Sunday, 19 February 2017
Is Jack Benny Too Inside?
Like Rochester’s brief running gag of shouting “Again?!”, critics mildly groused that the Benny radio shows sounded an awful lot like each other. But Benny knew that’s what his audience wanted; he just needed to find a new running gag or twists over the course of the season.
John Crosby of the Herald Tribune syndicate kind of admits the conundrum in his first of many reviews of the Benny show. It was published May 30, 1946. Crosby could be snarky and sarcastic about radio programs he didn’t like, but he just couldn’t be nasty to Jack Benny. Who could be?
(P.S.: I’ve left in the footnote about the Dorothy and Dick show on WOR New York for history’s sake. I haven’t heard the broadcasts so I don’t know if Crosby is being serious).
RADIO IN REVIEW
By JOHN CROSBY
Fourteen Years of Jack Benny
In my own small circle we have a number of jokes which commemorate various episodes, usually disgraceful, which occurred far in the past. Over a period of years, these jokes have become so highly specialized that they are meaningless to any one who is not only thoroughly familiar with the episode in question, but also with all the jokes that preceded it. To the outsider, these gags are not only unfunny; they are totally unintelligible.
That leads me, in a rather roundabout way, to Jack Benny, who bowed off the air last Sunday night for the summer. In the fourteen years he has been on the air, Mr. Benny has joked tirelessly Sunday after Sunday about his age (thirty-seven), his stinginess, his thinning hair, his jealousy of other radio comedians, his violin playing and Waukegan.
Gradually through the years, the jokes on these themes have been foreshortened to the point where they would be unintelligible to any one who had never heard the Benny program, if there is any one like that. Last Sunday, Mr. Benny and his announcer held the following colloquy:
“I’m giving everyone a bonus check. That’ll help you get back to California,” said Mr. Benny.
“Get back to California – with THIS check?”
“Turn it over – there’s a road map on the other side.”
Unless you know Benny pretty well, that gag would mean very little. But, the veteran radio comedian has invented and perfected a sort of radio family joke. Benny's idiosyncrasies excite both laughter and sympathy the same way father does when he leaves his umbrella on the streetcar again. It’s not funny to any one outside the family.
A Jack Benny joke is an intimate thing shared only by himself and about 20,000,000 listeners. Very wisely, Benny doesn’t address himself to all 20,000,000 at once. The Benny show is a very personal show directed at two or three people sitting in a living room, which, I think is why it has held its popularity for so many years.
During the last year there have been dark whisperings that Jack Benny was seriously slipping; that his material was old; his scripts poorly written. There’s some truth to these charges. The Benny show is no longer put together with the loving care he once lavished on it. Some of his shows were shapeless and floundering, which you could never say about a Benny program in the old days.
But I keep listening anyway. I have been listening to Jack Benny for so many years my critical sense is paralyzed. He is like an old friend of whose faults you are fully aware, but are willing to forgive.
Benny, who once had a stranglehold on the top spot of all the ratings lists, is now tenth on the Hooper rating behind, respectively, Bob Hope, Fibber McGee and Molly, Red Skelton, Radio Theater, Charlie McCarthy, Walter Winchell, Screen Guild Players, Mr. District Attorney, and his old rival Fred Allen.
Somehow I have a feeling Mr. Benny doesn’t mind much. He has been one of the world’s most popular comedians for so many years he can afford to relax in that No. 10 position. Over the years his fans have stuck to him with a loyalty unknown in the amusement industry since the death of vaudeville.
When he returns in the fall they will be waiting again for that fine, that mild, that naturally pleasant comedy which Mr. Benny has been dishing out for fourteen years.
* * *
Program footnote: The canary heard on the Dorothy and Dick Kellmar [sic] breakfast program last Thursday and Friday in their broadcasts from Chicago was not their regular performer. It was an understudy provided by the Hartz Mountain Canary Company in Chicago.