Sunday, 12 February 2017
The Life and Times of Jack Benny, Part 6 of 6
The New York Post looked at the writing of the Benny TV show in the last part of a series of articles on Jack, published on February 9, 1958. It also talks about the next priority in Benny’s later life—his love of violin playing. There’s also an interesting quote from Mary Livingstone about their marriage; if I read it correctly, she credits Jack with keeping them together by putting her in his act—even though she always insisted she hated performing. At this point she hadn’t retired; she did it later in the year after Gracie Allen quit.
The Jack Benny Story
By DAVID GELMAN and MARCY ELIAS
For the better part of 64 years it has been Jack Benny's custom, or rather his compulsion, to rise and greet the new day at about 6 a.m., no matter what time he went to bed the night before. (What strengthens him in the pursuit of this hardy regimen possibly is the assurance that he doesn't have to go out and look for a job.)
After dressing in neatly pressed slacks, sports shirt and lounging jacket, he stops in the kitchen for a bracer of orange juice (he frequently dines in the kitchen with the servants, who adore him) and sets out on his long morning walk through Beverly Hills.
"Someone has to get the germ of the idea," says senior writer Sam Perrin. "It might be one of us or it might be Jack. Jack may say he's been to the barber's and a funny thing happened and why don't we do that.
"Often, once we get the germ and we start working on it together we lose and discard that idea completely mid from that develop a completely different idea ... It always starts from a small thing and by the time we've all kicked it around we've come up with something different and the original thought has been replaced."
"Jack always knows what he wants," says writer George Balzer. "He has a great appreciation toward writers, definitely more so than most comedians. If you give Jack a page or two of a script and he doesn't like it, he doesn't say like a lot of them do, 'It's lousy!' and throw it on the floor. He never insults the material."
"Jack is a talking comedian rather than a physical comedian," says writer Al Gordon, "and that can be limiting in TV. He's more of a class, or what I call a blue-suit comedian, to the extent that if we had him in a fight scene and he picked up a chair, even if it were a very funny bit Jack wouldn't be funny in it because it would be out of character. We know this and we have to write accordingly."
"Actually I think I'm pretty creative," says Benny. "Over 50 per cent of the ideas used on the radio and TV shows come from me . . . I don't mean to take anything away from the writers. They are the best in the business and I wouldn't have anything else, but we all work together so that often it's so close you can never know where the ideas come from. We don't press. We don't say let's make this the greatest show that's ever been on TV. We say let's make this a nice show.
"I do think I'm a good editor and by that I mean I can feel a pulse. I can feel what jokes and situations will go now that wouldn't have gone last year or years ago . . . I also like to do things that fit me and no one else . . ."
(One novel idea generally credited to Benny is the integrated commercial, which like every other successful gag on the show became a permanent feature of the script. As a result, Benny commercials, while sometimes amusing, were often among the longest in radio.)
After a few hours of creativity, Jack frequently takes a recreational lunch hour at the Hillcrest Country Club. There he is apt to break bread at a round-table that includes George Burns, Danny Kaye, George Jessel, Harpo and Groucho Marx and several other illustrious club members.
No one at the table can resist playing to him, but it is George Burns who finds the mark most often. Sometimes Burns merely glares at him and says, "Laugh!" and Benny roars.
On one occasion Burns issued the command but Benny said he wasn't in the mood. "I said laugh!" Burns growled. "No," George," Benny replied, "I'm not going to laugh." Burns put his face close to Jack's and snarled, "So you're gonna be tough today!" and Jack's resistance fell apart.
After lunch, Benny lights his first cigar of the day, takes two or three puffs, looks at it and mutters something like, "Heh!" and throws it away—a ritual he repeats several times in the course of a day. This is followed by a few holes of ill-tempered golf, a game he plays for the sheer frustration of it, after which he returns to his office for another script session.
His preoccupation with the show, while not intense, is constant enough so that he is apt to wake Mary at 4 in the morning and begin talking about it. It keeps him in a state of absent-mindedness to the extent that he will often fail to recognize members of his immediate family in public places. His favorite mental lapse is to double-date with friends on a given night and then ask them the following morning, "What did you do last night?"
"For years," said Mary, "before I got into bed at night I would pull the shades and turn off the lights. One night I asked him to do it for a change. The light was already out but he said, 'All right, doll (they always call each other doll)' got out of bed, pulled the shades, clicked the light switch, came back to bed, kissed me good night and turned over. The room was as full of light as if it were the middle of the day. I started to scream, 'You don't notice anything, do you! Look at the lights!' This is typical of Jack."
His concern for the show makes him poor company on vacations. Even the charms of Paris and Honolulu distracted him only for a few days before his obvious restlessness convinced Mary it was time to go home. Yet, as she points out, he will often embark on tedious cross-country trips by auto (he flies only when he's in a hurry) with cronies like Burns, Jesse Block and Frank Remley, and enjoy every long mile of the journey, arriving at his destination unshaven, fairly sleepless, and completely relaxed by therapeutic laughter. Apparently the auto trips provide the few opportunities for Jack himself to do some light-headed clowning.
As an instance, Frank Remley recalls that once he and Jack stopped overnight at a flea-ridden motel. They got up early the next morning to pack for a hasty departure.
"Very seriously," said Remley, "Jack came up to me holding a small piece of string he'd found, he said, 'Want this Frank?' I looked at him like he was crazy and said no. So he said, 'Thanks, I'll take it then.' Boy he knew he had me. I nearly died laughing."
Another happy escape for Benny is the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital where he checks in for an annual three-day rest and checkup—a gracious practice limited to Hollywood's very rich. By informed estimate, Benny is not among the movie capital's very, very rich. That is, he falls a notch below the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope bracket and probably a zero or two above the rest.
He has never had the time or the instinct for large investments. He does have some real estate holdings and government bonds, but for a man who has averaged around $400,000 yearly income for roughly 20 years (from radio, TV and a dozen financially successful movies), his wealth is not awesome. He and Mary are free spenders and not strictly in their own interest. ("This guy gives away more money every week than most people earn in a year," says Benny Rubin, "and he has a Christmas list 100 names long.")
The Bennys live in an 11-room house in Beverly Hills that is not palatial but comfortable enough for Jack and Mary and the serving staff. (Daughter Joan moved out when she got married.) The furniture is arranged so that Jack can put his feet up on something no matter where he sits and watch television on any one of the nine sets in the house. He is an undemanding lord who rarely troubles the servants with his whims, lets Mary manage all household details (he still doesn't know how to turn on the heat) and submits agreeably to the restrictions she occasionally imposes.
For a number of years he practiced violin in the bathroom—Mary and Joan declared the rest of the house off-limits after stretching their tolerance to the breaking point. He uses the sitting room adjacent to Joan's bedroom now that Joan is gone. (He is in dead earnest about according his $25,000 Stradivarius the respect it deserves; moreover he now plays three benefit concerts a year in such critical places as Carnegie Hall.)
"Neither of us," said Mary recently, "has been troubled by success. I guess we've just been lucky. There were times when our marriage could have gone wrong were it not for Jack's marvelous understanding. The smartest thing in the world he ever did was to put me in show business. I felt left out of his life. I think I was a little bit jealous of him, not of his career but of all the beautiful girls around him in shows. But he knew how to work it out and he did it by getting me into the business, so that I could understand what his life was like."
Mary worked side by side with Jack throughout the radio era and even had an independent movie career briefly, but she finally backed down under the threat of live TV. She has refused to appear in anything but filmed TV shows with Jack.
"I hate the acting part of the business," she confessed. "I always have. I like the business side, getting up shows, the production side, finding people.
"Part of the success of our lives I think is that Jack and I both knew the security of family life while we were growing up. We spend a lot of time together. Two or three nights a week we have dinner together on a tray upstairs and talk for hours about the show, world affairs, things we've read in the paper. Jack is envious of no one. He wants everything and everybody to be great—movies, TV, anything. If he sees something or someone who is great, he's the first one to become a fan."
Benny is less admiring of his own talents. He denies that he has attained the stature of "a Bob Hope or a Bing Crosby" but concedes that his accomplishments are impressive.
"When someone asks me for the secret of my success," he says, "I get embarrassed and I say, 'Because I can't stand a lousy show.' The real reason is that I have very good writers who have been with me for years and years, and I won't have anything else. I have a very fine creative director (currently Ralph Levy), and I wouldn't have anything else. I have a cast of naturally good performers who know I don't like anything that's forced. I won't, for example, let anybody mug on my show or force the humor.
"The other thing that's helped me stay on top is that I have built up a characterization that is easy to write for and therefore, although every show may not be the greatest show in the world, we have kept, them from stinking, which is an achievement in itself." The negative tribute clearly pleases Benny more than any blunt compliment. When George Burns accosts him at a party in his living room and says loudly enough for everyone to hear: "You go lie down in a corner! No talent! Can't sing, can't dance, can't play the violin, can't even tell a joke!" Jack rolls on the floor laughing helplessly and possibly enjoying the huge irony of partial truth in these accusations.
But Burns is discreet enough to reserve for other ears his real estimate of Jack Benny:
"This guy is an Institution—and he built it all himself."
(Last of a series)