Sunday, 17 July 2016
The Hensir of Comedy
This is from Earl Wilson’s column in the New York Post of January 22, 1945. The radio show being discussed aired the night before. And “hen, sir” was part of the dialogue.
Gag Busters in Action—Jack Benny's Brain Trust
I'm a candidate for a booby hatch today. I've survived a Jack Benny gag-rewrite session. Assigning myself to find how Jack manufactures his jokes, I hopped up to his 33d floor penthouse at the Sherry-Netherland. In an orangeish dressing gown, chewing a cigar that had gone out a long time ago, Jack faced the crowd—17 people by actual count—and asked, "Where the hell's Phil?"
Meaning Phil Harris.
Nobody knew. Mary Livington said maybe he couldn't get a cab. Rochester ran around behind a long cigar, showing off a yellow shirt and a blinding tie.
Phil arrived to chants of "Always late, always late" from the crowd, and read his part. Coming to the word "humanitarian," he innocently read it:
One writer fell down laughing. "You don't have to write jokes for Phil," Jack said. "He reads things wrong anyway." Finally the rehearsal ended.
"Everybody scram but the geniuses," somebody in authority said. "Just the writers stay."
This your clever reporter had come to hear—the four writers, probably top joke men in the country, probably each a $25,000-a-year man, cutting and polishing the first rough script. They sagged into chairs or onto couches, with coats off and collars opened. Jack lighted his cigar—which went out. He kept chewing it. They began kicking jokes around. Jack wanted a gag about him appearing before FDR. Somebody would ask, "Did the President like you?"—and then the gag.
"Roosevelt laughed and Jimmy Byrned," said Writer George Balzer of Van Nuys, Calif., but he took it back with a wince.
"Roosevelt hasn't laughed so much since he saw Herbert Hoover," flung in either John Thackaberry of Houston, Tex., or Milt Josefsberg of Brooklyn—I forget which. They were in their '30s. The fourth writer, Sam Perrin, of the Bronx, held his script mirthlessly, but business-like. He is 40ish. Silence gripped the room. A clock ticked loudly while the geniuses thought. The script girl, Jane Tucker, waited for a witticism she could write down.
Perrin called out, "Did the President like your show? You say, 'Oh he liked it swell. He sat next to Gen. Hershey and now I'm in 1-A.'"
Jack smiled—for the first time so far. "I would put it in," he said. Jane Tucker wrote it down in her script book.
"That'll play good," one writer said. That's what they said repeatedly—it would play good.
I listened as they hauled gags out of their heads for an hour and a half, and threw most of them away. Occasionally a writer would have a paroxysm of laughter over his newest joke, yell it out, and nobody would laugh. I gave them one of my own gags. They gave it back to me. Two writers wanted to get in a gag about Col. Elliott Roosevelt's dog.
"It's a good laugh, but I hate to pan anybody, and I'm afraid of it," said Jack. Out came a joke about Don Wilson arriving late: "He lost his priority on an elevator." Out came another where Jack asked Phil Harris, "How do you keep warm—Red flannels?"
"No, Black Label."
They were running too long. Jack wanted a joke about how skinny his legs look in knickers. "You look like two champagne glasses with ridiculously long stems," one writer suggested. Another thought he looked like V for Victory upside down. But another one came up with "You have to tie knots in your legs to make it look like you have knees."
"Got that Janie?" said Jack. She had already written it down.
I was restless. But apparently loving it, they weren't. They were meticulous. For 5 minutes, they discussed a gag in which Jack complained to a waiter about an egg costing 20 cents. "What's in an egg that could make it cost 20 cents?" he said.
"Well, sir," replied the waiter, "it's a whole day's work for a hen."
The burning issue was: Shouldn't the "sir" be at the end of the sentence? ". . . It's a whole day's work for the hen, sir." I think it was Josefsberg who said "sir" after "hen" would produce a new word, like "hensir."
"Like saying, 'Somebody's at the door. Will you please hensir?'"
Our session had gone on almost two hours, and they were only in the middle. It was orderly, nobody even had a drink, and all I could think about was the new word, "hensir." Jack denied the story he has no hair—said he has hair at home he's never used. So on that I left, thinking how nice they were, and, also, how long could they stay sane?
Benny’s writers continually found ways to work old jokes into a new script, and the “hen, sir” was no exception. The new version appeared on the radio show of May 3, 1953. Jack was, in real life, appearing for several weeks at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. On the show he complained about the price of a breakfast at the Fairmont Hotel. Only the audience didn’t get a “hen” this time. Said waiter Mel Blanc: “Well, it’s a whole day’s work for a chicken.” But joke continued:
JACK: That’s a very old joke.
MEL: Well, I thought it was funny when I heard it last night at the Curran Theatre.
Benny’s writers did it again.