Sunday, 8 January 2017
The Life and Times of Jack Benny, Part 1 of 6
Unfortunately, the photo which accompanied each story is unviewable in on-line photocopies of the Post, so we’ve had to make substitutions.
The Jack Benny Story
By DAVID GELMAN and MARCY ELIAS
In the course of a radio show about 10 years ago, Jack Benny read a gag-line to the effect that if he couldn't take it with him he wouldn't go.
Not only was this the pithiest of the several thousand or so jokes that have been dedicated over the years to Benny's penuriousness; it also contained an accurate prophecy.
After a quarter century of continuous success in a career that bridges the infancy of radio and the adolescence of television, Benny still gives no indication of going. And the truth is, with the possible exception of a disgruntled critic or two, nobody really wants him to go.
In an era of incredibly swift change and the daily obsolescence of familiar things, it's nice to be able to turn to Jack Benny for a sense of permanence. One of the few untarnished tokens remaining to us from the dear, dead depression days of the 30s, he is everybody's favorite anachronism.
Indeed, as the most popular object of mass derision in the modern history of show business, as the man everybody loves to insult, as the man who is everyone's inferior, he continues to be held in affectionate contempt by millions upon millions of TV viewers. Rating-wise, he is as big today as he was in the heyday of his radio triumphs.
In the face of such latter-day competitors as the adult Westerns, Benny remains the one indestructible feature of Sunday night television
From one point of view he is really the best straight man in the business. He has also been called a superb editor of comedy material (that is, for his own peculiar needs) and a master of timing.
The late Fred Allen once observed, in the spirit of the fictitious Benny-Allen feud that enlivened radio in the late 30s and early 40s, that "there are two kinds of jokes—funny jokes and Jack Benny jokes."
As a matter of fact Jack Benny jokes are usually not jokes at all. They are little character references whose humor depends on one's familiarity with the character referred to.
On a Benny broadcast about 11 years ago (the time-scale in a discussion of the Benny show is always a little unsettling) Benny mentioned the name of his orchestra leader, Phil Harris.
"Please," said guest star Benita Column, "not while I'm eating."
This rather commonplace insult drew one of the longest studio audience laughs in the show's history. As Benny later pointed out to an interviewer it took approximately 10 years of script references to Phil Harris' intemperance, his crudity and his ignorance to build that epoch-making laugh.
The Benny show has always built patiently toward the future. Where other comics were satisfied with the rapid fire topical gag, the joke for a day, Benny invested in the long-term endowment plan.
"Gags die, humor doesn't," he observed once. At the same time his definition of humor, or comedy, is that it is "merely something that makes people laugh. That's all. It makes no difference how."
While this would seem to include pie-throwing, pratt-falls, funny hats and worse, he has always remained within the bounds of good taste, assuming to begin with that one finds the humor of round-robin insults tasteful. The Benny show rarely employs lines that are pointedly funny but It does create an atmosphere of good humor in which almost everything is somehow (and often mysteriously) funny: old jokes, new jokes, bad jokes, good Jokes and even no jokes long silent pauses.
(It's been said that originally this infectious spirit was created almost single-handedly by Frank Remley, a guitar player in the orchestra and close personal friend of Benny, who laughed it up raucously after every comedy line, usually a couple of seconds ahead of the studio audience.)
In any case one of the secrets of Benny's charm would appear to be, as Portland Allen recently put it, "just the kind of fun that he gets out of the material."
Fun is what Benny provides and fun is what he seems to live for. Dating back to his earliest days in vaudeville, he has always surrounded himself with a circle of wisecracking cronies who stuck together for laughs and he is even said to have married Mary Livingston for her sense of humor.
Jack may command the salary of a high priest of humor but he behaves like one of its acolytes. In his own spacious Beverly Hills living room he is a slavish audience for some of the most celebrated comedians of the age.
"I would rather work Jack Benny's living room than the London Palladium," Danny Kaye once said.
The reason is fairly obvious. Benny is an alarmingly physical laugher who falls out of his chair, pounds the carpet, chokes, drools and claws the air when he is amused, a response he provides so often that no one even bothers to help him up off the floor. The man who can unseat him more often than anyone else is George Burns. Between the two friends there is such an uncanny rapport that Burns sometimes has to do nothing more than look at Benny is reduce him to helpless, writhing laughter. Burns exercises this power whenever the spirit moves him, usually on the average of once a day.
On the day of the concert Benny got an invitation. He went to Carnegie Hall and made sure he was seated at a safe distance from Burns. A moment after the concert began with a quiet Chopin Prelude, Benny heard someone whisper hoarsely, "Hey, Jack."
He turned around carefully and found himself face to face with Burns, who had managed to move into the seat directly behind him. Burns wriggled his eyebrows a little and there was a sudden stir in the audience as Jack fell out of his seat choking with suppressed laughter. As soon as the opening Prelude was finished, Benny fled the concert hall.
Another man with the power is Harry Ritz, the one in the middle of the Ritz Bros. The reflexive relation between Ritz and Benny runs like this: they encounter one another at a party; Ritz stares at Benny with goggle-eyed menace; Benny says, "Talk to me"; Ritz immediately begins hurling at him all the insults he can summon up; Benny collapses in a seizure of giggles.
"Off-stage," says Burns, "Jack never tries to be funny because he's always busy laughing at everybody else. He makes everybody feel they're the world's greatest comedians. They aren't. He is."
If this is the over-statement of a devoted friend, the fact remains Benny is a rare phenomenon among comedians—that is, a performer without ego. And without the essential bitterness that lies at the heart of wit. As far as he is concerned, it is better to give laughter than to receive for one's self.
Nothing displeases him more than a disservice to entertainment. He may be the world's easiest audience but when he sees a bad performer It infuriates him. Once, after sitting stonily through an inept performance by a young nightclub comic in Chicago, he turned to the others at his, table and said through clenched teeth:
"He was so bad I could kill him."
If the mythical Benny is an extreme caricature of greed and self-infatuation, Benny the man is by all odds the most unassailable personality in the entertainment profession. When he threw a $25,000 wedding party for his daughter Joan in March of 1954 it produced the most glittering turnout of stars in Hollywood history—testimony, perhaps, to the extraordinary affection in which he is held by other performers.
Except for an intensely painstaking preoccupation with his show, he takes an easy pleasure in people and things that makes no excessive demands on them.
Certainly not a negative quality is his bland, almost absent-minded open-handedness with money. Over the years his staff of writers has been the best paid in the business, as were the members of his cast, many of whom, like tenors Frank Parker, Kenny Baker and Dennis Day, went on to independent successes from the sturdy springboard of the Benny show.
His comic sidekick, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson" is today the master of a block-long estate, three servants, two cars, a yacht and a racing stable—a monument to well-being that rivals Benny's own. Anderson understandably feels Benny is more a father-image than a boss to him.
From the Friars Club, in New York to the Hillcrest Country Club in Beverly Hills, the man has virtually never made an enemy or committed a memorable offense against his colleagues, which makes him in a way an unusual subject for portrait. In what amounted to a challenge, Benny said to a Post reporter the other day:
"Everybody you meet tell you I was a nice guy? Nobody tell you I was a louse? Well If you can get a series of articles out of my life, that will be the marvel of all time."
But Benny himself is something of a marvel, of course. From the most inauspicious beginnings, and with a talent that overwhelms neither eye nor ear, he rose to the rare status of an entertainment institution.
TOMORROW: The Waukegan Prodigy.