Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Jack Benny BT Interview

Jack Benny gave a lengthy, wide-ranging interview to Broadcasting • Telecasting magazine that was published on October 15, 1956, discussing how and why he entered radio and television, writing his show, and his sponsorship and network changes.

Some of the answers seem a little unusual. Benny quit General Foods for American Tobacco solely because he wanted to plug a different product? Going back to when it happened, the trade press reported he wasn’t altogether happy with General Foods. And he completely ignores his sponsorship by Chevrolet. Benny expert Graeme Cree points out this wasn’t the only time he snubbed the carmaker in later years and believes it was intentional. If you don’t know, against the wishes of many Chevy dealers, the company’s president dumped the Benny show because he wanted a musical programme instead.

Note in 1948 how Benny (rather MCA) shrewdly sold CBS the Jack Benny radio show, not Benny and his characters. In a few years, Benny was free to negotiate another deal strictly for television under a different production company, maintaining all the characters of his radio show. Think of how, years later, David Letterman left NBC for CBS but NBC retained the rights to Larry ‘Bud’ Melman.

STARS SHINE BEST WHEN POLISHED

NO PERFORMER in broadcasting has kept at or near the top as consistently or long as Jack Benny. Here, in this recorded interview with B*T's Associate Editor Larry Christopher, Mr. Benny explains how he has kept his star shining for nearly 25 years.

Q: Jack, since you have sustained about the longest run on radio and television of a single personality during the past quarter of a century, your impressions are of special significance to the broadcasting profession at this time. For instance, how did you happen to decide to leave radio and devote full time to television?
A: I didn't have to decide. Television decided that for you. Tv and sponsors. There's no such a thing as making a decision there. You go where you have to go.
Q: The decision is not up to the entertainer?
A: No. Not at all. I don't care how good your radio program is at the moment, if you have to make a transition to television and if you don't make a good one, it certainly isn't good for the star.
Q: What are the problems for the star in making the transition?
A: Some people might be very, very good in radio and not make it in television because maybe before radio they haven't had real show business experience. On the stage. You see, television brings you back on the stage. I fortunately have had many, many years of experience on the stage, including vaudeville. Now, on the stage I used to do practically what Ed Sullivan does today except he goes for it pretty straight and I go for comedy. If I had started years ago and done that type of show, that would have been the type of show I would be doing today. Now that would have been easy for me to do — a weekly show as an m.c. As long as I knew the acts that were coming in I could prepare for it and also do some work with them. Outside of that, on my first year I sort of had to feel my way around and it seemed that the oftener I did them the better the shows were because I got into the groove like I did on radio.
Q: You're on your seventh year in tv on CBS-TV and with greater frequency than before, are you not?
A: For the last three years it's been every other week. Before that, once a month. Before that, once every six weeks. Before that, six a year and before that four a year. The fewer you do the tougher they are.
Q: The frequency keeps you sharper?
A: Not only keeps you sharper but you don't feel the responsibility that you have when you only go on four times.

Q: Did you feel a more significant responsibility?
A: Yes. If you only go on four times then every show has to be a knockout. This way, the way I go on now, if every show isn't great it doesn't make that much difference. I try to keep them great. Or let me say, I try to keep them from being lousy!
Q: Do you feel television is draining on your creative capacity much more than radio, the movies or vaudeville did?
A: I think it's a big drain on people. I must say fortunately it's been a little easier for me because of the build-up of the characterization over a period of years. This gives the writers something to hang on to. So that even though every program is different, it has something to do with my character and it isn't quite as tough to write. By that I mean you don't have to start off and say "let's write a show" like you do with some comedians who are fine and great comedians but haven't established characterizations. So when you start to write for them, you have to write a great show from the start that maybe has nothing to do with the fellow's character particularly.
Q: The impact of radio reaching such a mass audience, and later television adding its visual impact, these have been a vital factor in establishing this characterization, have they not?
Of course. It's the whole thing.
Q. You mentioned Ed Sullivan. Didn't you make your first radio appearance on his NBC show in 1932?
A. Yes, that's right. That's where they first heard me.
Q: How did it happen?
A: I had known Ed Sullivan for a long time and he asked me to be a guest on his radio show. At that time I was doing shows in New York in vaudeville. Vaudeville was beginning to die.

Q: Did you make a free appearance or for pay?
A: I don't recall. But the agency for Canada Dry ginger ale heard me and called me and gave me a job. We went on then for 39 weeks.
Q: What was your first reaction to this new medium after so many years on the stage?
A; Well, the reaction was a little bit frightening because in vaudeville you had one show and that was it. You changed it whenever you felt like it. And in this, when you realized that every week you needed a new show, this got a little bit frightening. But you storm through it some way because everybody is in that same spot.
Q: As a talent personality, what was it like to find yourself looking to a sponsor instead of a box office? Did you meet the Canada Dry people?
A: Oh sure. But I don't recall our first meeting. All I recall is leaving the stage show. You see, I was always looking ahead for something. Sometimes I left good jobs. I didn't have much money in those days. I was making good money, but I used to spend it all. But I always looked ahead. And I said, "If this is the new medium, then I must get into it." So I left the stage show, Earl Carroll's Vanities. I asked for my release from a show for which I was getting $1,500 a week. This was a lot of money in those days. And I left to try and get into radio. I didn't even have a job. I turned down $1,500 a week and didn't have a job. My wife agreed with me that I was doing the right thing. As a matter of fact, she sort of encouraged it. She said if it's the thing to do to get into radio, then get into it. Don't worry, she said, they'll find you someplace.
Q: Was radio inevitable in your mind?
A: There is probably no doubt even had I finished the season I would have gotten into radio sometime. But I realized while I was with the show that names we had never heard of before had become more popular around the country than we who had been in show business all of our lives. Some of these people had no background of show business. It was just the fact they were hitting the whole country all at once. So I thought, well, if these people are in it without any great backgrounds and have a bigger reputation than any of us around the country who have worked in show business all of our lives, this is the business to get into . . . And the only reason I got a release from the Vanities is because they were going back to the small cities after leaving New York and Earl Carroll at that time probably was very happy to lose me at $1,500.
Q: Who were some of the people who helped you develop your early radio shows?
A: The first writer I had was a fellow called Harry Conn. A very, very good writer. I had one writer only.

Q: Was Harry Conn responsible for developing some of your original characteristics so well known as your program personality?
A: Well, I would say this. That a writer falls into your characterizations because even in vaudeville I had some of these traits. But they were developed more in radio.
Q: You are known as the man who made a success of integrating the commercial into the format.
A: That's right. Well, I'll tell you a story about that. The first few weeks that we did it in a satirical way on the Canada Dry show the sponsor didn't like it and wanted us to stop it.
Q: Was that the nickel back on the bottle gag?
A: That's right. We did a lot of satires on the commercials.
Q: What was the first notice of the sponsor not liking it?
A: The sponsor wanted us to go back to the straight commercial, but the agency liked it and the agency said "they haven't had time to prove whether this is a good way to do it." So they allowed us another two or three weeks. And in the next two or three weeks the mail kept coming in so much to the sponsor that they liked this kind of advertising that they finally let us alone and let us do it. That is the only way that I would ever do it. Unless I had certain shows where it can't be integrated.
Q: With radio's impact on this new mass audience, you also soon learned you could develop star personalities quickly, new names like your wife Mary, singers Frank Parker, Kenny Baker, Dennis Day, Rochester and Schlepperman and Mr. Kitzel.
A: That's right. They had to have a certain amount of talent right away. They had no chance to develop it any place.

Q: The medium gave them the opportunity . . .
A: Yes, but the medium didn't give them the opportunity to improve themselves. Not like vaudeville where they would play certain towns, if they were bad in one town that was the only town that would know it and then they could go on to another town and improve. You know, I could have been bad in South Bend or Lafayette and by the time I got to Chicago a few weeks later I might have been a little bit better. But on radio, everybody had to be good right away and it's even more so on television.
Q: You had an experience of that in television last year when Leigh Snowden walked across the stage in San Diego.
A: She just walked across the stage. We've had some people who have been developed, but then most of them have to have some talent themselves. There's no question, you can't develop an untalented person. You might develop them for about 10 minutes, but I don't think that you can do anything with them if they haven't got talent.
Q: What do you do to help sustain talent and creative capacity? The demand is tremendous, isn't it?
A: We don't do anything. We just go along as we are. We make no effort to try to be exceptionally good and we don't try to make an effort to top any former show. We try to be good. If we had a great show last week, that doesn't mean that the next one we have to knock our brains out. As a result, the next one can be better because we haven't done that. We never did that on radio. Oh, sometimes I do a show with the Ronald Colmans. People say, "are you going to top it?" Well, I say, we're not even going to try. We just have a show. You may like this one without the Colmans better this particular week.
Q: You can't please everyone all the time.
A: That's right. And people aren't interested in that as much as whether they like you and your cast as personalities.
Q: The feeling of friendship and identification?
A: Absolutely. We always try to have good shows, but we don't knock ourselves out.

Q: One thing that has always distinguished your program in radio and now tv is the precision-like attitude given to each detail in its planning and follow through.
A: Editing. I think editing is the most important thing in all show business. I think editing is the most important thing in anything you do, whether you're making a speech, in politics, I don't care where you are. There isn't a first show that we write that would be good enough to go on. Editing is the most important thing that we do.
Q: After editing, what factors do you consider most important?
A: Well before editing there is something even before editing. Having good, likeable people, good personalities that the audience likes. There are these things. Then, after you get them, good writers, I'm saying after you get all this together, then comes editing.
Q: You stick pretty close to script after this final editing, don't you?
A: We take advantage of the situation for ad libs, but I don't think ad lib comedy is nearly as good as what you write. I would much prefer to get a laugh on what I've worked on all week and what I've paid a lot of money for than to get a laugh on something I might say in the middle of a program when something happens. However, if something happens in the middle of a program, then I think you should take advantage of it. When you've paid for it you don't want to drop it. I'd like to see some show go on and not write anything and ad lib it and see how far they would get. I don't think Will Rogers could have done that, or Mayor Walker, who was probably the greatest ad lib speaker in the world.
Q: Another aspect of this, touching on your current tv show, you do both live and film programs. Do you have a preference?
A: I like doing live shows. I like the intimacy of a live show, but it all depends on what type of a show it is. I'm getting a little more intimacy in the films now that I've made a few. At first it was a bit difficult.
Q: What is your technique of intimacy?
A: I'm talking about walking out and really addressing an audience instead of a camera.

Q: Is that difficult for an entertainer?
A: I think it is. Some people do it very well, like George Burns, who's had this experience for so many years. But of course, when we do a live show we do it a little differently than most of them. We don't have any cameras on the stage at all. Our cameras are in the back of the audience. So when I say intimate, I mean intimate. We're as close to an audience as we can get and they just sit and watch us as though you were watching a play at the Biltmore Theatre.
Q: What are the steps leading up to your show, its conception and planning. For instance, take your kickoff show on CBS-TV for Lucky Strike.
A: We just try and see what would make a good opening show. What's a good idea for an opening show. How would you open a season? I was going to New York after this first show to give a concert at Carnegie Hall for charity October 2. So we figured a good opening would be something that had to do with Carnegie Hall, with my going, with my preparing for it, you see. So we wrote along these lines.
Q: Your writing team has been with you a long time, hasn't it?
A: Sam Perrin and George Balzer have been with me, I think, going on 14 years and Al Gordon and Hal Goldman about eight years. We sit down here in my office in Beverly Hills and we knock off the idea. Some agree and some disagree on some of the different points. When we get to the point where we all agree, then, we discuss the steps of the show. How we should open. They then go away and they write it and then bring it back and we edit it. We go over it very carefully. Next we have our first reading here or at CBS and then I edit it again.
Q: Who is your producer and director.
A: Ralph Levy is director and executive producer and Hillard Marks is producer. We usually rehearse Friday, Saturday and Sunday and do the show Sunday.
Q: Getting back to your early radio show, after the initial 39 weeks for Canada Dry, where did the sponsorship go?
A: It went to General Tire, but just for about six months. It was a summer product. Next we switched to General Foods and six delicious flavors of Jello for many, many years.

Q: By 1940, it seems, the demand for Jello had been so built up by your program that there wasn't enough product to go around and the sponsor was required to put on another product. Isn't that true?
A: I think that finally the last couple of years they switched to Grape Nut Flakes. When we first took over for Jello, the product wasn't selling.
Q: Do you recall when the sponsor first expressed approval at the way radio was moving Jello off the dealer's shelf?
A: It took about the first season for them to realize that the product now was becoming very, very important.
Q: How long did you stay with General Foods?
A: About 10 years. It was in 1944 when I switched to Lucky Strike because I was in the South Pacific in '44 and when I came back I went with them.
Q: Why did you cancel your association with General Foods?
A: I just wanted to switch. I thought I should go with another product.
Q: About 1940-41, you had achieved a very unique thing with respect to your Sunday night 7 p.m. spot on NBC. You became the only personality in radio to control his own time period.
A: That's right. NBC gave me the time and as long as I was staying on it I could have the 7 o'clock period. Any sponsor who got me got that time.

Q: What were the steps leading up to this unique contract with NBC?
A: It came up because I had an opportunity to leave them. No. I'll tell you how it came up. I was going to leave General Foods the year before. That would have been 1940. I intended to leave my present sponsor and go with somebody else and my present sponsor wanted to keep the time whether I left him or not. So NBC came along and said if you will stick with General Foods this time we'll see that you'll always have 7 o'clock Sunday as your time. So I renewed with General Foods.
Q: Did Niles Trammell negotiate this for NBC?
A: Yes. But this was not contractual. This was merely a letter.
Q: When you dropped General Foods, how did you happen to sign with American Tobacco Co.?

SO, ON TO LUCKY STRIKE

A: There were five different companies that went after whatever deal we wanted. I don't recall at this time. The two of them we were trying to decide on were Campbell Soup Co. and American Tobacco and I finally picked Lucky Strike because of a man in the agency that I happened to know who represented Lucky Strike at that time, he sort of brought me over that way.
Q: Who was this person?
A: Don Stauffer.
Q: That was Sullivan, Stauffer, Colwell & Bayles then?
A: I believe so.
Q: Did you think this personal relationship was important for the best development of the show?
A: Well, I felt that I had one person whom I knew to work with should there be any problems. Because I used to hear at that time that the president of American Tobacco who was George Washington Hill was tough to work for. But we didn't find him that way at all. He was simply wonderful.
Q: Do you remember your first meeting with George Washington Hill?
A: Yes. I didn't meet him until about four months after I was working for him.
Q: Where was this?
A: I had lunch with him at his office. And he said a very, very wonderful thing to me. A very funny thing, let me put it that way. He knew he had a reputation for being tough, so as we sat down to have lunch he told me how much he enjoyed my programs. So I thanked him and told him that we always try to have good shows and that we were very fortunate on his show so far of having them pretty nearly all good, but sometimes we're not that lucky. He says to me, "Well, Mr. Benny, I only know one thing. Had your shows been bad. they never would have blamed you. They would say 'there's that so-and-so George Washington Hill to blame for that'."

Q: In later years you moved over to CBS and were one of the first to work out the capital gains arrangement so familiar throughout show business today. Like Amos 'n' Andy, the talent property became a business property, did it not?
A: That wasn't my case. My case was that I had a company and more than just my own show. We started on CBS Radio network Jan. 4, 1949. My company was Amusement Enterprises Inc. This is the company I sold. I didn't sell Jack Benny. I was just a stockholder in the company.
Q: The company itself packaged the programs and handled all the details of your activities?
A: That's right.
Q: I think this was one of the original capital gains arrangements in our profession. Wasn't the original case with General Eisenbook, which set the precedent after World War II, and then came Amos 'n' Andy?
A: Well, you see, Amos 'n' Andy had a legitimate deal because they themselves do not appear on any of their shows, so they have something all separate.
Q: They were selling the characterizations and you were selling a company?
A: I was selling a company with other shows. Like Let's Talk Hollywood. We had a movie, too. Whatever it was, the first year we had a profit-making company.
Q: What was perhaps the most influential factors in your decision to move from NBC to CBS?
A: To make some money like everybody else would like to make. That was the only reason. I was very happy at NBC. The deal was offered to NBC first. This was strictly a business deal for me to make some money. There is no way for an actor to make some money by getting a salary. If he depends on a salary, no matter how much he makes, he's going to go broke eventually. I wouldn't care if I worked for ABC, CBS, NBC or the American Trucking Co. if there was a chance for show business to make some money.

Q: The salary concept, then, has not been satisfactory . . .
A: . . . Oh, as far as earning, as far as salary was concerned, nobody could make any more money than I did. But suppose right now I make a half million dollars a week, let's go that broad; suppose I was given a half million dollars a week, but it was salary. What could I get out of it? About five dollars.
Q: While you were with NBC, I assume you got to know others in the NBC-RCA organization in addition to Niles Trammell. For instance, Gen. David Sarnoff?
A. Never met him until after I went to CBS.
Q. What was the occasion of your meeting General Sarnoff after you switched to CBS, do you recall?
A. Not at all.
Q: Had you met Bill Paley before you went to CBS?
A: Oh yes. I had known Bill Paley for some time. Bill Paley and I were friends without even discussing my ever moving to CBS.
Q: Had you known Dr. Frank Stanton previously?
A: No. Frank Stanton I only knew after I moved there. But Paley I'd seen a lot of at parties in New York. He might have said once, "I'd like to have you with us," and that would be the end of that.

Q: Your present contract with American Tobacco Co., is it coming up for renewal soon?
A: It's a yearly contract.
Q: Your characterization and comedy format through the years, Jack, have been unusually distinctive. Take Fred Allen, for example, your approach was different. Oh, I'm reminded of your big "fight" with Fred Allen. Didn't that start in 1936?
A: Something like that. It was an accident.
Q: Did you see immediate public reaction to this interplay?
A: No. As a matter of fact, we did it just as a gag between ourselves. It didn't start out to be a feud at all. It just started out with Fred Allen saying something which I picked up the next week and then he picked it up the next week and so on. The first thing we knew we had it. Of course, I've always said that if Fred Allen and I ever had gotten together and said "let's have a feud" it probably wouldn't have lasted a month as it would have been contrived. Imagine what Fred Allen, God rest his soul, would have said about my appearance at Carnegie Hall Oct. 2. If he knows anything about it now, he is talking plenty. Say, that would have been a good line to use at Carnegie Hall, wouldn't it?
Q: What, perhaps, was different about your approach to the transition from radio to television. Fred Allen never made the change. I think that's one of the saddest stories in show business, that a man of such great genius . . .
A: . . . Well, Steve Allen describes this very, very well in his book. That Fred Allen was one of the greatest writing and creative comedians in the business. He was a fine comedian, a great writer. Probably better than an acting comedian, you know. And so, therefore, it might have been difficult for him to find the right thing to do. But, sometimes, even he could have found it accidentally. He might have something right away that would have been great for television. Right away. But he just didn't happen to do it. But by the same reason he didn't, he also could have. He just didn't get into the right thing.
Q: Many of the other old timers in radio made the switch to tv and have had their problems. Eddie Cantor began a syndicated series for Ziv but had to give it up. He makes occasional appearances now.
A: Well, I think in Cantor's case his illness took a big toll there. You know, he had this bad heart attack a few years ago and then an operation before that. It's very tough to think and be able to be successful when you have these other worries on your mind. You're told not to do this and I imagine this would have quite an affect on anybody. A lot of his humor was physical too. Lots of jumping. No question he is a fine comedian.

Q: What about Danny Kaye's approach?
A: Well, he doesn't need anything. He doesn't need radio or television. His pictures, his personal appearances or wherever he goes, he does very big. He's a stylized kind of comedian who is excellent in what he does. He doesn't need any other facets of show business in order to stay one of the top comedians. Now, Bob Hope fits into everything.
Q: That takes considerable versatility.
A: Right. And energy. And he's got that. Besides, he's got a terrific personality and he's not only got a great wit but a great warmth in his personality. He finds time to do nice things for others. All together he's damn well liked. It's almost impossible for Bob to do the wrong thing. And if he does do any thing wrong, he's forgiven almost immediately.
Q: Your good friend George Burns has certainly found a successful home in tv.
A: True. And George Burns is a very, very creative comedian. He does what I do in the fact that he's always got his hand in everything. He's got his hand in it from the time they start on the show.
Q: This close attention is very necessary, isn't it?
A: I think very few comedians or stars can be successful and not be a part of the whole organization working to make it a success. Only in the movies can this happen.
Q: In the final analysis, the comedian has to deliver the entertainment product.
A: That's right. He either lives or dies with it.

3 comments:

  1. It's interesting that CBS held the copyright on the 1950-55 seasons of "The Jack Benny Program" on television, after which it changed over to J&M Productions following the end of Jack's radio program. And he was both right and prescient when he said a more frequent show "Not only keeps you sharper but you don't feel the responsibility that you have when you only go on four times," since moving forward a decade, one of the problems with Jack's late 1960s NBC specials was they seemed to try too hard to be topical and jam everything into a one-hour special, instead of the topicality gags being spread out over a full season, as had been the case in his weekly radio and live TV broadcasts.

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  2. thanks so much for sharing this!!!!!! An important interview. I love the questions that Jack evades..... as well as the answers he does give

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  3. I've always found it interesting that old time radio personalities almost always mentioned their sponsors, even decades after their affiliation with the companies had ended. I read an interview that Benny did about a year before he passed. The interviewer asked about a specific story line from the radio show. He said (and I don't remember the exact statements) "Let's talk about the programs where Rochester did X" and Benny said "Yes, the show".

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