Sunday, 20 May 2012

Benny on Comedy, Characters and Concerts

Random questions from Hedda Hopper. Random answers from Jack Benny. Here’s an interview published on April 16, 1960.

It’s interesting Jack spoke a bit about the Fred Allen feud. By this time, Allen had been dead for four years so, obviously, the feud was over. But it was so well-known at the time (and is still talked about by Benny fans today) that Jack saw no reason to avoid expounding on how it happened. And he outlined his radio philosophy in many other interviews over the years.

His number-one stage comedian pick may be a bit of a surprise, but in considering all the people Jack knew over the years, quite a number were not strictly comedians. Cantor and Jolson were known more for their singing than comedy, Fred Allen and W.C. Fields juggled, even Durante used music in his act. Burns (who was a straight man) and the Marx Brothers were part of an act.

The impression one gets from the story is, even though he was 66 when the column hit papers, Jack liked to stay busy entertaining. And he was until illness finally stopped him not long before he died in 1974.

Others Fade Not Benny
HOLLYWOOD—Jack Benny’s love affair with the American public keeps his show permanently in top comedy ranks from which Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, and Jackie Gleason and others have faded away. He feels he got there thru a series of happy accidents.
“It wasn't genius on my part,” he protested. “Say, 25 years ago I developed characterizations. I didn’t stop to plan: I’m going to be stingy, or be 39 permanently, or feud with Fred Allen, or own a Maxwell. I wasn’t thinking that in 30 years such things would keep me going.
“If Fred Allen and I had planned a feud, it wouldn’t have lasted three weeks. I happened to hear him say something and I commented on it, then he replied. I came back and it rolled on. We were into it eight months before we even discussed it on the phone. We had a couple of stingy jokes which got big laughs. So the next week we put a few more in: then we dropped it.
“But we came back to it every so often, so it got beyond us and became part of the characterization. Those things were started for one show only, then they developed: How lucky for me.
“I know my type comedy should stay on a subject; but those other characterizations all came along by happenstance.”
His trick of making himself the butt of jokes, the amiable boob, always at a disadvantage, makes every man in the audience feel 10 feet tall and has every woman thinking her particular small salaried guy has far more on the ball than Jack.
Of his continuing success, he says: “We all try to keep busy. Gleason is starring on Broadway. I’ll work for Lever brothers next year. If it isn’t doing one thing, it’s doing another. Instead of going to New York before the season starts, I go after I’ve had a few good shows under my belt, so they can’t ask what I’m going to do next season. I don't know that everybody wants me, and sometimes it depends upon how much the sponsor can afford to pay.”
I asked him how much the extraneous things he does, like charity violin concerts, help.
“The concerts started as a gag,” he said, “but now it’s wonderful. It’s difficult to say what we’ve taken in for different charities—bonds for Israel netted a million dollars. I’d say they average between $60,000 to $100,000 a concert, sometimes more. I’ve done 15. I go to Honolulu this month, then back here, then to Tokyo and Hong Kong. There’ll be a concert in Denver on April 24. I love them; I play the fiddle at the drop of a hat.”
He’d like to do a violin concert in London but would have to set the date so far in advance. He’s played London six times, has had shows in Las Vegas twice, and isn’t too anxious to return. “I’ve done that bit, it’s no longer new.”
“I would enjoy a month of summer stock,” he said. “I’d like a play, such as ‘Make a Million,’ which Sam Levene did on Broadway. Sam and I don’t think alike and our delivery is different, yet almost all of his comedies would be good for me without changing a word.”
He thinks Ed Wynn in his heyday the funniest man he ever saw on stage. “He never had one risque word or gesture in his material. I’d laugh so hard Mary would be embarrassed.”

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