All the great comedians found what worked and stuck with it. The Jack Benny, George Burns and Bob Hope of 1940 were pretty much the same, when it came to delivery at least, as they were in 1970.
Benny revealed in interviews in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that aging and familiarity modified his material. Maxwell jokes weren’t funny any more, he decided. Jokes about being 39 didn’t really work, he felt. Perhaps he was wrong. When he died in 1974, obituaries referred to his phoney age and phoney car as traits that were all too familiar to current audiences.
Here’s a feature story which ran in weekend newspaper supplements on January 13, 1973 wherein Jack gives a pretty good assessment of his comedy.
Jack Benny Outlines His Philosophy Of Humor
By JACK BENNY
Written for TV Scout
I hate to tell jokes.
Something told me when I first talked on the stage that I must never be a one-liner comedian. I knew I must get into something like a routine and when I need to go from one routine into another I must do it so gracefully that the audience never realizes that I switched.
My upcoming show, “Jack Benny’s First Farewell Special,” sponsored by RCA on NBC-TV on Thursday, Jan. 18, for example, depends, for the most part on situations. You can imagine the situations that can arise with Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Flip Wilson and Dean Martin on the program.
Many times I've been asked to explain my philosophy of humor. Well, I toy with the faults or frailties of man.
Now, every family has one stingy guy. Then there’s the braggart or the guy who thinks he’s a great sex symbol. I make myself into all of these and make people laugh without out-and-out jokes. You can do it with a little innuendo.
Let me try to explain it this way: If I were giving a dinner for you and another person in a restaurant and you whispered to the other guy: “You better leave the tip because I’m afraid with Jack,” without my even being in it, it’s funny. It’s not as funny anymore, however, if I left a cheap tip. That would be 15 years too old. So, the only advancement is to stay with what you’ve done all your life but improve it by being sophisticated with it and by suggestions.
I cannot emphasize too strongly the need for constant improvement in material.
I cannot do a stingy role that is not smarter than what I did 10 years ago. It’s not funny now if we left the table and I gave the waiter a nickel. It will only be funny if it were wild. Say the waiter, knowing how cheap I am, tipped me instead.
Oh, sure, I will tell a joke once in a while if I think it’s a great one and I think the audience hasn’t heard it. As soon as the joke is told I will immediately return to my regular routine.
Many people give me credit for having very good timing. But, even a fast-talk comedian — any good comedian — must have good timing. You can have timing on different things. But if you lack timing, then you might as well forget the whole thing.
Of course, let’s not forget one thing — and I always have the right answer when people say to me: “Jack, you don't need great material. All you have to do is say something and stare at the audience.” I say, how long do you think I could stare after a lousy joke? You know what would happen? The audience would stare back at me and I’d better get into the next joke or routine as soon as possible.
It is not true that because I stare I get laughs. When I stare I better stare at the right place and at the right time because nobody is that good. Nobody living can go on with bad material. The most important thing in the world right off is good material.
That’s why I love writers — good writers — and I give them full credit. I want to be with them all the time they are writing. I want to steer it one way or the other. Once they hand me good material, then I know what to do with it.
As for the new, young comedians who are entering show business today, I give them a tremendous amount of credit. In our day we had schools. They haven’t got it today. Our schools were vaudeville and burlesque. Don’t forget I went all through vaudeville, which meant I had a chance to be lousy before I was good. I could play South Bend, Ind., in vaudeville and I could be bad and who would know it? Only those people who came to the theater. But, maybe by the time I returned to South Bend I would have improved because I was playing vaudeville.
George Burns recently put it beautifully: “Today there’s no place to be bad” — and he’s so right.”