Sunday 15 June 2014

Frank Nelson on Jack Benny

He made his fame out of one word—“Yes.”

Of course, it sounded like more than a word when he got through with it. Radio and TV audiences howled with laughter as he stretched the word like a rocket of silly putty, screeching it into the air.

Frank Nelson was a fine dramatic actor and announcer (Lux Radio Theatre), but people loved his “Yes” character on the Jack Benny show and eventually he wound up doing some variation of it on other comedy shows.

Like just about everything on Benny’s show, the character evolved over time. Nelson began appearing on the programme in the mid-‘30s periodically doing a non-masculine floorwalker who got huffy with Jack. From this came the man who was ostensibly there to serve Jack Benny—a ticket taker, a real estate agent, a clerk, and so on—but insulted him instead, beginning with an enthusiastic “Ye-e-e-e-e-s?” whenever Benny tried to get his attention.

Nelson gave a number of interviews about his career to old-time radio show hosts, but I’ve found a newspaper piece he did while his Benny career was still going strong. This is from the Knickerbocker News of Albany, New York, May 20, 1961. The sidebars accompanied the main story. Nelson gives his opinion about why Jack Benny remained so popular for years. His observations in the sidebar about Jack Paar, who was an 18-week summer replacement for Benny in 1947, are interesting.

Nelson Finds Jokes Few, Laughs Plenty In 27 Radio-TV Years With Jack Benny


FRANK NELSON figures he's had “a fair run” on the Jack Benny Show—27 years. “I hope it will last,” he laughed.
Chances are it will last as long as Benny does. And the way this eternal 39-year-old is going—three Emmys in three years—this could be some time.
Nelson is one of a long list of characters who are as much a part of the American comedy scene as Benny himself. Only announcer Don Wilson has been with Jack longer.
You know most of the others whose careers at one extended time or another were intertwined with Benny's: Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, Jack's long-suffering vallet [sic]; Mel Blanc, the man of many voices; singer Kenny Baker and, more recently, Dennis Day; Artie (Mr. Kitzel) Auerbach; Sam Hearn, the "Hey, Rube" figure; Sheldon Leonard (now producer of the Danny Thomas Show), the cliche gangster; Benny Rubin, the tout; bandleader Phil Harris, and, of course, Mary Livingstone.
It's easy to see why Benny has stuck with the same general group of people. As Nelson points out:
“Going back to the radio days (Jack started in 1932), the script hasn't changed. Analyze his scripts. Read his dialogue. You'll seldom find a joke. He relies on situations that turn into funny things.
“Mention money. Anything free. You know what Jack's reaction is going to be.”
As Allen Sums It Up
Nelson might have added as Steve Allen did in his book, "The Funny Men:"
“The first reason we laugh at Jack is, of course, that we have been conditioned for over 20 years to do so. A thousand and one examples of this sort of emotional conditioning come readily to mind. If a motion picture director wants to terrify us, he need only present Boris Karloff. A composer need only to change a major chord to minor to change our mood from pleasant to sad. Jack reaps tremendous rewards from this simple truth.”
Nelson's role as a happy heckler is part of this conditioning.
This It the Way It Goes
I asked him to describe the role that has become his career:
“I'm the fellow that heckles Jack. Wherever Jack goes and runs into trouble, he usually bumps into this fellow.
“It's not known to the general public, but when he calls me anything, it's usually 'Mr. Nelson.' Mostly, he says: 'Oh, it's you again.' And I give him a long drawn out, 'Y-e-e-e-sss.”
This association with Benny has proved limiting though profitable to Nelson. In radio, he was able to do many characters — “leads, heavies, dialects, things of this nature.” But, in TV:
“People see and associate my face with a voice and I'm trapped. Few producers will take a chance on casting me any other way. It's simple enough for a Red Skelton to take on a serious role. The producer just announces that a star is going to try something different and the public eats it up. This isn't the case with a rank and file actor.”
Nelson has tried to break away from his “typing.” He shaved his mustache and got himself a butch haircut. “The only person I made an impression on was my wife,” he said.
“She was annoyed.”
Benny Is Easy to Work For
What's Benny like to work for?
“Very easy. He knows what you want and expects you to do it. Never in the years I've been with him have I heard him get mad at a performer, or lose his temper. In the radio days, the cast all knew what they were there for, knew what he wanted from them. We spent very little time in rehearsal. In TV, of course, the problems are greater and we work longer, but, even then, rehearsal time is reasonably short.”
Frank worked more often when the Benny show was on radio. “In those days, I did 25-30 shows a year. Now I do six or seven.”
What about the in-between times? “I work as all actors do. I did a lot of Lucy shows, Our Miss Brooks, Joan Davis, Eddie Cantor, Donald O'Connor, anything that comes along—Ann Sothern, Danny Thomas. But always the same character.”

Paar Hits Par
A fellow named Jack Paar once took over the Jack Benny Show for two weeks. It's said this was the turning point in his career but Frank Nelson recalls that Paar didn't come off well at all.
“It was right after the war, I guess about '46, '47, somewhere in there. Paar was an odd sort of fellow even in those days and didn't come off very well with the audience. When they didn't react to his jokes, he'd lecture them. This just made them withdraw more.
“He didn't do any radio for about two years after this experience. The kind of show he does today, he's fine for, but to me he's an unsure individual. He shouldn't be, but he is.”

Look-Alikes Confuse Fans
Frank Nelson and Mel Blanc look quite a bit alike. Their hair lines are the same, both have mustaches, both are on the heavy side. This can prove confusing to their fans.
“We were walking out of the studio one day,” Frank recalled, “when two young ladies rushed up with autograph books. One looked at me, then at Mel and gasped: ‘Why, they're two of you,’ Mel said ‘I’m his brother.’ I agreed and they walked away satisfied.”


  1. Frank Nelson was one of the many pleasures of the Jack Benny shows. I can still hear his voice inside my head.

  2. It was both Frank's character and the insults Jack's writers gave him along with Jack's basic polite personality that made their routines as great as they were. While it was nice to see the producers of "Sanford and Son" use Nelson in the mid-1970s, it just didn't work as well because by then the show had been established as Redd Foxx being the one delivering the insults, and not taking any insults back. Having him take it from Frank was out of character, while Jack's character was designed as the isle of sanity (albeit a vain and cheap isle of sanity) against the insults and generally crazy behavior of others around him.

  3. Frank Nelson also lives on in Jim Scancarelli's "Gasoline Alley" comic strip! Every once in awhile, a caricature of Frank Nelson pops up when Skeezix or Slim are trying to buy something or need information. Jim's "Alley" is full of nostalgic delights, sometimes older comic characters enter the action, when Walt visits the "Old Comic Character's Home". Jim's not as strong on character as Dick Moores, his predecessor, was, but his strip is still fun to read.

  4. Wellllll! (As ONLY Frank Nelson would put it!!!) I saw this a few days ago and was so glad that in your Jack Benny articles that you finally got to this guy! He was on the Flintstones for the first two seasons, and his first appearance in one of the first ones, "No Help Wanted", P-4 if I recall, showcases him as both the "sucker" of Fred, and as Barney's employer Rocky Boulder. He also appeared on DePatie-Freleng's 1975 "Oddball Couple" as Spiffy the cat to Paul Winchell's Fleabag the dog He also appeared a few times on DF's odd two segment Baggy Pants & Nitwits, from 1977. (Only in incidental roles.). But even more, at H-B, he was imitated several times usually by Don Messick (on Season 5's episode of the Flintstones, "Pebbles's Birthday Party", Doug Young imitated Nelson as discussed in 2010's "Dancing Girls' article. Tony Benedict, the writer, mentioned to Yowp as quoted in that article about money and Yowp mentioned that there were already a number of roles for Young, which with the other three addition al voices would explain it with Mel Blanc aka Barney also having imitated Nelson in a few Bugs cartoons. Those were the Bob McKimson 1950s TV based cartoons-"Wideo Wabbit"(1956) and "People are Bunny"(1959). In those Blanc did the voices.."Now it's DUCK season"LOL. SC

    PS And I agree, two those ( Blanc & Nelson) DID look a LOT alike!!

  5. BTW The tout was Sheldon Leonard, despite the article separating his gangster and Benny Rubin's tout characters---after all, wasn't Sheldon described in references the tout?:)

    One of Art Clokey's attempts at a backup series on Gumby, Henry (a bear, NOT like Chuck Jones's hothead character!) and Rodgy, a New York (Bronx/Brooklyn?) bird, had an episode "Dragon Witch",1961, with a cool jazz soundtrack form Capitol, and a Frank Nelson sounding dragon.

    SC Steve

  6. The whole cast was great, the best in show business. All gifted performers.