Sunday 3 August 2014

How to Survive on TV

There are TV stars and then there are stars of TV shows. There are fewer of the former than the latter, who generally disappear quickly considering the sheer numbers of programmes that are cancelled every year.

And then there are two kinds of TV stars. There’s the kind who once had a regular gig, then spend the remainder of their career bouncing from guest appearance to guest appearance to guest appearance (this was easy in the era of television variety shows). And then there’s the kind who remains the star of a story, in first-run, year after year after year.

Jack Benny certainly fit the last category. A story in the Amsterdam Evening Recorder of March 30, 1957 set out to find the reason.

Benny Defines Elusive Ingredients of TV Survival

NEW YORK—Perhaps the most elusive, highly pursued, persistently probed quality in show business is the quality of survival.
It is to find gold, to find the ingredients X which permit stars as Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Bing Crosby to stay high in the firmament for a quarter of a century, while so many others rise as brilliantly as a fourth of July skyrocket, only to fade silently into anonymity.
Red Buttons, Alan Young, Jack Carter each had a year or so in the spotlight. Herb Shriner, who was said to have longevity licked with his low, slow pace, is currently without a television show.
Well, it’s a tired, old problem but the answer to it might be simpler and more direct than all the analyzing would indicate Jack Benny’s answer to why and how he has sustained his secure position these many years was a very simple one.
Must Be Up to Mark
"I just don’t like lousy shows," he said. "Oh, over the years we’ve—certainly done some shows that I didn't think were so good, but you can’t live and die with every single show. What you try to do is to maintain a pretty high average for a season of shows and you try to get some variety in the format, so that you don’t go stale."
Among people who know him well, Benny is said to be a "perfectionist" about his work, but he is a "perfectionist" in a pleasant way. He has an ability to get the best from his co-workers, without driving them too hard.
No Schedule for Writers
For example, he sets up no working schedule for his writers. They write when they feel like It, but there is no question about their meeting their deadlines.
Lunching, here, at the Harwyn Club, Jack Benny chatted in his slow, quiet-spoken way, with the same extraordinary poise and containment which has become his trademark on-stage. He is a gentleman, with some genuine concern for the feelings of other people, a comedian who not only listens to the jokes of other comedians, but who also laughs at their contributions. "I don’t know that it’s so easy to tell just what makes a good television show," he said. "I don’t really know why it is that a lot of the young television comedians don’t last. I suspect it’s no one single thing.
"One trouble may be that these lads; have no place to practice. They make their mistakes right out in the open before millions of viewers. We had vaudeville and road tours and time to polish routines.
Failings of Some Comedians
"Maybe some of them are too stylized, too pat. Of course we have always kept certain familiar notions on our shows — my stinginess, my vanity, my big, blue eyes, the long cold stare, followed by — 'well'. But we always vary the situations and the localities and we emphasize the importance of the guest star." Referring to the currently successful television comedians, Benny said, he thinks the two who have the best chance of enduring are Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers.
"I think Gleason is the most gifted actor-comedian," he said, "and Phil Silvers is just a very funny man. He can’t help but be funny. He breaks me up all the time."
Listens to Staff’s Opinions
Benny said that he himself depends heavily on his four writers, who have been with him for many years and while he has the last word on the scripts, he listen carefully to their opinions.
"They don’t hesitate to tell me if they think one of my ideas is no good," he said, "and I return the compliment. But we all understand one another and we know what we all want.
"There are times when we may be hesitant about a script, but I’m usually in favor of taking a gamble. You can’t stick to one formula just because it’s safe and sure. This is the way you get in a bad rut. These violin concerts of mine were a huge gamble. Suppose I had fallen flat on my face in Carnegie Hall! Wouldn’t I have looked ridiculous? But I took the chance and they’ve gone well, and it’s been a lot of fun for me."
Benny’s Successful Concerts
Benny, who for years has used a bow and fiddle as a comedy prop, and whose squeaking version of "Love In Bloom," is akin to his theme song, has had enormous success recently giving several benefit violin concerts.
After his appearance in Carnegie Hall, he appeared with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Symphony, and he will soon make a concert appearance in London, where he will also film one or two television shows.
"I spend a lot of time now practicing the fiddle," he said. "I just want to be sure I’m good enough so that I don’t have to worry about it. Mary makes me practice in the bathroom, so she won't have to hear me, and this is very bad. The acoustics in a bathroom make singing or a violin sound too good. It deceives me into thinking I’m Heifetz."
For Years 39, Now 62
Virtually everybody knows that Jack Benny, 62, was raised in Waukegan, Ill., and at the age of six, was studying to be a concert violinist. At the age of eight, he was giving concerts at the local theater, billed as the Waukegan child prodigy.
However, he said he has no regrets that he made his success as a comedian, rather than as a concert violinist, and, if he could do it over again, he would wish to do it no other way.
"I get a certain sneaky satisfaction out of giving these concerts now," he said. "I’d probably having a lot more fun than if I’d been a concert violinist all my life."
Enjoy What You’re Doing
Benny feels it is absolutely essential to enjoy whatever you’re doing.
"Maybe our television shows come off pretty well because we have such a good time doing them." he said. "We have more laughs at the rehearsals than the audience has at the performance. If you don’t have any fun, what’s the point?"
The astute Mr. Benny may have put a delicate finger on ingredients X. It’s an old show business credo that if the performers are having a genuinely—good time, so will the audience. It’s a kind of contagious glee which can be passed back and forth.
Then casually, almost without thinking, Benny made another wise remark.
"Success is not talent alone," he said. "The most talented person in the world may not know what to do with his talent. Better to have a little less talent, and some common sense."

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