Sunday, 10 September 2017

Toiling on TV Without "Clamor and Castigation"

There were comedians, and there may be some today for all I know, who kept massive joke files. Need a joke about undertakers? Look under “U.”

Jokes or switched jokes (simply changing a name or subject) toured vaudeville circuits as much as the comedians did. When network radio came around, some frowning columnists wrote that gag-lines on several different comedy shows sounded awfully similar.

There was one comedian who none of this affected because he didn’t really tell jokes. He was a character. He was Jack Benny.

Milton Berle or Edgar Bergen couldn’t very well lift a “Well!” or “Now cut that out!” from Benny. Those routines only worked for Jack. There may have been plenty of gag-book cheapskate jokes around, but Benny’s cheap gags were always connected with the plot that was playing out on the air.

This meant Jack’s gag writers really weren’t gag writers. They had to write for situations, somehow finding a way to incorporate all the catchphrases and many supporting characters that were specific to the Benny show without overusing them. No wonder when Jack found writers who could do that, he hung onto them.

(As a side note, when Benny appeared on other radio shows, he didn’t always seem quite right. Sometimes he was too cheap. Other times he came across as kind of nasty).

Here’s Jack talking about his writers and writing for his show to the International News Service in a story first published March 22, 1957. Ironically, Milt Josefsberg had quit the Benny show at the end of the 1954-55 season to join the production staff at NBC (he was purged in May 1957). Tackaberry left at the same time, apparently to freelance; for the next year he worked on Chrysler’s Showers of Stars (which sometimes featured Benny) and Ford Star Jubilee.

Also noted is the decreased use of his regular supporting cast from the later part of his radio days. In some cases it was understandable. Phil Harris left before the radio show went off. Dennis Day was working nightclubs and on his own TV show for a while. Bea Benaderet was tied up with Burns and Allen on TV, Verna Felton was a regular on December Bride. Personally-troubled Sara Berner fell into disfavour; TV Guide claimed it was over money. Sheldon Leonard went into producing, while Artie Auerbach died during the course of the show. So it was that people like Richard Deacon, Rolfe Sedan and Maudie Prickett began to appear on camera in incidental roles. As good as they were, they didn’t stand out like the actors on radio.

Benny Never Changes His Age or His Staff

HOLLYWOOD, April 27 (INS)—One of the great oddities of the entertainment industry, where employment is about as stable as a jar of nitroglycerin, is that the least-erased payroll belongs to the world's foremost tightwad.
Year after year, Jack Benny manages to cruise along at the top of the ratings with the same crew of aides while other comedians are changing writers and supporting players as often as they change their moods.
Among those who depend for their livelihood upon their ability to gauge the temper of stars and behave accordingly, Mr. Benny's record of employe-relations is a thing to be wondered at as much as admired.
Two of the blue-eyed buffoon's writers, Sam Perrin and George Balzer, have toiled with Mr. Benny through radio and television for 14 years. The other two, Al Gordon and Hal Goodman, are relative newcomers, with seven years' seniority each.
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FOR OTHER COMEDIANS to keep the same writers around for two years running is considered a touching tribute to their talents.
Mr. Benny has been even more constant to his cast Don Wilson has been announcing his shows and trading jibes with Jack for 23 years—since the comedian's second year on radio.
Eddie (Rochester) Anderson was hired to do one radio show with Mr. Benny almost 20 years ago. He got a few laughs and stayed, for the simple reason that Mr. Benny's business is provoking laughter, and he isn't particular who pulls the punch lines.
Dennis Day, now an “irregular regular” in the Benny stable, Mr. Kitzel and others of Jack's cohorts all have similar records of longevity.
Mr. Benny's secret for maintaining his key personnel and keeping them on the ball is obvious. He pays them well, and treats them right.
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ALL OF HIS AIDES are among the most highly-paid workmen in their particular divisions of show business. Few of them need outside work to keep the money rolling in at a gratifying rate, and there are no outbursts of star-temperament to make their lives miserable.
“I use some of my people more sparingly now,” Mr. Benny explained. “I used them more on radio, but they're still good, and I still use them.
“Writers? Well, if they got stale, that would be something else. But they don't. By their writing they keep up with the times. They stay fresh. If I got new writers, they'd probably be writing things I did years ago, thinking they knew my character.”
It would seem that in the mad scramble for good comedy writers in TV these days. Jack would be hard-pressed to hang onto his favorite authors. But he has had little trouble with would-be pirates.
“See, so much of the stuff we do wouldn't be suited to anyone else,” he says. “It's character stuff. My boys never look at anything else. As a matter of fact, they don't even want to see any other material—just write it.”
Nor is Jack outraged if his people want to wander outside the fold to pick up some extra money occasionally.
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“At one time I used to think it was important that they didn't,” he says with the case of a man who understands his trade inside out. “But I've found out it doesn't make much difference.
“They've all had time to work outside, too, if they wanted to. I'm the one who has to worry about their material. All they have to do is come in and read it, which is actually a pretty easy job.”
The soothing effect of working with Benny, as compared with most other comedians, is apparent during rehearsals for his CBS-TV shows. They are subdued, generally light-hearted sessions with none of the clamor and castigation usually associated with a television rehearsal.


  1. Regarding Dennis Day, there's an interview with him about Benny that came out after Benny's death in which Dennis notes that one reason that he appeared so rarely on Jack's TV shows was that it was harder for him to pull off his "silly kid" character when TV made it obvious that he was a man in his 40s.

  2. Regarding writing for Jack Benny on other shows, Jack appeared on the very last Fred Allen show (6/26/49) with Henry Morgan. Morgan wants to borrow money from Jack's 'Mohawk Loan Company'. After explaining all the machinations required for the loan, Jack ad-libs "They don't write me this cheap on my own show!" Very funny!