Sunday, 4 October 2015

How Many Singers For a Nickle?

“How I could use some of that fuzz today,” Jack Benny read, and then quipped to the studio audience on Fred Allen’s show “I could use a good joke today, too.”

Benny’s character was so well defined, you’d think it would have been easy for writers of other radio shows to come up with gags for him when he made guest appearances on them. But sometimes, they just fell flat. Benny was smart with his persona. He might do a cheap joke, followed by a toupee joke, followed by “39” joke, followed by a noisy Maxwell. He wouldn’t do five minutes of cheap jokes. That was overkill. He knew comedians in the ‘30s—Jack Pearl and Joe Penner, for example—who relied on a small number of catchphrases and then faded from the airwaves when audiences got tired of the same lines.

Jack appeared on Philco Radio Time, starring Bing Crosby, on March 3, 1948. He’s featured in two scenes of almost nothing but Benny being cheap. The routine works because of the payoff at the end and a creative bit where Jack calculates the value-per-nickle of selections in a jukebox (he did the same thing on his own radio show, in the ‘50s, I believe). The New York-based PM favourably reviewed the show and ended it with an adept summation. This appeared in the March 9th edition. The picture below is from the show (but not from PM), with Breneman to the left and Der Bingle in the centre. Sara Berner reprised her Benny show role as Gladys Zybyzko, but being a mere supporting player, wasn’t deemed big enough for the photo.

Benny Gets a Hundred Laughs With a Nickel
By SEYMOUR PECK

Stinginess, not ordinarily a trait we admire, has become one of Jack Benny's most attractive qualities.
We would not want him to change, possibly because we sense that Benny has grown into something we so rarely find in radio—a complete personality, so full-grown and familiar that it is a pleasure to come across him each week and watch what situations his stinginess, his little vanities, his petty foibles will lead him into this time. He is pretty much of a human being to us and very much of an old friend.
Making a guest appearance on the last Bing Crosby show, Benny worked the miser routine again for a whole half hour, and it still seemed fresh and amusing as ever. Lines that were less than funny per se became delightful when illumined by Benny's special personality.
Benny was out with his girl friend, Gladys Szabisco. "Maybe it's the moon, maybe it's the stars," said Benny, "but I want to say something to you I've never said to any girl before."
"What's that?" asked Gladys.
"I'd like to buy you a drink," said Benny. Hardly a panic as jokes go, but it brought a howl from the studio audience. It was the laughter of recognition; they knew all about Benny and his smallness and here it was again for them to laugh over.
Benny takes Gladys into Tom Breneman's restaurant. He orders a glass of muscatel. Will the lady have the same, asks the waiter.
"No," says Benny, the personification of generosity, "bring the lady her own glass of muscatel."
Benny gets up to play something on the juke box.
"Bing Crosby . . . naaaah," he says, examining the titles. "The Andrews Sisters . . . gee, there's three of them . . . the four Mills Brothers . . . the Ink Spots I wonder how many spots."
But Gladys wants Crosby, so Jack starts to put a nickel in for the Crosby record. Suddenly he hesitates.
"I was just wondering . . . Gladys, all these people sitting around, do they hear it, too?"
"Yes," says Gladys.
"Honestly," says Jack with indignation, "some people go through life listening to the other fellow's nickel."
The machine starts but gets stuck. "It's gotta play," says the incredulous Benny, "my nickel's in there." He asks the waiter to get Breneman.
"Breneman stepped out," says the waiter.
"Stepped out?" says Benny accusingly, "he sneaked out." Benny decides to go right to Bing Crosby about the whole thing. Bing says ha can't do anything about getting Benny's nickel back.
"If you put a nickel in a jukebox to hear me play the violin and you didn't hear me," asks Benny, now would you feel?"
From Crosby there is only a long silence.
"Well, let's take another example . . ." says Benny.
Finally Crosby concedes. ."You do have a legitimate beef," he admits.
"Oh, Bingsy," says Benny, melting.
"I'll tell you what I'm going to do," says Crosby. "You put a nickel into the jukebox to hear me sing a song. I'm going to sing it for you right now." "Hmmmmmm," says Benny. The longest, most disgruntled hmmmm in the whole world.
"You mean instead of giving me back my nickel, you're going to stand there and sing that song for me?" asks Benny.
"Yes," says Crosby.
"How can one guy be so cheap?" cries Benny.
● ● ●
Well, Benny's been like that for years now, but it was still great fun. Amidst all the hue and cry for new material and more original comedy, I think we would all be content for Jack Benny to be stingy forever.

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