Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Life and Times of Jack Benny, Part 5 of 6

The years of World War Two weren’t really kind to the Jack Benny radio show. For one thing, there was a change in sponsors; no more jolly sounds of Don Wilson urging upon the audience the delights of Jell-O or Grape Nut Flakes. I’m sure the almost two minutes of repetitive sloganeering for cigarettes that opened each show turned off listeners. As well, Jack convoyed his cast to broadcast from a number of military sites. It was undoubtedly good for service members watching the show, but disconcerting to radio listeners who had to endure inside jokes directed at G.Is. And Jack was forced to acquire a whole new writing team, which realised they had to find ways to freshen the show.

Eventually they did with a slew of popular new secondary characters (the neighbouring Colmans, Sheldon Leonard’s tout, Frank Nelson’s “yes” man, Bea Benaderet’s and Sara Berner’s phone operators, Mel Blanc as almost anything). And they still had a well-defined character in Jack (the phoney radio version) who could play off them.

Benny racked up huge publicity in two ways after the war. One was with a contest. The other was an attempt to get around huge taxes levied at celebrities, resulting in his jump in mid-season from NBC to CBS.

Both were covered in the fifth part of a series on Benny’s life in the New York Post. The issue of February 7, 1958 also includes more plaudits for Jack by the people who worked with him. The final instalment of the series will be posted next Sunday.

The Jack Benny Story

In 1946, when the popularity of Jack Benny's radio show was in a rare period of decline, he hit upon the bold, if questionable, stratagem of inaugurating a kind of unpopularity contest in his own name.
"A lot of people, " said Irving Fein, president of Jack's J&M Productions, "tried to talk Jack out of it because they said it was a negative idea, but Jack insisted on going ahead with it and he was right. The only thing they succeeded in making Jack do was to change the contest wording from ' I Hate Jack Benny because . . . ' to 'I Can’t Stand Jack Benny because . . .'"
The results of this hazardous gambit were more than gratifying. Between 300,000 and half a million radio listeners across the nation vied with each other in heaping written abuse on Benny's willing head in 25 words or less. By the end of the year, he was solidly reestablished among the top 10 shows on the air, a position he has almost habitually occupied in both radio and TV from the beginning.
(Currently, Jack is seen on alternate Sundays at 7:30 p.m. on Channel 2, and rebroadcasts of his old radio shows still are carried regularly on CBS at 7 p.m. each Sunday.)
Among performers, Jack might conduct an "I Like Jack Benny because . . ." contest with a response equal in enthusiasm if not in volume. Interviews on the subject produce such an outpouring of affection, esteem and gratitude that it is best perhaps to let the quotes fall where they may:
Barbara Stanwyck, an occasional guest star on the show: "Jack is like a Bible to me. He is the only comedian I would appear for. I have nothing against the others but I know that if I goof Jack will never ridicule me to get a laugh.
"He once said to me that unless his guest star is the star of his show it isn't worth anything."
Ronald Colman, who, with his wife Benita, was a frequent guest on the radio show:
"I can honestly say—being a straightman myself—as fond as I am of many comedians, he is the only comedian that I didn't have any hesitation about working with. He never leaves you, as we say, with egg on your face. You get the fat, the laughs.
Silence and Stores
"He did a great deal for me in encouraging me about pauses and the late take. I knew how to wait in a dramatic scene but he would go to the extreme. Perhaps I would hold the pause two or three seconds and he would urge me to hold It longer, five or six seconds. I was afraid of losing the audience but Jack would say you can tell if you're doing it right by the studio audience. He was and is just marvelous at timing and also at various possible readings of the same line."
Colman's comment, incidentally, points up another singular development of the Benny show—the comedy of silence, perhaps best exemplified by one of the most memorable renditions of the Benny stingy joke. This was brought about by the simple device of having a holdup man accost Benny on the street and say:
"Your money or your life!"
There followed a stage wait which has been variously estimated as from 45 seconds to two full minutes. Certainly it was of record duration and the notion of Jack Benny forced at last to choose between his money and his life and hesitating over the decision set some sort of record for studio laughter.
Often Jack achieved a similar effect by the use of pregnant exclamations like "Hmmm!" or "Well!" in each case with lingering emphasis on the final consonant. For the transition to TV (which he made cautiously in 1950), Jack embellished the silences by simply staring at the audience with a facial composure that was once described by Arthur Marx, writing in the Sunday Times Magazine, as "reminiscent of a calf that has just been dealt a blow between the eyes with a sledgehammer."
Benny himself explains it this way:
"As the butt of the jokes with everybody else getting, the laugh off me most of the time, I hold that laugh by looking at the audience as if in desperation and to get their help."
At the London Palladium he carried the stare to such excruciating length once that a balcony customer finally shouted in heavy Cockney accents:
"Fer Gawd's, syke, Mr. Benny, sigh something.
"The biggest point about Jack,'' says George Burns, "is that he deceives people. On the stage he doesn't look like he has any courage. He looks spineless. It looks like everyone is taking advantage of him and you want to adopt him, feed him, take him in your arms. But what you don't realize is that on stage Jack Benny is a powerhouse. If he does a funny joke and the audience doesn't laugh, he looks at them long enough until without realizing it they're frightened not to laugh.
"I've seen him look without saying a word for 45 seconds, which is a long time to stand out there alone without saying a word, and then you know he has courage. It's the waiting for those first snickers. You've stuck your neck out and if they don't come, God help you, you're dead. I saw him do this in Las Vegas last year. He had them so much in the palm of his hand that right from the beginning they were scared to death that they might not laugh in the right spots. With Jack Benny, it's the audience that's on."
The testimonials go on and on until one is tempted to say, as Jack once said to Judy Garland:
"You have so much talent I'd like to punch you in the nose."
Says Edgar Bergen: "I think he loves any performer who does a good job. In all the years I've known him I've never seen an ounce of professional jealousy in him."
Says singer Frances Bergen (Edgar's wife): "I'm so prejudiced about Jack I could be nauseating . . . He is the most considerate man I've ever known."
Says Benny Rubin: "Because of two tough divorce cases I went broke twice . . . I bought a small egg farm in New Hampshire. I didn't tell Jack anything about this but somehow he found out and wrote me a letter with a check in it. The letter said: 'You gotta eat until those goddam chickens lay the eggs.'
"Later back in L. A., I would get a call from someone on the show saying there was a part for me. Sometimes there actually was a part, but more times when I got there Jack would apologetically tell me the part had to be cut for one reason or another. You know what that meant—I got paid for the part anyway. Jack does this all the time. It's his way of giving without embarrassing you."
Says Dennis Day, who was singing for $20 a week until Jack hired him:
"He has been almost like a father to me. On my first couple of shows I'd been awfully nervous and scared and he came over to me and said, 'Look, don't worry about it. You've got the talent and the voice and I'm right behind you.' You can't imagine what this means to an amateur.
"The rarest thing in show business is the Benny show because it's all fun, everybody gets along like a big family, "where on most shows everyone is out to stick a knife in everyone else's back."
And says Eddie Anderson, who was originally hired for a single appearance on the show as a Pullman porter:
"If I'm not mistaken I was probably the first Negro to become a regular member of a coast-to-coast radio show. And as a result a lot of good was done in making it a natural thing to have mixed casts . . . I would go from here to hell for that man. There is only one other man I had that feeling for—my father."
Absent from this impressive roster of admirers is Harry Conn, Benny's first scriptwriter who started the stingy joke, invented the Mary Livingston character and initiated several other standard features of the Benny show.
Conn broke with Benny in 1936 apparently because he felt he was half the reason for the show's success and accordingly entitled to half of Benny's earnings. Benny fired him, some say, at the insistence of Mrs. Benny.
Conn was replaced by two writers, Ed Beloin and Bill Morrow, who worked for Benny until 1944. Both still speak of him glowingly as the best-paying comedian in the business, as well as the easiest and the most educational to work for.
Benny then acquired four writers—Sam Perrin, George Balzer, Milt Josefsberg and John Thackaberry —more recently added Hal Goldman and Al Gordon, all happy, all prosperous, all accounted for.
Testimonials to Benny come as a rule from individuals but occasionally a corporation gets into the act. In 1942, NBC threw him a 10th anniversary dinner in the course of which Niles Trammell, then network president (and possibly a little carried away by the occasion), publicly awarded Benny a lifetime option on the 7 to 7:30 p.m. Sunday time slot.
Trammell's generosity notwithstanding, Benny succumbed to the blandishments of a CBS capital gains deal and switched to the rival network at the beginning of 1949, precipitating an industry-shaking migration of established radio names like Edgar Bergen, Bing Crosby and Red Skelton from NBC to CBS.
To engineer this coup, CBS paid $2,260,000 for Amusement Enterprises, Inc., an organization of which Benny owned 60 per cent of the stock and which included the Benny show and the services of a little known ex-GI comedian named Jack Paar. By selling his corporation, Benny was able to list the profit under the heading of capital gains, an item which is taxable at only 25 per cent, and which spared him an estimated $1,000,000 that he would have been required to pay as a personal income tax.
The deal touched off a controversy in Internal Revenue circles that was not resolved until Nov. 7, 1955, when a U. S. Tax Court handed down a decision favorable to Benny.
No one has ever suggested that Benny himself, conceived this master plan. It was CBS boss William Paley who made the offer, and ultimately it enabled the network to equalize the balance of power and wealth in the broadcasting field.
(There was some doubt afterwards as to whether Benny had switched to CBS or CBS had switched to Benny. Network brass extended a royal welcome on his arrival and jostled each other in the rush to satisfy his whims. Paley, always an avid follower of the comedian, hosted a huge party for him at the Waldorf about six years ago. Benny innocently embarrassed him there by refusing to mingle with the guests, drawn almost exclusively from the Social Register and the entertainment business, and instead spent most of the evening conducting the dance band.)
Currently, Jack is the chief stockholder in J & M Productions, the successor to Amusement Enterprises But, says J&M President Fein, "Jack knows nothing about the business end of the company. I run it, and I make the decisions about the deals, the prices and the amounts. Jack is not interested. The more you explain the details of a business deal to him, the more he gets bored. The only thing he cares about business is to pay the top salaries in the business. When you talk business to him, he always says after awhile, 'All I know is a funny thing happened to me on the way to the studio.'"
Week-End Edition: At Home With an Institution

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