Sunday 16 December 2012

The Comeback of Jack Benny

Newsweek featured a cover story on Jack Benny on March 31, 1947 leaving the reader with the impression he was making some kind of comeback. In a way, it was true, even though Benny didn’t go anywhere; he was still on the radio every week outside the summer replacement season. And his show still had a large audience during that time.

But to my ear—and evidently to those of radio listeners at the time—something went haywire. Since his early days on the air, Benny was fairly heavily formatted. The first half of the show was on-stage banter and the second half was a play parodying something. The format was getting a little worn. The war didn’t help him. Jack broadcast from various locations and the shows were obligated to shoehorn in military or local humour—occasionally with ill-at-ease local dignitaries given speaking roles. And the sponsor change, I don’t believe, helped him either at first. Instead of Don Wilson jovially hawking Jell-O or (and less convincingly) Grape Nut Flakes, the first thing on the show listeners had to sit through was almost two minutes of announcers shouting catchphrases over and over with unintelligible tobacco hawkers giving a demonstration of their chanting skills. Friendly and inviting, it wasn’t.

The cigarette spots didn’t change their style until the ‘50s but the show got a mid-‘40s makeover, as Newsweek noted. New characters were brought in, ones that became loved by Benny fans—the telephone operators, Mr. Kitzel (who got a personality change from the Al Pearce show), Mel Blanc’s train announcer. Frank Nelson got to say “Yehhhhhhhhhs?” a lot more. Rochester started appearing in more places than on the other end of a phone. The writers tried an annual running gag; one year it was Jack Benny’s song. And they started writing more “off-stage” routines. Instead of a radio show, listeners got a radio show about a radio show. And it smoothly moved into TV, where the Benny show was, much of the time, a TV show about a TV show.

I don’t know whether this is the full Newsweek article, but it appeared in the Milwaukee Journal of April 1, 1947.

Jack Benny, King of Laugh Makers
Radio Comedian, Who Isn’t the Tight Fisted Blowhard of Legends, Has Had His Ups and Downs.
Now, at 53, He Is at the Top of His Highly Competitive Profession
From Newsweek
Not even among comedians is there much argument. Right now Jack Benny is the funniest man on radio.
Back in 1945, after Benny had been on the air for 13 rib tickling years, his program abruptly skidded. The comedy became dusty and labored. Listeners demoted him from his customary post among radio’s top four or five shows to twelfth place. The smart alecks whispered that he was finished. But not Benny. The next fall he clamped more tightly on his ever present cigar and paced the floor nervously and the show recaptured some of its old verve.
This week, after exactly 15 years in radio, Jack Benny is back in full strode, as he has been all season. Against the toughest competition of his career, the Jack Benny show has copped the top spot in the bi-monthly Hooperatings twice in six months, and week in week out, gives the Bob Hopes and Fibber McGees a hard, fast run for the win money.
Unlike some of his competition, notably Hope, Benny pulls his radio way almost unaided by outside activities. Of the 15 movies he has made, he has had two real hits. During the war he successfully toured battle zones, but his personal appearances for home front civilians have been few.
The Serious Business of Being Funny
Nevertheless, Benny’s potential draw as a performer on the stage of urban movie houses is such that this May the radio star and a small troupe move into the Roxy in New York for a minimum gross take of $40,000 a week. It is the highest salary ever paid for a theater date.
At 53, Benny, off mike, looks and acts like a successful businessman. He is exactly that—a success at the very serious business of comedy. Unlike the Fred Allens of the trade, Benny has little natural, spontaneous wit. What gags he ad libs on the air are those anyone would soak up after 37 years of hanging around professional funnymen.
In a private gathering of show people Benny is no show-off. He would much rather and usually does sit and listen to others strut their stuff. For them is he a wonderful audience. Even a minor gag can provoke a Benny belly laugh. It is the appreciation of what makes a line laughable that keys his radio program. Benny is the industry leader in the business of manufacturing radio comedy. Like the Henry Fords and the Alfred Sloans, he can’t manufacture his product alone. Hence he has surrounded himself with a production team that clicks like castanets.
Benny gives all the credit for his stature to this outfit. “Where would I be today,” he asks, “without my writers, without Rochester, Dennis Day, Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris and Don Wilson?”

The Radio Benny vs. the Real One
That he himself hand picked both the writers and the cast is something that Benny never admits. He dismisses lightly the fact that he directs his own rehearsals, down to the last, fine reading of a line. Nor will he ever say part of his success stems from his own sense of timing and showmanship.
This belittling is not new. It was evident in the first words that Benny ever spoke on the air. He said: “Hello, folks. This is Jack Benny. There will now be a slight pause for everyone to say, ‘Who cares?’”
That was Mar. 29, 1932. Benny was appearing on Broadway that year in Earl Carroll’s “Vanities.” He was successful graduate of vaudeville and had already hit Hollywood for a couple of movies. Ed Sullivan, the columnist, who then had his own radio program, had invited Benny to try this new medium. Four weeks later, on Monday, May 2, Benny opened his own show over the old NBC Blue network. He has never been without a program or a sponsor since then.
Benny’s first crack in radio may have been characterized by modesty. But it was never to be so again. The Jack Benny of radio is a cheap, tight fisted blowhard who gets knocked down by everyone and comes right back for more. The balding Benny character of the air let his vanity force him into buying a toupee. The character insists Benny is a violinist—though he never gotten through more than a few squeaky, sour bars of “Love in Bloom.” This is the Benny that is a mirror for a million human foibles—the perfect fall guy. Yet all of this is completely manufactured. The radio and stage Jack Benny is the opposite of the private Jack Benny. And it is a difference which Benny has to fight hard to maintain.
When he was still a kid in knickerbockers in Waukegan, Ill., Benny was given a violin by his father. He learned to play it so quickly that he got a job in the pit orchestra of a local theater before he was in long pants. At 17, calling himself by his real name, Benjamin Kubelsky, he went into vaudeville with his violin tucked under his chin. At home Benny still plays his violin, not too badly, for his own amusement and as proof to the skeptics that he can.
Though his hair is gray and thinning, Benny is a long way from being bald. To prove this to the public, Benny rarely wears a hat and never a toupee except on movie sets. But Benny’s worst fears are that people will take him for a genuine skinflint. He estimates conservatively that it costs him an extra $5,000 a year in lavish tipping and the like to disprove the non-existent theory.
Like Thumbing a Family Album
That Benny feels he must disprove his stinginess is, of course, perfect proof of the success of his radio character. That character was born on Benny’s first regular program in 1932.
Looking back over old Benny scripts is like thumbing through a family album. The family group is all there. Don Wilson, the announcer, fills the same foil role once held by an earlier Alois Havrilla. Dennis Day, the timorous tenor, is the successor to a line of timorous tenors which included Frank Parker, James Melton and Kenny Baker. Phil Harris, his bourbon, his consummate ego, and his orchestra, joined Benny in 1936, following Frank Black and Don Bestor. Eddie Anderson, who plays Rochester, was hired for a one shot in 1937 to play a Pullman porter. But the public liked him so much that Benny hastily put him to regular work as his valet.
Last but certainly not least in the Benny corral is Mary Livingstone. Unlike the rest of the cast, Miss Livingstone was not a professional. Benny met her in 1926 when a vaudeville tour took him to Los Angeles. She was then a 17 year old clerk in a department tour. Her name was Sadye Marks—shortly thereafter changed to Mrs. Benny. Five years later on his program Jack needed someone to read a short poem supposedly written by an addled fan named Mary Livingstone. Sadye Marks Benny stepped into the bit role—and stayed on.
So thoroughly are these characters established on Benny’s show that this year two of them—Dennis Day and Phil Harris—got their own programs, playing elaborations of their Benny roles.
In 15 years on the air Benny has had only seven writers. His present staff consists of John Tackaberry, Milt Josefsberg, Sam Perrin and George Balzer.
Benny probably prizes his writers more than any other part of his organization. They are under exclusive contract to him and are among the highest paid in radio, with combined salaries totaling about $5,000 a week. When Benny’s program slipped in 1945, instead of hiring new writers, he held onto his four and trained them even harder in the Benny ways. Now he gives them full credit for pulling the show out of the doldrums.
His writers’ work begins right after each Sunday’s broadcast. With Benny they sit down and work out the situation for the following week. Some of the ideas come from the writers, but more of them are Benny’s. By Thursday the writers have put together the script, which goes to Benny for astute editing. On Saturday there is a cast reading and Sunday morning is spent in loose rehearsal. Benny doesn’t like a final dress rehearsal, saying it spoils the show’s spontaneity.
The most serious criticism of the Benny program has been that his show seldom changes. The comedian violently disputes this idea. True, the basic part of each week’s humor arises out of the well established characters and their well known reactions to given sets of circumstances. But the circumstances, Benny points out, always have an element of surprise. Over the years Benny has resorted to such diversified gimmicks as a polar bear, a talkative parrot, a feud with Fred Allen, a museum relic of an automobile and the gravel voice of Andy Devine, whom Benny once paid $500 just to say “Hi ya, Buck.”
His Lifetime Option on His Half Hour
Out of the fact that the Bennys live next door to the Ronald Colmans in fashionable Beverly Hills, Calif., Benny got one of his funniest situations—the socially correct and veddy British Colmans entertaining the social climbing, inelegant Jack Benny. Last year the comedian brought the names of three small southern California towns into the show. Now the mere mention of Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga brings a laugh. Jack started a national nuisance when he got involved with a character named Kitzel who sold him a hot dog named “peekel een the meedle and the mustard on top.”
This year’s major contribution to the nation’s giggles is Benny’s quartet. He hired it first for laughs and, secondly, to help hurdle that necessary evil, the middle commercial. The quarter, professionally known as the Sportsmen but around the Benny show as “Mmmmmm,” take the middle plug for the sponsor’s product and sing or chant it in ridiculous and clever verse. The commercial is written by Benny with the help of Mahlon Merrick, the show’s musical director.
For as long as Benny cares to stay in radio, listeners can be sure they may tune him in on the 6 p.m. (CST) spot Sundays. In 1941, when it looked as if Benny might move to another network, NBC made the unprecedented move of giving him a life-time option on what is one of radio’s most valuable half hours.
So long as he has a sponsor satisfactory to NBC, Benny can use that half hour as he sees fit. Two weeks ago he was assured of NBC’s satisfaction for three more years, when his fifth and current sponsor renewed the contract through 1950. The terms: $25,000 a week for the packaged program which Benny owns, plus $250,000 a year to advertise and publicize the show.
Benny will earn it.

1 comment:

  1. The great thing about Jack's show by the time he hit television was while we were familiar with the characters, outside of Jack, we weren't swamped by all of the characters on a weekly basis. While there was a group of 'regulars', you also had the supporting players who might be absent for several weeks and then pop back up again.

    So even though Benny's personality by the end of the 1940s might have been formalistic, the stories had enough variety with enough characters people wanted to see or hear (and for whom the show's star basically played straight man) that Jack and his writers could keep successfully rotating them into the show for 15 seasons on TV.