Sunday 26 February 2012

The Perturbation of Jack Benny

It seems impossible there could be an interview with Jack Benny that didn’t talk about being cheap, bad violin playing, age 39, driving a Maxwell or Mary Livingstone. But all of this was an invention (over time) of Jack and his radio writers, starting in 1932. Jack had a fairly lengthy career in vaudeville prior to that and none of this was part of his persona. He was thought of an easy-going stand-up comedian by the end of the 1920s.

That’s how we find him in a rare interview in 1930 by a writer for the National Enterprise Association, a feature service for small newspapers. I don’t know whether he was interviewed any earlier. Broadway columns (and those out of Hollywood) generally consisted of little squibs about people and places, not a profile of one individual. But here’s one.

Jack Benny, Talkie Comedian, Thinks an Audience of Men Is the Coldest Proposition in the World

HOLLYWOOD, March 31 — Women are easier to please than men —particularly from a comedian’s standpoint.
This is the theory of Jack Benny, for years one of vaudeville’s best known comedians, who now is making a name for himself in this audible picture racket.
“If I had my way about it, I never would play before anything but a mixed audience.” Benny declared. “But if I had to choose between masculine and feminine, I would take the women every time. There is no audience in the world tougher than a strictly stag aggregation.”
As a rule Jack is just as funny off the stage as he is on—maybe a little funnier. But he wasn’t yesterday as we sat in the Brown Derby. He was perturbed, trying to make up his mind whether to accept a vaudeville engagement in New York or to stay here for a legitimate show and take his chances on getting a picture at the same time. Now that he has gotten a pretty good start in pictures, he doesn’t like to get 3,000 miles from the center of things.
Getting the Gags
“I wish I could just press a button and make myself funny,” Benny remarked. “But I can’t. I’m not in the right mood I couldn’t pull the funniest gag in the world so that it would get a laugh.”
“Where do you get the gags for your monologue, Jack?” we inquired.
“I write most of them myself,” replied the actor. “Occasionally I get some from a man with a really good sense of humor. I think most of my own gags are pretty terrible so when I do write one that sounds good to me I generally can depend upon it going over. Once in New York I bought 15 joke books, hoping to get something new for my routine but I didn’t find a single gag I could use.
“Naturally all comedians can’t use the same type of material. A gag with which someone else could make an audience howl would fall absolutely flat if I tried to use it.”
Benny came out here under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to act as one of the masters of ceremonies in “The Hollywood Revue.” Following that he made “Chasing the Rainbow” [sic] with Bessie Love and Charles King. That was the first picture in which he really played a part, his role in it being that of a wise-cracking stage manager. Now he is free lancing, which is the reason for his perturbation. When he gets two offers simultaneously he never can make up his mind which to accept. And that worries him.

His comedy philosophy here is interesting, considering how his career developed. His feeling that certain routines work for certain people likely prompted him to craft his character on his radio show. And his assessment proved to be correct. There are things that Jack Benny came to do that no other comedian would have been able to get a laugh with. In a way, that was a hindrance to his movie career, as audiences expected to see something akin to his Benny character on the screen.

Of course, it never hurt his overall career. In 1965, people knew who Jack Benny was. Charles King wasn’t so lucky.

1 comment:

  1. Spending time in vaudeville and not having a career path straight to stardom may have helped Jack Benny be comfortable with being "Jack Benny" in a way that many actors/performers in the future would not be when the public bonded to their media personality to the point they were forever associated with that persona (not that Jack didn't want to expand his horizons some, with efforts like "To Be or Not To Be". But he never ran away from the vision created by his writing staff in the same way, say, that William Shatner tried for most of the 1970s to run away from being linked to his Star Trek role before finally giving in).