-up gag, because both played out better on radio, where you could visualize in your mind the trip to Jack's vault via the voices and sound effects, on the case of the hold-up bit, didn't require an elaborate set-up that downplayed the payoff. But that also went towards showing Jack's greatness in that his visual reactions and the timing involved worked as well, or even better in some cases, on TV than they did on radio.