Sunday, 15 November 2015

Benny, Writing and Ratings

We’ve been talking a bit about writers of old-time comedy/variety shows as of late, so let’s delve into the subject one more time.

Jack Benny talks about his writers in this 1959 TV Key syndicated column. But a couple of other subjects spring out a little bit more.

It’s incredulous that Jack would say he’d been trying to get out of the 7:30 time slot since 1939. Setting aside the fact that his show was on radio through the ‘40s and ‘50s at 7 p.m. Eastern (and 9:30 on the West Coast), it’s hard to believe a star of Benny’s magnitude couldn’t get a time slot he really wanted, especially after jumping to CBS in 1949. The trades in the early ‘40s pointed out Benny was powerful enough to fend off an attempt by his sponsor to switch to Grape Nuts from Jell-O earlier than it happened.

And Jack seems unwilling to accept the possibility his ratings were slipping because people wanted to watch something new, and then dismisses the ratings altogether. Ratings are a funny thing. When they say you’re number one, you don’t disagree with them. But when they say you’re number four, you find all kinds of reasons why they’re wrong.

Whether Jack was merely putting on a good face about the time change is unclear. He didn’t hesitate in 1963 to publicly complain when CBS (well, Jim Aubrey, to be precise), moved Red Skelton back a half hour and put Petticoat Junction as his lead-in.

This column appeared in papers on September 30, 1959.

Jack Benny To Shift Time Spot

Jack Benny is moving into the 10 p.m. spot on alternating Sundays beginning Oct 4. The network, CBS, is a little worried about the change, but Jack isn't.
"For twenty years I've been trying to get out of my 7:30 p.m. time slot," said Benny in Hollywood. "But no one would listen to me."
Jack isn't running from "Maverick." "Listen, I think good weather hurt me much more than "Maverick." When it gets light in the spring back in Chicago I lose viewers."
"Funny thing about "Maverick," he continued. "I checked the ratings once and found both of us in the first ten. Explain that."
'Like the Fella'
Jack thinks "Maverick" will keep going when many other westerns die out. He says comedy is much harder to keep going. "As for a western, a bad one is not much different from a good one. No issue is involved. But you get a bad comedy show and you're in trouble flight away. I think it's very important too in a western for the fans to like the fella. If they like the fella, it's hard to do a really bad show."
Benny slides the same comparison over the show. He says one reason why his programs don't suffer much is because fans like his cast of Mary Livingston, Rochester, Dennis Day and Don Wilson.
"And with his familiar cast and alternate week shows, at least I have a chance to be meticulous," Jack went on. "I sit in with my writers and we throw around ideas maybe for two days before we put one on paper. If it were a weekly show we'd have to grab the first few ideas that came up."
Jack says he's more of an editor than a writer. He wrote better years ago in vaudeville than he does now. "If I did a lot now." Jack said, "and you met me in the street, I'd be thinking so hard I wouldn't recognize you."
Sits in With Writers
Jack is really pleased because his four writers including oldtimers Sam Perrin and George Balzer want him to sit in with them. Jack can smooth out switches so that even if the jokes don't play too well, it won't be embarrassing.
"We have a lot of laughs together," Benny said. This is where he gets his kicks. Jack doesn't press his writers either. There's no set time for work and when the men get together none of them worry about topping last week's show.
"All I say is try not to write a lousy show," Benny remarked. "And don't try to write a great show." When it gets down on paper, editor Benny can usually feel how good a show it is. "Take our first show on the fourth with Jimmy Stewart and his wife, Gloria," Benny said. "We have a very funny thing about to come off. If it works it win be a very good show."
Benny qualifies this by laying that both he and the writers always think their shows are better than they are. They're an appreciative audience. Benny is more nervous with a good show than a bad one because he wants to get the most out of it.
Jack doesn't keep check on ideas used on Sunday. He says he can't remember after a show which writer suggested what. "I can't even remember ideas I thought up," he added. "Not long ago Ed Sullivan wanted me on for a bit. I was thinking of something to do when I remembered a bit I was going to do on the Perry Como Show. Goodman Ace, an old friend, was the writer on the show, so I called him up to see if I could use it. Goody laughed when I told him and said, 'Go ahead; it was your idea anyway.' So help me, I can't believe it was mine now."
Editor, part time writer, violin player and comedian, Benny does take credit for two things he learned in his old vaudeville days and he offers the message to aspiring comedians. "One," says Jack, "if you do a monologue, talk on a subject. Use oneliners and you're due for trouble. Two, work out situations where you're frustrated. Also try to be different. Don't be afraid of this life. I'd be bored stiff in a situation comedy."
Many of the things Jack has grown famous for have started by accident, like his feud with Fred Allen in the days of radio. One night on Allen's show a ten-year-old boy got up and played "The Bee" on his violin. When he finished all Allen said was "Jack Benny should be ashamed of himself."
Feud Grows
"Next week I picked it up," said Jack. "Then Fred brought in three or four stooges from my home town to prove I couldn't play the violin. In my next show I have my stooges on.
"Well we're into the feud for over half a year before Fred and I even talked to each other about it. There was nothing rigged before-hand."
Beany paused. "I tell you if Fred were alive, the feud could last forever because we didn't do it every week.
"Me, I can only take bows for knowing what to leave out And I'm sure I've taken out good things and replaced them with something not so good. We make mistakes. But we're meticulous and I think we know enough to keep a show from stinking up the air."


  1. Jack would have trouble with westerns again in the 1961-62 season, when NBC's move of Bonanza from Saturday to Sunday night vaulted it into the No. 2 spot and resulted in Jack's show moving to Tuesday nights the following season (where it finished a very respectable 11th in the ratings, even if it wasn't up to past levels and CBS programing honcho Jim Aubrey already was planning to kill it completely by the end of the season).

  2. Even Jack admitted "BONANZA" was a problem, as he recalled he decided to watch a few minutes of it before his own show aired (at 8:30pm Pacific Time, 9:30 Eastern). He was impressed {"It was good, darned good"}, and became so interested in it, when he finally checked his watch to see what time it was, "Hell, it wasn't 8:30, it was 8:50!!!". He'd missed over half of his own program by sticking with 'BONANZA". He then concluded that if he, himself, was so engrossed watching the competition to miss the start of his own show, what chance did he have with millions of other viewers who were doing the same thing? "I knew I was through" that time period, that is. Jim Aubrey wisely moved him away from 'BONANZA", and gave him a very "cushy spot" in between "THE RED SKELTON HOUR" and "THE GARRY MOORE SHOW" on Tuesdays the following fall......

  3. It was because Aubrey "shoehorned" "PETTICOAT JUNCTION" in between Red and Jack the following season that Benny objected to it- mostly because NO ONE at CBS had asked him how HE felt about the idea. "Why would they split up Red and me?", he demanded. According to his version of events, he tried to call Bill Paley {"Mr. CBS"}, the man who brought him over from NBC in the first place fourteen years earlier, and discuss the schedule change.....but got no response from him. Jack then decided, if THAT'S the way I'm was going to be treated, the hell with him! He then asked MCA to make the deal that would bring him back to NBC the following season. Other versions of this have Aubrey telling Jack to his face, "You're fired".

    1. Is it any wonder why Aubrey was called "The Smiling Cobra"? He reportedly had an actress fired from "Petticoat Junction" because he wanted someone with a bigger bosom. And his set-tos with Keefe Brasselle would be fictionalized in Brasselle's book "The CanniBalS."
      Paley decided enough was enough, and when he went into Frank Stanton's office and said "He's got to go," Stanton, the #2 man at CBS, didn't have to ask who.

  4. In 1959, P. Lorillard Tobacco had been the primary sponsor of whatever they "bought" for their Sunday night time period on CBS [10-10:30pm(et)] since 1952. That included "THE WEB", "FATHER KNOWS BEST", "APPOINTMENT WITH ADVENTURE", "THE $64,000 CHALLENGE", "THE $64,000 QUESTION", and finally "RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE". However, in order to accommodate Lever Brothers' plans to alternate Jack Benny and George Gobel on Sunday nights in the fall of 1959, Lorillard would have to relinquish their time slot.....and they didn't want to. As CBS president Louis Cowan discovered, when he told them they'd HAVE to, in order to keep Jack Benny on the network, Lorillard was VERY UNHAPPY with the decision [they moved "RICHARD DIAMOND" to NBC's Monday night schedule in the fall of '59]. And after all that finagling and planning.....Lever moved Jack up a half-hour earlier the following season {State Farm Insurance became Benny's new alternate sponsor, as a weekly series}, and co-sponsored "CANDID CAMERA" with Bristol-Myers at 10pm.