Sunday, 3 March 2013

But All They Did Was Walk On

Many years ago, a TV critic whose name escapes me complained in print about how the plot of every “Happy Days” episode would squeal to a stop while the audience burst into applause every time a character came on set at the beginning of the show. Apparently the same audience later sat in the stands during tapings of “Married With Children.” But the practice goes back a little further than that. And at least one critic wasn’t happy then, either.

If you listen to the season openers of Jack Benny’s show towards the last decade of his career on radio, the audience erupts into (spontaneous?) applause when each member of the regular casts makes their entrance. This really wasn’t all that new. Phil Harris always liked to make a hammy start to his appearance. Shows on location at military camps during the war years featured cheers and sustained clapping by the servicemen whenever someone came to the microphone (especially Rochester). But it seems to have baffled esteemed critic John Crosby, who wondered why people would clap for a performer who hadn’t done anything. (As a side-note, it didn’t puzzle the radio critic for the Vancouver Daily Province, Dick Diespecker, a former boss of one Alan Young. Instead, it annoyed him. Diespecker was capable of being annoyed easily).

What Crosby doesn’t seem to realise—assuming the applause was sincere—was that the audience was pleased to have their radio favourites back on the air after a 13-week hiatus. The applause was in appreciation of their return. Not exactly the practice of the theatre, but certainly one that’s appropriate in my estimation. And in 1950, Benny returned after 13 weeks of Guy Lombardo. Who wouldn’t be happy that Jack was back?

Besides being baffled about Benny’s studio audience, Crosby gives his stamp of approval to Eve Arden’s “Our Miss Brooks” which, like Jack’s show, would soon be vacating the changing network radio airwaves and moving to TV.

Radio in Review

Jack Benny, CBS's $2,000,000 comedian who returned to the air this week for his 19th year (7 p. m. EDT Sundays, as if you didn't know), is an odd fish, extremely hard to explain in any rational terms.
His opening program, so help me Hannah, consisted almost entirely of exclamatory greetings. "Don!" Mr. Benny ejaculated to his perennial announcer, Don Wilson, and the air was instantly filled with tumultuous applause.
"Well, Dennis!" he said a moment or two later. More applause.
"Well, look who's here! Hello Mary!" Pandemonium.
There was very little else on that opening program. It was just an introduction of the familiar cast, a sort of muster of the company. Phil Harris present and reporting for duty, as it were.
That this should comprise a $40,000-a-week radio program and a highly satisfying one to Mr. Benny's millions of listeners is one of those things that astonishes even Benny and it certainly confuses me.
"Tell me about your trip to Europe," asked Mr. Wilson. Now, there is nothing duller than the recital of somebody else's trip to Europe.
Yet Benny gets paid and paid very well to tell about his trip to Europe. As usual Mr. B. played the London Palladium with vast success. And that's hard to understand, too. The English will flock to the theatre to see our, shall we say, cinema stars. But then they've been well indoctrinated by American movies.
Mr. Benny's movie career was pretty close to a disaster; the English can hardly have cared much for his pictures; his radio career is just a rumor to them, still, they enjoy him on the stage.
He must have the common touch that surmounts the language barrier (What do you mean there isn't any language barrier? Have you seen any English pictures lately? The last one I saw had American subtitles.)
Anyhow, Benny is back for what may be the last year of big-time radio as we once knew it.
Like so many other of the big radio stars, Benny is dipping a toe into television this year. By next fall night-time radio may have lost so much of its audience to television that it can no longer afford anything so expensive as Mr. Benny.
Already, Benny's ratings in areas where he competes with television are shockingly low.
Going Into T-V
We can't tell you how well he'll do in television. But few, if any, people knew radio as well as he did. (Or, more accurately, as did his writers and advisers.)
He was the only comedian who deliberately threw let-up pitches. If he had a whale of a program one week, he slowed to a walk the next week in order not to compete with himself.
In an industry which has long been tyrannized by formats, Benny was never hampered by any single format. He had three or four of them and never hesitated to try a new one.
Some of his programs contained parodies of successful books, plays or movies. Others didn't. Some programs had strong comedy plots. Others didn't have any plot at all.
In general he followed the Rogers & Hammerstein precept, which is simply to do what they like rather than what they think the public is looking for.
This theory, fairly common in the theater, is almost unheard of in radio which slavishly sniffs at every popular whim and tries to satisfy it. He created rather than followed popular taste.
Must be a moral in there some place for the other comedians who are all trying to be Milton Berle.
Incidentally, Benny is preceded by "Our Miss Brooks," one of C. B. S.'s better comedy efforts.
Preceding Benny is one way to commit suicide. It's pretty much like the dog act in vaudeville. The audience is still rustling its programs, getting, settled in its chairs, waiting for the headliner. Our Miss Eve Arden, who plays Miss Brooks, deserves better than that.

Interestingly, one of the routines of Jack’s show the following week was built around reviews of this broadcast, though the Crosby column isn’t mentioned.

Mary: Did you read all the reviews on your opening programme?
Jack: Yes, most of them. I thought they were nice.
Mary: The reporter from Variety thought you were better than ever.
Jack: I know, I know.
Mary: Louella Parsons said you got loads of laughs.
Jack: Yes, yes.
Mary: Hedda Hopper said you were dynamite.
Jack: Yes, yes, I know.
Mary: Erskine Johnson said you weren’t the least bit funny.
Jack: Him, I’m suing. (audience laughs) What other write-ups were there?
Dennis: Did you read the review in the [Los Angeles] Herald-Express?
Jack: No.
Mary: You can take that one to the Supreme Court.

It appears the Johnson line was purely a gag. I’ve been through his columns for that week and he doesn’t mention the broadcast. I don’t know who the Herald Express’ reviewer was. Parsons and Hopper were, if not friends, at least friendly toward Jack. I’m sure they didn’t mind the positive plug.

No comments:

Post a Comment