Sunday 21 October 2012

A Parade of Jack Benny, Part 2

A week ago, we posted the first part of a two-part profile of Jack Benny from Parade magazine, a Sunday newspaper supplement, published January 10, 1954. Today, we bring you the second part, published January 17, 1954.

The photos accompanying this post aren’t from the original Parade article; it’s be nice if they were around to view.

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U.S. RADIO editors recently voted Jack Benny the greatest radio personality in die last 25 years. Now he’s a TV star. What keeps this 60-year-old man on top? Here's the second half of a two-part story on the man behind this amazing success.

TWENTY-TWO YEARS ago a vaudeville comedian by the name of Jack Benny leaned close to a microphone in a New York studio and said: “Hello, folks! This is Jack Benny. There will be a slight pause for everyone to say, ‘Who cares?’”
The very next day an advertising agency offered Jack $1,500 a week to go on the-air in a show selling ginger ale. Benny accepted.
Since then, millions of Americans have counted the Sunday night lost when they did not get a laugh out of Benny. Now they’re watching him on TV.
This success, which has brought the comedian untold riches, fame and admiration, has raised an intriguing question: What makes Benny funny?
The answer isn’t simple.
For one thing, Benny doesn’t look funny although a critic described his face as “the most expertly used instrument in the world of entertainment.”
Actually, Benny, who will be 60 next month, looks like a successful, middle-aged businessman. He is still vigorous enough to play golf (although not very expertly) and young enough in spirit to call his wife of 27 years “Doll.”
And, unlike many of the bright stars in show business, Jack Benny pursues an off stage life which is as quiet and regular as your next door neighbor’s.
He lives with his equally famous wife, Mary Livingstone, and their adopted daughter, Joan, a Stanford University student, in an 11-room Beverly Hills house which he bought in 1937. The house, a richly furnished, two-story brick building, bristles with antennas feeding at least six TV sets. It takes a staff of five or six-steady servants to run it, partly because Jack is baffled by anything mechanical.
One day, he was holding a conference with his writers at home. It was chilly. Jack rang for the butler, but nobody came.
What Button?
“GOSH,” he said, “it’s the butler’s day off. I don’t know how to turn up the heat.”
“Don’t you have unit heat? It works by buttons,” a writer said.
“Buttons? What buttons? Gee, fellows, I don’t know," Jack confessed.
So the writer looked around. There, right on the wall in the room where they were working, he found the buttons. One of them turned on the heat.
That, incidentally, is about as close as Jack Benny will ever come in real life to the rich, bumbling skinflint he portrays over the airwaves.
ORDINARILY, Benny is not even amusing in conversation. Off the stage, he gets more pleasure out of laughing at other comedians than sparkling himself. George Burns, for example, can cause Jack to double up by just saying, “Hello.”
“George Burns is my oldest and closest friend; he’s been that for 30 years," says Jack. “As you probably know, I’m his greatest audience. I laugh at everything he says. I think that George Burns is the funniest man in show business.
“But our friendship never stopped George from playing tricks on me. Once we were walking out of the Palace Theater together, and he told a joke. I was walking down the street laughing when I suddenly realized George wasn't beside me. I turned around to see him with a crowd of people. He was motioning toward me and saying, ‘Look at that idiot walking down the street laughing to himself.’”
Even if Benny isn’t good at cracking jokes away from the microphone, his sense of humor, his ability to laugh at himself as well as others, has been a great asset to him.
Because of it, the atmosphere surrounding the Benny shows has always been relaxed despite the fact that Jack spends some 60 hours a week working on them. “I’ll never get ulcers from my work,” says Jack, “and neither will anybody else associated with me.”
The shows are whipped together by four writers—Sam Perrin, George Balzer, Milt Josefsberg and John Tackaberry—with Benny acting as sort of a head writer. (He also uses two free lance writers on occasion.) Generally, everybody sits around a table, comfortably relaxed. Jack starts the ball rolling with a pleasant: “All right now, quiet everybody—let’s go.”
What usually emerges from these sessions is another “situation” comedy which presents a scene in the life of Jack Benny—the stingy rich man who lives next door to the Ronald Colmans, drives an ancient Maxwell car and overworks an underpaid valet, named Rochester.
Although none of these things are in the least true, Jack never discourages any flights of fancy his writers may have in building up this character. On one occasion, the writers were knocking themselves out making up a scene where Jack was supposed to take Rochester’s tonsils out in an emergency. What was the emergency? Jack would have to give Rochester a day off if he went to the hospital.
“I don’t think we can go that far,” said one of the writers.
"Let's leave it in," Jack said. “That’s just what a stingy so-and-so like me would do.”
But even the polished scripts these writing sessions finally hammer out aren't funny. Irving Fein, a Columbia Broadcasting System executive, says, “Jack doesn’t tell jokes. On paper the show itself is baffling; it isn’t funny or humorous.”
Critics Speak
THEN WHY do people laugh at Jack Benny?
For years, critics and other experts in show business have been toying with this question. Fein puts it this way: “It’s the Benny character, the voice, the inflection, the gesture, the timing.”
And not long ago Richard Watts, Jr., New York drama critic, called Benny's timing the "unexcelled knowledge of the use of the significant pause."
But perhaps the best analysis of the Benny humor has come from Great Britain. Here’s a sampling of the reactions to Jack’s show at the Palladium in London last year . . .
The London News Chronicle: “Impeccably tailored and blandly vague, he displayed once more that unique talent for doing nothing brilliantly of which he is the supreme master.”
The London Evening Standard: “There is a rumor about . . . that Jack Benny is a great clown. This is a dreadful slur on his reputation. Mr. Benny is not a clown at all; he is a straight man or stooge, and possibly the subtlest in the history of comedy . . . He is the duck's back; others pour the water...”
If there is any answer to the question of why Benny is funny, it would seem to be a combination of two techniques: (1) a good-humored acceptance of the role of fall-guy; and (2) a superb delivery of his lines. Frequently, Jack gets his biggest laugh by merely clearing his throat or saying, “Uh.”
Started in Navy
JACK’S career as a comedian started back in World War I when a man named Dave Wolff cast him in a comedy part in a Navy show. “Wolff liked the way I read the lines in rehearsal and he kept building up my part,” says Jack. “He was the cause of my starting to talk on the stage. I loved the idea. I evidently had good delivery and timing. I enjoyed getting laughs; I felt I was more than a violin player.”
Up till then Jack had made his living as a straight violinist in a vaudeville act.
And every once in a while Jack still seems to suffer a guilty feeling about turning his talent into clowning. Recently, he bought an $1,800 violin to replace the $75 one his father gave him 45 years ago.
He used this instrument just last winter to play as soloist with a 60-piece symphony orchestra on his TV show.
After he left the Navy, Jack started out on his own with an act he called “Fiddle Funology,” and later “Jack Benny, the Aristocrat of Humor,” and still later “A Few Minutes With Jack Benny.”
“I didn’t ever knock myself out,” Jack says. “I never really knew why people laughed, with jokes like one I always told: ‘I took my girl to the movies and there was a sign on the marquee—The Woman Pays. So, my girl bought the tickets.’
“Some of my jokes from then I still use today, and they get laughs: Things like: ‘I was going to buy my girl a Packard car for Christmas but it took too long to deliver, so I bought her some handkerchiefs.’ I don’t know, it's still funny.”
Evidently people thought so, because Benny rose steadily in vaudeville. By the time he turned to radio, he was making $1,500 a week as a star in Earl Carroll’s “Vanities.”
Jack’s present stage personality and the routine he uses emerged gradually through the years. He used a “dumb kid” as a foil in vaudeville days (Mary was one of them after their marriage). Recent “dumb kids” like Kenny Baker and Dennis Day have turned into successful entertainers in their own right.
On the whole, Jack is very happy about the way things have turned out for him. Although he has played dramatic parts on occasion in the movies, he has had no desire to become a serious actor.
“I don’t ever want to do anything serious. All I want to do is make people laugh," says Jack. “It’s business, and I've never felt I had a mission. I want to continue more or less as I have. I don’t want to retire. I’ll try hard not to ‘go down,’ but, if I have to, well, I will. I’ve got an awful lot to be thankful for.”
Even so, there is one little favor Jack is still hoping to get out of life. He would like his wife to take a kindlier view of his violin playing.
In all of their 11-room house, there is only one place where Mary allows Jack to practice his music—an upstairs bathroom. “She doesn’t want to hear me play that blasted fiddle,” he complains.

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