Sunday, 3 May 2015

What Makes Jack Benny Run

North American pop culture had begun to make a big shift by 1960. Rock and roll had arrived and was about to take a swing in a new direction with the Beatles. Television had put radio not only in the past, but the seeming distant past. The old vaudevillians were falling by the wayside. The humour of Cantor and Durante was giving way to stand-up styles of people as diverse as Bob Newhart, Phyllis Diller and Mort Sahl (not to mention Lennie Bruce).

So it was that in 1960, Jack Benny took the temperature of the comedy scene in an interview with the Chicago Tribune’s TV Times, published December 24th. Benny had long settled in to his comic routine and modified it only slightly over the ensuing years.

(We haven’t included the photos that accompanied the article because the copies that were scanned are barely visible).

TV Week Editor

IN SHOW business where a 39 week contract is a life and death span for many entertainers, Jack Benny is heading into his 29th year, 11 of them on TV.
What is keeping this paradox of a most perilous profession from going the way of all TV flesh? How and why does he keep running on and on? It's not the money —he has plenty. It's not the love of the limelight—he's a retiring type, a better listener than talker, and not given to sounding off or parading.
Altho he was in Chicago during the Republican National convention in July, he refused to make an appearance as some of his contemporaries had done a few weeks earlier at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. He does not believe in identifying himself with any organization that might make him controversial.
The secret of his success is based on two program factors: A solid format in which he is always the lovable boob and the butt of most jokes, and loyal teamwork among those who have been on his show for years.
DON WILSON, for example, has been Benny's announcer for 27 years. Benny says he auditioned for announcers and signed Wilson because he laughed the loudest at the Benny brand of humor. Wilson is, of course, far more than announcer. Almost weekly he is placed in some outlandish situation.
One of Jack's early radio shows called for a young woman to crash his show and insist on reading him some of her poems. The character was written for one show only, but Mary Livingstone was such a hit she became a regular.
Rochester was another character created for one show, but his performance as the Pullman porter serving the Bennys on their trip to Hollywood was so popular with the audience that he has remained in the cast for 25 years.
Radio and TV combined, Benny has starred in more than 1,000 programs. While polls show that most viewers cannot tell offhand who sponsored what program, few have forgotten Benny's original trademark, "Jel—lo again!"
Thru the years Benny has built his programs around a self-portrait of miserliness and they have produced some classic laughs. Such as the night he was faced by a holdup man who demanded, "Money or your life! " To which Benny replied, after a pause, "I'm thinking——"
That long run theme of stinginess—Benny's ancient Maxwell, his vault surrounded by an alligator filled moat, the dollar that remains glued to his fingers, the semi-slavery under which he keeps Don Wilson, Dennis Day, and Rochester—defies all experts on comedy geriatrics.
FOR EVERY 30 minute program he broadcasts, Benny and his crew work five full days, starting with script reading sessions at which the director, producer, cast members, and associates join in a frank discussion of possible improvements—no matter how funny the script may seem.
These sessions are followed by the first of three rehearsals at the studio. There are no cue cards, no tele-prompters. All dialog must be fully memorized. The evening of the third rehearsal day an audience is admitted to the studio and the program is either filmed by three motion picture cameras operating simultaneously [the film is later edited and inter-cut] or it is videotaped. So strong is Jack's desire for perfection that even his so-called "live " programs are taped an hour or so before air time to avert any possibility of a slip.
This five day operation is preceded by prolonged labor by Jack's writers, two of whom have been with him 18 years and two 12 years. The oldsters are Sam Perrin and George Balzer; the youngsters, Hal Goldman and Al Gordon.
Benny is probably the greatest living example of pure American comedy. He is the only comedian, with the possible exception of Red Skelton, who can be funny by just looking and not saying a word. While a humorist comments on such matters as current events, politics, and day-to-day problems, and a standup comic tells jokes [Bob Hope qualifies in either category], Benny does neither, except occasionally in his brief opening monolog.
"Sick" comedians leave Benny cold. "I think most of their material is crude and in poor taste," he says.
"I don't like jokes that deal with people's troubles or scandal."
Benny is frankly concerned about the state of comedy and lack of proving ground for new comics. Vaudeville and musical comedy, which taught him pace and timing and gave him an opportunity to perfect his act in small towns before exposing it to metropolitan audiences, are no longer available to newcomer. And Jack is fully aware that the one thing essential in the development of a comedian is exposure.
JACK IS what can be called a comedy technician. He refuses to be a "gimmick" comedian because when the gimmick wears thin its user is in trouble. He is also convinced that, except for an occasional one-shot, the one man show cannot survive today. It had its day, he says, when radio was young and had such stars as Jack Pearl [Baron Munchausen] and Ed Wynn [the Fire Chief]. Benny's teamwork theory from the beginning was so advanced that his jump from radio to TV was no jump at all—his cast merely donned makeup and went thru the act as usual.
Benny has no hobbies, but he likes to play golf. "I like to ad lib a vacation," he says. "I like to throw my golf clubs in the back of the car and take off." He did just that last summer, driving across the country, spending 10 days in Chicago, most of it on the golf links. He did take time out, however, to pose in THE TRIBUNE'S studio where the picture, on today's TV Week cover was taken.
The Benny's live in Beverly Hills, Cal., in a house that he and Mary built more than 20 years ago. They have an adopted daughter, Joan, and two grandchildren.
"We live quite economically at home," he says. "Mary is an expert bargain hunter. If she discovered a good cheap toothbrush she'd buy 800 of them."

As the ‘60s rolled along, Benny and the other long-time comedians had to face the fact the world was changing and answer the question “How do I stay relevant to the new, younger audience?” Benny didn’t do a lot. He added guest stars to his shows who would appeal to a younger demographic. But, to me, there’s something about Jack Benny sharing the stage with the Smothers brothers that just doesn’t look right. Benny was among many veterans who popped up for a quick one-liner on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” Somehow, he and Dinah Shore and Orson Welles and Kate Smith just didn’t belong in the Mod, Mod World (I always wondered the appearances were due to being under NBC contract). But Benny still had a built-in audience, and even though it was older, that’s wisely who he tried to appeal to. He knew they wanted to laugh at the familiar old routines, that they were guaranteed to laugh at them, and that’s what he delivered. If young people laughed, all the better.

(As a side note, it seemed mandatory in the ‘60s for Benny, Durante, Berle, Hope and just about all the old comedians to do a routine on TV where they’d dress up in mod fashions. They weren’t so much satirizing the style of today, let alone embracing it. They were ridiculing it).

Jack Benny died in 1974, still tremendously loved and respected. Today, people can listen to his old radio shows and even though they depended on familiarity to some degree, audiences today will still laugh at what Benny and his gang put on the air. In the end, the changing cultural didn’t affect him a bit.

1 comment:

  1. The irony is if you look at some of the late 60s efforts at comedy from 45 years onward, it's in its own way even more dated than Jack's radio or TV shows, which were just trying to be funny, and not trying to capture whatever was trendy at the moment (Jack's specials of the time -- which find humor in letting the audience know he's decidedly not part of the cutting edge of pop culture -- hold up far better than your average unedited episode of "Laugh-In" from the same time period, where you truly had to be there for a lot of the gags to work at any level).