Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Man Who Thought He Made Jack Benny

Put Larry Olivier or Maurice Evans on stage doing Shakespeare and you’ll have a happy audience. Put me on stage doing it and you’ll have an empty theatre before Act One is over. That’s because as much as words are important, they mean nothing unless the person performing them connects with the audience.

There once was a chap named Harry Wagner Conn who seemed to feel the performers were interchangeable, that anyone could get a laugh with the right words. His words. He set out to prove it, and ended up proving otherwise.

Harry Conn was a former vaudevillian who got into the writing game in the late ‘20s, penning short films and stage plays. Then he hooked up with Jack Benny and began writing his radio show. By November 3, 1935, Conn had written 196 Benny shows and was reportedly making $1,000 a week. But Conn became unhappy in April 1936, Jack was writing his own shows because Conn was “sick.” In May, Conn signed a contract to write for Jack Oakie, claiming his time with Benny was “too long for a gag writer.”

But there was something else in Conn’s mind, too. Jack had paid Conn well, even gave him credit on broadcasts, something no other writer got. As a result, newspapers wrote about him. And Harry Conn started believing the columnists who, basically, said he was the man responsible for Jack Benny being Number One, that it was all in his scripts. So Conn convinced CBS to give him his own show. He’d get all the laughs. He’d show the world.

This column from the NEA syndicate sums it up.

You'll Laugh at Dialects, Hotel Scenes And Class Room Gags, Says Harry Conn
NEW YORK, Dec. 25 [1937]—For years Harry Conn has been the “Cyrano de Bergerac” of radio. Many of the airwave’ brightest personalities wooed fame and fortune with his words.
Jack Benny, Joe Penner and Walter O’Keefe got laughs with Conn’s quips. When Gary Cooper and Mae West made vaudeville appearances, they spoke what Conn wrote for them. As a script writer, Conn was tops. Now he has decided to talk for himself on the new Columbia variety program known as “Earaches of 1938.” Instead of appearing by proxy on this show, Conn steps out in front of the microphones to speak his own gags.
We found him backstage after one of his first broadcasts—a small, businessman-type in his early forties, calmly puffing on one of those large aromatic cigars that have become one of the hallmarks of the radio comedian. Although the role of broadcaster was a comparatively new one to him, he wasn’t a bit nervous, as his background includes ten years before the footlights as a hoofer and a number of A.E.F. performances in France.
Just Tired of Silence.
What we wanted to know was why Conn, after having written the Jack Benny scripts for five years should want to give up a distinguished writing career for a new one which is already crowded and extremely hazardous.
“I was tired of leading a behind-the-microphone existence,” he said. “I got lonely back there without a gag to call my own. So I decided eliminate the middleman, come out in front, and be my own comedian.”
Harry is responsible for many of the devices of modern radio comedy, especially the “group” technique, which enlists the entire cast for comic spots. He believes that it is a lot easier for five or six people to be funny than just one or two. So he makes comedians out of singers, announcers and orchestra leaders. This theory is practiced on his new program, in which he even makes a comic out of the script writer—himself.
Three Sure-Fire Laughs.
He contends that a gag writer has three sure-fire laugh-getters, all of which he’ll use on the new program. One of the best of these old standbys is the dialect actor.
“You can always get a laugh with dialect,” Conn said. “In fact, you can get a double laugh, one for what the dialectician says and one for the way he says it. Dialects are a typically American form of humor, because we are one of the few people on earth who not only tolerate the mutilation of our language, but love it.
“Another laugh standby is the hotel scene. The discomforts of small hotels are always good for laughs and all the numerous complaints, funny guests, bell boys knocking on the doors, elevators breaking down and you have one of the richest settings for humor.
“Then there’s the third old-faithful: the classroom scene where the children give gag answers to the teacher’s questions. This is the best sort of stooge scene possible, since the teacher is the most logical stooge in the world.”

“Earaches of 1938” featured vocalists Beatrice Kay and Barry Wood, and comedians Charlie Cantor (who later became Finnegan on ‘Duffy’s Tavern) and Mary Kelly, the ex girl-friend of one Jack Benny. The orchestra was conducted by Mark Warnow (Raymond Scott’s brother) and the announcer was 22-year-old Bert Parks. Conn played himself as the ill-fated producer of a musical comedy show and featured the backstage life of his company played by his supporting cast. Conn was ill-fated in more ways than one. And he didn’t realise the irony in the title he picked. It seems to describe how listeners, what few there were, felt about the programme. It debuted November 27, 1937 at 8:30 p.m., opposite the second half of ‘The Chase and Sanborn Hour’ with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and a musical show on the two NBC networks. “Earaches” struggled on with its outdated sure-fire giggle getters for 13 weeks until it was replaced on February 27 by ‘The Lyn Murray Musical Gazette’ with absolutely no fanfare.

Even though Conn left the Benny show, Jack was still paying him because he “occasionally uses—sometimes in revised form—some of the material written by Conn several seasons ago.” The Berkeley Daily Gazette of September 21, 1937 also revealed Conn owned the character of Schlepperman, so Jack had to pay Conn to use it. That still didn’t satisfy Conn, who sued Jack in August 1939 for $65,500 for continued use of his characters and situations (it was settled out of court).

Jack simply hired new writers, created a string of new personalities (Rochester, Dennis Day, the Sheldon Leonard tout, Frank Nelson’s “yes” floorwalker, etc.), new running gags (“Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc......a monga!” the Maxwell sounds from Mel Blanc, etc.) and carried on to continued fame in radio and then television. He didn’t miss Harry W. Conn in the slightest. As for Conn, his high-priced radio and movie-writing contracts fizzled and columnist Dorothy Kilgallen found him in late 1958, working at the door of a Broadway theatre, dreaming of a comeback and perhaps realising that words alone don’t make the performance.


  1. The sad truth is that not only did Jack not need Conn, but Conn was holding him back. The Chevrolet Program was horrible, while the General Tire and first two seasons of the Jell-O Program were only so-so (despite Jack being named Best Comedian on the Air during those years). It was almost to the day that Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin took over Conn's writing duties that the show experienced a massive upsurge in quality.

  2. Right on!

    Jack was a class act. A gentleman and a gentle man genius. Love pours out of his eyes.

    God bless you , Mr. Benny!

  3. ...and Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin took his show in a new direction, with funnier scripts and clever writing, too!

  4. Looking back on the entirety of the series, I now understand why I could not possibly find Jack Benny to be funny in my youth, although I listen to his OTR shows almost every week of the year now. Jack's persona, and therefore his source of humor, took YEARS to develop in the audience's mind...they would laugh at the set up line, knowing the punchline which was to follow about Jack's appearance, vanity, cheapness, etc. Without having knowledge of the set up, which sometimes took five years' listening to appreciate, I never could understand why people found this old guy the least bit funny. It was the early days of Canada Dry and General Tire which cemented in the audiences' minds that which they found funny...the running gag. So, I salute Harry Conn for all he did in the "early" days; it has also made me appreciate Jack Benny all the more, when I now understand why he worked so hard to be an editor for his writers, never allowing himself to be left alone in Baltimore again.