Listening to the calm, even voice of Jack Benny on the radio or TV, you wouldn’t get the impression he worried a lot. But he did. It was fairly well known in Hollywood and written about on occasion in columns.
That’s part of the focus of this article in the September 1941 edition of Modern Screen magazine. Jack made movies on a regular basis in the mid-‘30s and into the ‘40s, so movie magazines covered him. This is one of several feature stories that appeared over the years in Modern Screen. The stock photos accompanied the article.
It's No Fun To Be Funny
By Hugh Roberts
THAT TOP-SALARIED RADIO COMIC JACK BENNY'S A MARTYR TO THE CAUSE OF LAUGHS!
"Look," said Buck Benny, the pride of NBC, "couldn't you change the title a little? Like 'It's No Fun to be Funny Except Once in a While When They Fall for a Gag You Didn't Think Was So Hot or on Sunday After the Show When You Feel Relaxed and Want to Stay Up All Night?' No? Too long, huh? Why don't you use initials?"
Benny's reputed one of the most brilliant worriers in the business, a non-stop nail-chewer, a chronic crosser of remote bridges, the pessimist par excellence. He even worries over the charge of worrying. Unable to refute it, he tries to play it down, as witness his attempt to tamper with our title. Get him cornered, and he'll admit that he worries exactly as much as he ought to worry, no more, no less. "If I didn't," he explains, still on the defensive, "I'd be in the ash can."
There are those who would have you believe that, shorn of the capacity to harass himself, he'd pine away. In proof of which, they offer a story of the days when he formed the fiddling half of a vaudeville team. One morning the phone jangled him out of slumber. His agent was on the line reporting an engagement. Only half awake, Jack heard the name of a town thirty miles away and mumbled okay. At the booking office later, he learned that another state boasted a town of the same name, that it lay some three hundred miles from Broadway, and that he'd committed himself to board a train for the hellhole that night.
He returned to the hotel, packed violin and bag and marched like a herald of doom into the room of his friend, George Burns, where the gang forgathered. There he paced for two hours, biting his digits and the dead end of a cigar, fulminating on the eccentricities of agents who couldn't talk English, city fathers who lacked the wit to invent their own names for their own one-horse burgs, phones that rang or didn't, trains that moved and stopped, jackasses who went into vaudeville for a living. At the end of two hours, Burns picked up violin and suitcase, deposited them in the hall, propelled his friend out by the back of the neck, locked the door and yelled, "Now enjoy yourself."
Legend has it that the last heard from Jack was a plaintive, "All right for you — " floating back through the transom as he trudged trainward.
He says it's a canard. I found him at Twentieth Century-Fox, his head in Kay Francis' lap. Recumbent on a garden bench, the capacious skirts of "Charley's Aunt" fell back from his trousered legs where he'd crossed them. Kay's white hand cradled his gray-ringleted wig. Gorgeous in rosy chiffon, sparklers at ears and throat, she bent to kiss him. One. Two. Three. Cut! She lifted her head. He stayed where he was. "Again?" he suggested. He didn't seem to be worrying.
As a matter of fact, he can take his movies in stride. They hand him a ready-made script. If a scene isn't right, they do it over. Physically wearing, he still considers movie-making a lazy man's dream of paradise compared with the nervous strain of putting on a radio show. For that show he's responsible — to NBC, to Jell-o, to the agency, to his cast, to millions of listeners. It's his baby, his headache and his crown jewel. He's built it into a national institution of six flavors, which he carries on his back. To the world at large he is J-E-L-L-O.
All week long the show goes on in his head. You may think you see him driving his car or swallowing his dinner. Actually his mind is writhing somewhere in gagland. A friend buttonholes him in a parking lot. Jack mutters an absent excuse me, I didn't mean to bump you. Mary's private game is to count how many times she can ask him a question before he hears it. The record to date is thirteen. They were in bed one night, Mary reading, Jack thinking. She closed the book and asked him to turn out the lights. He got up, touched the switch and went back to bed drawing the covers round him. Her wild burst of laughter finally roused him to awareness.
"What's the matter?" he cried in alarm.
"The lights," she could only whimper between spasms. "You went to the switch — and got back into bed — and the lights are FULL ON!"
'Seven days and six nights of the week are haunted, leaving one evening clear. With the termination of the second broadcast on Sunday, Jack's spirits soar, and he wants to stay up all night. First to be sure, there are always post-mortems. "They could have laughed more," he glooms.
"Everybody else liked it," says Mary firmly. "Don't take it so hard."
"We just played to millions of people, that's all," he mutters.
To Jack, nothing short of sensational is good. Mary's approach is more equable. "They can't all be tops." Even if she doesn't persuade him, she calms him, restores his perspective. In that respect — as in others — he thinks she's just the right woman for him to be married to.
On Monday the shadows begin to draw in. Jack and his writers, Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin, have drawn up a brave platform which includes these planks: we won't get into a stew — even if by Thursday we've raised no idea, we won't yell omigod, it's going to be Sunday — what we've done before we can do again, and to hell with defeatists. The sole weakness of this platform lies in the fact that it doesn't work, Jack's the first to topple off. "He gets that look on his face," grins Morrow. "It's the look of a man who averts his shuddering gaze from a bottomless pit marked, 'No show this week.' The fact that there's always been a show brings no comfort. Next Sunday opens wide its gaping maw, and the cupboard's empty."
BUT suppose the boys show with an idea on Monday. If Jack's on a picture, it's Monday night. He got to the studio at eight for make-up and left at six-thirty. He's already done a normal day's work. He's tired. But that's his own lookout. It's not NBC's fault that he's a movie actor, too. His sense of responsibility's razor-sharp. It's up to him to see that neither job suffers by the other. If the time ever comes when he can't handle both by his own standards, he'll fade himself out.
He has, besides, the disposition of a lamb, which he excuses on practical grounds. "If you holler and scream at them," he says, "you put them in a mood where they can't write." Instead of screaming, he says, "Well, I don't know, let's try something else." Instead of hollering, he nibbles his nails — a habit Mary has tried to break by scolding, George Burns by derisive mimicry, manicurists by appeals to his vanity. Jack hangs his head and goes on biting. Or he chews gum. That's a sign that he's reached the end of his rope. When his eyes stare and he stuffs three sticks of gum into his mouth oblivious of what he's doing, Morrow and Beloin reach for their hats, murmur, "We'll fix this up and see you tomorrow," and beat a retreat.
Only once in the five years they've been working together has there been a blow-up, and that was due to a misunderstanding. Jack thought the boys, sore at something he wasn't responsible for, had gone on strike. His wrath stemmed from the pain of friendship betrayed, and whether he or they were more astonished by his tongue-lashing, they still can't decide. It's safe to say, though, that Jack was the ultimate victim. When the thing was cleared up, he wore sackcloth and ashes for weeks.
Once they have a workable idea, it should be smooth sailing. Not with Jack. He may think it's funny, but that doesn't prove the audience will. He may laugh his head off, but he's not paid to make himself laugh. He's a perfectionist aiming to top his last mark. When he doesn't succeed, it's not for want of trying. The man at the dial sits forever on Jack's shoulder. In the final analysis that's the guy he works for — and to make it harder, he makes the guy tough. "He won't say, 'They can't all be firecrackers.' He'll say, 'Did you hear the Benny show last night? Boy, was it foul!'" So Jack sifts and weighs and explores and rejects and tears apart. "You've got to sell back to him again and again," says Morrow, "what he's already accepted and laughed at. That way we get a refining process that's invaluable."
THE revue, "Pins and Needles," included a sketch called "Cream of Mush." A radio tenor sings a song which the agency hacks to pieces in its high resolve to please all comers. The sun can't be "red" because people don't like the word. It can't set in the West, because Easterners might be offended. Like all good travesties, this one holds a germ of truth. Policy apart, Jack's a softie who can't bear to hurt feelings. He keeps his ears peeled for phrases which might wound the susceptibilities of one group or another. When through all his guards something slips in, he dies. One evening he was supposed to be dining his cast. He told them they ate too much. "What did I invite here, a bunch of starving Armenians?" Letters came protesting the assumption that Armenians don't eat as well as the next race. "It was just a fill-in line," moaned Jack. "We could have skipped it and never felt the difference." That old saw, "He spends money like a drunken sailor," was construed by cranks as an affront to the navy. Even Jack conceded this too preposterous to worry about.
With a secretary taking notes they work all week. A run-through rehearsal is called for Saturday noon, its chief purpose to note cast reaction to the lines. If they don't laugh, figures Jack, nobody will. He watches them closely, asks no questions but draws his own conclusions. All through the pleasant Saturday afternoon, while people who have no radio programs play, he and his writers revamp the script. Sometimes they make wholesale changes, sometimes they snip jokes here and add others there. Jack goes home and tries the gags out on Mary. Then he broods in bed and forgets to turn out the lights.
Sunday rehearsal directed by Jack brings its own crop of headaches. He's a stickler for punctuality. Rochester's late. The boys and girls have plenty to tell each other. They won't settle down till Jack gets mad. The expression his madness takes is, "Now really, fellows — " or, "Well, gee, after all, girls, let's get together." The extreme duration of his madness covers two minutes. He decides he's really sore at Rochester. The company watches him when Rochester shows. He knows they're watching. He opens his mouth to bawl and grins instead. "I can't help it," he apologizes. "It's his face."
Which doesn't mean that they don't jump through hoops for him. They know that being funny's a serious business. In the end they give their all for dear old National Broadcasting, Jell-o and Jack. But each is responsible only for himself. They just walk in. Jack's been working all week. He has what they call Sunday-morning jitters. Everything bothers him. He rubs his nose, pulls at his ear, mauls his chin. He's got to shape script and players into a crack performance. Nervous as a jumping bean himself, he's got to avoid making the others nervous, with an eye trained on the idiosyncrasies of each. Mary, for instance, is always bad at rehearsals. If he corrects her too often, she gets mixed up. Dennis Day is best left to read as he pleases. He has his own style. Interfere with it, and you wind up with no style at all. Phil Harris is the champion line-blower. Jack loses patience sometimes. Then he kisses the top of his head and says he's sorry.
They rehearse till shortly before the first broadcast. Three-thirty in summer, four-thirty in winter, to hit the East Coast at half past seven. When Jack steps out for his preliminary breeze with the studio audience, he's the picture of bland self-possession, but the picture lies. The reason he appears so early is to keep from going nuts with suspense.
FROM start to finish of the show, he's tense. No, you'd never guess it. Airy and casual you'd call him, but his eyes are everywhere and his wits work at frantic speed. He ad libs to cover a blown line or a gag that doesn't get a laugh. But timing is of the essence of comedy, and he must decide within a split second whether an ad lib will do more good than harm. In the wrong place, it may bring one laugh and kill the next four or five — which makes for bad arithmetic and worse clowning. If a gag hits unexpectedly, he beams at Morrow in the control room. He's got the kind of mouth whose corners curl naturally up. Mary watches it. When the corners go down, her heart goes with him.
The broadcast over, his face tells the whole story. If he thinks it was bad, he looks like the end of the world. "In one minute," says Morrow, "he's a thousand years old." The boys follow him to the script room. The rest grab a sandwich and return to stand by for rehearsal. There's another show at seven-thirty for the West. "Let's pep it up," says Jack. They throw out the stillborn jokes, rack their fevered brains for sure-fire laughs and in drastic cases have been known to rewrite a whole scene between broadcasts. Jack hates the words "good enough." "Nothing's good enough," he says, "but the best."
That's the principle on which he builds his show. One thing he doesn't worry about is his Crossley rating. Of course it's pleasant to be first, and if he slipped way down, he'd take the hint, exit and devote his worrying to golf. But if another show went ahead of his, he'd be listening to it, swelling the Crossley by one. When Bergen and McCarthy topped him, he made fuel of their triumph for his own program. "We can't be better than someone who's better than us," he argues. "The most we can do is to be as good as we can, and let the Crossley rating take care of itself."
He even worried about the testimonial dinner given by NBC to celebrate his ten years in radio. He tried to talk them out of it. The prospect of acting as a butt for verbal bouquets terrified him. Not till Rudy Vallee got up and sounded off with, "Who's this bum Benny with his ten lousy years in radio? I've had fifteen, where's my dinner — ?"— not till then did Jack pop into chortles of joy and relax for the evening.