Sunday 31 August 2014

How to be a Radio Comedian

The story’s been oft been told how Mary Livingstone, who had been part of her husband Jack Benny’s vaudeville act in the last of the ‘20s, ended up on radio in 1933 purely by accident when an actress didn’t show up for a Benny broadcast, and then remained on the air because of fan mail.

Oft told, too, is how Mary was nervous in front of a microphone and how Jack had to mark her copy to get the performance he wanted out of her. Whatever he did certainly worked.

Here’s Jack interviewed on what he did to get the best performance out the non-actors who appeared with him. It’s from the Long Island Press of May 3, 1936. There’s no byline.

Jack Benny, on Anniversary, Most Proud of Teaching Wife to Be Real Comedian
Jack Benny has begun hit fifth year of regular broadcasting with his funfest over NBC this month. The suave jester has built up an amazing record—for the past three years radio critics have voted him the air's foremost comedian and for the last two seasons his Sunday night shows have been chosen as the outstanding programs on the air.
"What," I asked, "are you most proud of, as far as your radio experience is concerned?"
I thought he would reel off a list of medals, plaques and other citations that have come to him for his efforts at tickling America's ribs. If not that, I thought he might quote the record-breaking box office statistics that result every time he goes on a vaudeville tour.
"I think the thing that pleases me most," Jack Benny replied, "is the good luck I have had in making fairly good comedy actors out of people who never had any previous dramatic training. Our show depends on personalities. Each time I have had a new orchestra and vocalist combination it has been a matter of training people who never read a line in their lives to toss off remarks in a casual, unstudied manner." The star comedian was, of course, referring to his long list of famous stooges who have included George Olsen, Ted Weems, Frank Black, Don Bestor, Jimmy Grier and the present incumbent, Johnny Green, among the conductors; Ethel Shutta, Andrea Marsh, James Melton, Frank Parker and Kenny Baker among the singers; and George Hicks, Paul Douglas, Alois Havrilla, Howard Claney and Don Wilson among the announcers. And Mary Livingstone, his wife.
"What do you do to these people?" he was asked. "How do you coach them?"
"Well," said Benny, "it's really a rather simple process. In the first place, I never tell them to act. If I were to do that, they would tighten up immediately. The effect that we always try to get over the microphone is that of a bunch of friends getting together for an evening.
"So the second thing I tell them is to read the lines just as if there were ho mike" or studio audience—just as if they were carrying on an ordinary conversation.
"Every once in a while they will make mistakes. Well, that's fine. As a matter, of fact, I always hope for a couple of errors in each broadest because it gives us a chance to razz one another. I think listeners like that sort of stuff because it's informal. Kenny, Johnny, Don and Mary always sound to me like a bunch of kids pretending they are acting, which is exactly the way we want to sound."

A great number of the Benny shows before 1936 no longer exist (with the exception of some from 1934) so it’s almost impossible to determine how well he “trained” non-actors who were on the show then. It may have been a case of better people coming onto the show. Bandleader Don Bestor’s read was flat and his attempts at portraying characters were amazingly amateurish. Announcer Howard Claney yelled his commercial interruptions but was far too serious about it. Singer Frank Parker was stiff, too. Still, the Benny show was top-rated while they were on it, so the audience liked them. By the end of the ‘30s, their responsibilities were taken over by Phil Harris, Don Wilson and Dennis Day, respectively. But each was given a stronger character to play than their predecessors and that likely was more of a factor in the improving sound of the show than any “training.”

As for Mary, all the training in the world couldn’t end her panic in front of the mike. The motto “the show must go on” wasn’t hers’. She missed more radio shows than any other regular member of the cast, eventually recording her parts at home (whenever she deigned to be on the programme) and having them inserted in the transcription while others acted her role in front of the studio audience. She rarely appeared on television, though she was funny and looked comfortable when she did. Instead, she took on a new role—that of the Celebrity Wife, spending money on herself with seeming abandon. It was one role she was quite happy to play.


  1. Love the blog but this post seems to go out of its way to bash Mary Livingstone, whose real life character flaws may be of biographical interest but not really relevant to the topic of this post. You say in the very lede that Mary had been in Jack's vaudeville act, so she really didn't qualify as a "non-actor" with no training. While I think on balance Livingstone was fantastic on the radio, even if you disagree with that the last paragraph still seems to come out of left field as a conclusion to the post.

  2. I think these observations about Miss Livingstone and her "mike fright" are in part out of sadness, that someone who sounded so confident and sure on-air could have such demons off-air to the extent that it ultimately led to her leaving the program altogether. But there are a few cases elsewhere in showbiz. One example is the late British comedian Benny Hill (who, ironically, got his stage first name from Jack Benny). Through many biographies, we now know that the man nicknamed "King Leer" who had a twinkle in his eye, behind the scenes, had a potentially crippling fear of performing before live audiences, one manifestation of which was sweat developing around his upper lip on-air in some interview sketches, as well as holding heavy books to prevent his hands from shaking.