Sunday, 14 May 2017

How To Sign a Guest Star

Jack Benny had a well-earned reputation of handing many of the laughs on his show to everyone else. It served him in good stead. It’s how he got Marilyn Monroe for his TV show at a time when heads of movie studios were sticking pins in voodoo dolls of television sets. Benny’s shrewdness helped him land movie stars, too. He coaxed Jack Warner and Sam Goldwyn to appear with him on radio and showcased them as funny, sympathetic guys who suffered by miscasting him in movies. Ego stroking never hurts in Hollywood.

Guest stars can be a good thing or a bad thing. I’ve always felt a show that starts relying on guest stars is one that’s run out of gas and needs a gimmick. The Benny show, on radio, rarely had them in the first decade with the main notable exception of Fred Allen. In the ‘40s, Benny used them pretty well. The writers found a logical reason for them to be there—Ronald and Benita Colman were neighbours, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson and Bob Hope were vaudeville buddies, Lauren Bacall was rehearsing a movie part with him and so on. In the ‘50s, some of the hook-ups seemed strained or existed solely to plug a movie. A show with Sarah Churchill strikes me as contrived, and a two-parter with Deborah Kerr just doesn’t work for me.

Jack went for guest stars on television and, in some cases, used safe, familiar routines. Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper had appeared with him on radio. They showed up with their wives on TV, basically doing the Colman schtick—they were the “normal” Hollywood stars uncomfortable with, and aghast by, the boorish and socially awkward Benny. The Colmans handled the roles much better.

Here’s a story from the New York Herald Tribune of March 13, 1960 talking about how Benny treated his guest stars. And he again gripes about interviewers asking about his Maxwell and “being 39.” To me, the “39” question is a logical one and the Maxwell is an ice-breaking joke, but perhaps Jack heard them so many times (he was constantly giving interviews, it seems), that he was tired of it.

Jack Benny:
Still Fiddling Around
By Joe Hyams

THE other day I was sitting at lunch with Jack Benny, trying to puzzle out what it is about his shows that make them almost consistently good entertainment. Mr. Benny was being modest about it all, but finally when the conversation got on to his next spectacular, he gave me what I think is the key to his success. “It’ll be different,” he said, “otherwise I’d go nuts and get in a rut.”
The point is, Jack Benny’s show, more than any other on television, seems to be tailored to his personality and his likes and dislikes. I guess that’s a formula of sorts, and as long as it is successful and good, I doubt that Jack will change it.
The show, as most any viewer must know, consists of Jack and a couple of carefully chosen guests. On the coming CBS-TV spectacular, for example, the guests will be Phil Silvers and Polly Bergen, making a balance Jack likes: another man and a woman, preferably a singer.
Generally Jack has an idea which he presents to his guests in advance, rather than getting the guest and then the idea. For instance, one of Jack’s favorite guests was Gary Cooper.
A Coup on Cooper
“Three years ago Coop’s wife, Rocky, came to me at a party,” Jack recalled. “She said Gary wouldn’t mind being on the show. Well, who wouldn’t jump to have Gary Cooper, so I thought of a way of presenting him. At lunch a few weeks later I outlined the idea to him, then realized it wouldn’t come off. Two years later I had a terrific idea and asked him to come on with Rocky. He did, and it was one of our best shows.
“Then from the time Jimmy Stewart first said he’d come on the show, it took me almost three years to find the right idea—but when we did, the show worked out fine.
“The point is, I hurt myself if the guest doesn’t look right. In the first place, I don’t ask someone to appear until I have the right idea. With the right idea you can go to a star, but it’s bad to go to them first, then have to scramble for an idea to fit them.
“I had Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Colman on dozens of times, but I remember calling them off one Saturday because the skit we planned just didn’t fit the show. We postponed them for a couple of weeks and then, when they fit the show, we invited them back, and it came off perfectly.”
Jack said he likes to use off-beat guest stars, people like Harry S. Truman, Mrs. James Stewart and Mrs. Edgar Bergen—people one doesn’t normally expect to see on a television show. “I must say that as a rule it is easier to write comedy scripts for dramatic actors than comedians,” Jack said. “The surprise impact is greater. But it’s fun having another comedian on too. Generally they come off well, because I don’t mind a bit being the straight man, as long as it’s on my own show.”
Jack has played the straight man to some of the great comics of our day, something rare in show business, where everyone likes to be the “top banana.” But his formula of making the “guest look good” is one that pays off handsomely.
I guessed that in “payment” for Phil Silver’s [sic] appearance on his show, Jack would guest on Phil’s show, and I was right. This practice of lend-lease among stars is getting more prevalent these days, and Jack gave me a good reason for it.
“Money doesn’t mean much to entertainers any more,” he said. “There’s only so much they can keep, and the prices of top talent are prohibitive. Since I’m not interested in taking money, but I am interested in getting top guests—and they’re in the same situation—we exchange visits. It seems to be working out all right all around. You just have to pick your spots as well as your guests.”
A Vote For Paar
In line with this, I asked Jack which shows he liked to be a guest on.
“It’s easy to be good on the show Jack Paar had,” he said. “Jack was sensitive and asked nice leading questions you could talk about. It’s not hard to ad lib when you’re talking on sensible subjects. But interviews I hate are when someone starts out by asking, ‘Did you drive over in your Maxwell?’ ‘How long are you going to stay 39?’ ‘Are you really that stingy?’
“Steve Allen is good to work with, too, because he asks sensible questions. As a rule, when I go on a George Burns show I don’t have to worry, and Danny Thomas comes up with good ideas and good jokes. Bob Hope is a good guy to exchange with, but there are some I really worry about. When I know I’m going on their show I bring in my writers too and we all sweat.”

1 comment:

  1. The TV shows that hewed closer to using the regulars were better, but every once in a while they'd find a seamless way to work a guest star in. The 1961 episode with Raymond Burr took as its foundation the 1947 "Turkey Dream" show that Milt Josefsburg called one of the worst Jack ever did, and turned in into one of the best guest starring TV episodes -- Jack's still dreaming he's on trial for murdering a bird (a rooster here instead of a turkey) but the hook this time that makes it work is he's being defended by an incompetent Perry Mason.