Sunday, 20 November 2011

Jack Benny on Radio Success

If you asked Jack Benny the secret behind his big listening audiences, he would have said “Consistency.” Well, he actually did say it in an interview with the Associated Press in 1948.

Over the years, Jack gave full credit to his “gang”. He felt the years had allowed people to befriend his cast—and his secondary cast, like the phone operators or Mr. Kitzel or even the Maxwell—and therefore tune in to hear what they were doing in the radio world Benny and his writers invented. Fortunately, Benny had enough people to mix and match that it carried him into the mid-‘50s despite the show suffering from the loss of some of his old regulars (replacing the larger-than-life Phil Harris proved impossible).

Though he doesn’t mention it in the story, Jack also hooked his audience to come back every week with something else. For several seasons, his writers came up with a running plot that bubbled up over the course of the whole radio season. One year, it was hiring/firing the Sportsmen Quartet. Another year it was trying to find anyone to sing the wretched song he wrote. The best-known one may have been the “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Because...” contest, an audience participation gimmick that even the giveaway-hating Fred Allen would approve (and took part in as the chief judge).

Allen gets a brief mention in the column with a little tale Jack may not have told before.

Some Radio Stars Revise Shows, But Not Jack Benny
(For Bob Thomas)
HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 21—(AP)— Feel that nervous fluttering in the autumn air? Radio’s old standbys are flocking back, in new trappings, after as arid a summer as most listeners can remember.
New writers and new formats are legion. Bob Hope, Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carson, Edgar Bergen and others have changed their shows or their casts, some radically.
But not easy going Jack Benny. Consistency must be his mark of distinction.
Jack, just back from Europe, starts his 17th year Oct. 3. And with the same crew. This is Mary Livington’s 17th year too. He’s had the same writers for six years. Don Wilson has been with him 15 years, Phil Harris 13, Rochester 11, Dennis Day nine.
With Benny, every broadcast is a new show, although the basic character of the program remains the same. “It’s the people that the fans like,” says Jack. “As long as we stay in character we can do pretty much as we please. And we keep the show flexible. Maybe we put a guy on like Sinatra, for one line. Some weeks one or even two of the regular company aren’t in the script at all."
I had lunch with Jack at Romanoff’s, and he didn’t gag once— humorously or otherwise. Not even about Fred Allen. He talked about Allen though.
“He’s a strange fellow. He lives very simply. I don't think there’s anything he wants very badly. If there was I’m sure he’d get it. If I go to New York I call him and we have dinner. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t see him. If he comes out here, I offer him my house and my swimming pool, and he stays in a hotel. I like that, in a way. We’re good friends because, when we do get together, we’re really glad to-see each other.”
Jack returned from Europe about two weeks ago. He got a lot of acclaim in London’s Palladium and a lot of golf in the countryside. British audiences he said are just about the most gratifying in the world.
“I gave ‘em the sort of thing I do here, except that I didn’t have Dennis, Don or Rochester with me. Believe me, next time I want them along. Everybody there knows who they are.”
Since he got back Jack has been watching his weight and putting off, as long as possible, any serious work on the season’s broadcasts. He isn’t worrying about television, either. “We’ll take care of that when the time comes,” he said.
The cast has been together so long that, Benny doesn’t have to work half as hard as he did. He puts in, personally, about three days instead of six.
Time was when Benny worked with his six writers Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Saturday they read the script. Rehearsal came Sunday, just before the show.
Now he and the writers get together on Sunday, after the broadcast, to discuss next week’s airing. The writers work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Benny plays golf. Friday, at 9 A. M., he goes over the rough script. Maybe they start again, from scratch. By Friday night things are in fairly good shape.
But, Jack says, on Saturday anything can happen. They may rewrite the whole show.
One thing they don’t do: When the show hits hard one week, they don’t strain to top it the next week.
“We just rock along,” said easy-going Jack, “and usually it turns out all right.”

Incidentally, in hunting around for this article, I found the newspaper ad you see above, published the same day in one paper. I didn’t realise Jack endorsed R.C. Cola. It must have been a nice little deal that showed him that consistency also equalled cash.

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