Sunday, 27 March 2016

Benny vs Hope (and Bud and Lou)

Jack Benny’s radio broadcast from Vancouver in April 1944 is mainly noted for being the final one for singer Dennis Day until after the war, as he had been inducted into the U.S. Navy that month. But it was also one of many, many stops Jack made in helping the war effort. He and most of his regular crew spent a week in the city, visiting soldiers, putting on performances, meeting dignitaries and, of course, doing two broadcasts from the old PNE Forum on Sunday night. Jack generously paid the line charges and all expenses for his entourage.

Vancouver wove its way into the Benny life story. It was here he met Mary Livingstone as a girl in her home on Nelson Street east of Denman (the house was replaced with an apartment building decades ago). Vancouver was also one of the stops on the Orpheum circuit which Jack played and many years after vaudeville died, he performed a benefit to raise funds to save the Orpheum theatre (albeit a different one than he visited in the early ‘20s; it was the one Fred Allen played in late April 1928).

The Benny brigade arrived at the Great Northern Railway terminal in White Rock, which was then a small bayside resort town not far from a brand-new two-lane highway that went for miles past fields and brush and a few homes. The train stopped at 1 a.m. Despite the early hour, several hundred fans greeted Jack and reporters boarded the train for the remainder of the ride into Vancouver (with a snort or two along the way, I strongly suspect).

The three Vancouver papers gave almost daily coverage to the Benny trip (papers in those days could not publish on Sundays due to the Lord’s Day Act). Plenty of photos exist in the Vancouver Archives, taken from the files of the long-defunct Vancouver News-Herald. The Vancouver Sun’s Ray Gardner, who was once accused of being a Russian spy, was on the Benny beat, and he came up with two stories about Jack’s writers, the second of which appeared in his “After Dark” column. His writing style reminds me of other newspaper scribes of the day who somehow injected themselves into what they were covering.

The first story is from April 20, 1944 and gives you an idea of how the Benny show was put together. The photo appeared in the paper, though it looks like a photo retoucher did something with Milt Josefsberg’s head.
Script Writers for Jack Benny Show Tell How It’s Done

Gag writers carry on just like the drug-store cut-ups, especially for reporters which is okay by the latter because all they have to do is relax, listen and copy down the script.
Lacking the protection of even a Joe Miller joke book, this reported stumbled upon Jack Benny’s four script writers in their hotel room Wednesday afternoon.
They were about to go downstairs to the dining room for a cup of coffee and some silverware while waiting for Benny, Mary Livingstone and the gang to return from Shaughnessy Military Hospital.
“Reading from left to right,” announced the one who was swinging from a chandelier,” we are Sam Perrin, George Balzer, Milt Josefsberg and John Tackaberry.” “Jokes and funny sayings. Just like that,” said Balzer, and he snapped his fingers just like—well, just like that. No kidding, it happened that way. The rest of the script went like this:
Balzer: I have never been in prison. You can quote me on that.
Perrin: He’s just talking for himself.
Balzer: I haven’t been writing gags long. I used to be campaign manager for Willkie.
(Balzer was back with another. The other three must owe him money.)
Balzer: I won seventeen dollars from Benny at poker and I lost my job.
Josefsberg: I lost seventeen dollars to Benny and I worked five years to pay it back.
(The photographer snapped their picture.)
Josefsberg: What time does your paper come out?
Cameraman: At 11:30.
Josefsberg: We’ll be down at 11:29.
Tackaberry just sat there, mugging furiously and looking out the window hoping to catch the arrival of television.
Here, by the way, is how Benny and staff build the weekly show:
The comedian and the writers gather right after the close of the Sunday night broadcast and in 15 to 20 minutes conceive the general story line for the following week’s show.
Monday the four writers go on from there.
Tuesday or Wednesday they meet with Benny and the real work begins. The five of them work until they have a full script ready for a Saturday morning rehearsal. The cast doesn’t see the script until they arrive at the studio for this try-out.
This script runs about 10 minutes beyond the length of the actual broadcast.
Benny and the writers, acting on suggestions from the cast, then spend Saturday cutting the script down, rewriting parts of it.
The orchestra attends the second rehearsal Sunday morning and the sxript is revised again on the basis of their reaction to it.
A final “dress” rehearsal is held Sunday and later, while the writers are led away in chains, Benny et al go on the air.
Benny and the gang did a thorough job of entertaining patients at Shaughnessy Military Hospital, Wednesday afternoon.
For more than an hour after their 45-minute program in the hospital’s auditorium they wandered through the wards chatting and wise cracking with the patients, and autographing everything from canes to plaster casts.
“I’m not leaving till I’ve visited every ward,” the genial Benny declared firmly when reminded that the party was behind schedule for its next appointment. Rochester met a boyhood pal in Vancouver Wednesday. He is Pte. Roy Williams of the Kent Regiment, stationed at Little Mountain. They knew one another as boys of 11 or 12 in Chicago, later were in show business.
Benny and his party, also visited City Hall yesterday where the comedian tried on the mayor’s robes and chain of office.
“The best mayor that money can buy,” he cracked.
Gardner revisited the writers and came up with this column on April 22nd. It’s fascinating for its revelations about other radio comedy shows. It’s also a little contrived. If the City Editor didn’t like his original story, why was it allowed to be published?
Benny Writers Sweat An Hour Over One Line

The other day I did a short piece about Jack Benny’s four gag writers which made them appear to be nothing more than four joke files wired for sound when actually they are not like that at all.
As a matter of fact, my city editor remarked about that story that it was the first time he had ever seen an egg laid in ten point and hatched in blackface. It was also the city editor who glanced at the names, Perrin, Balzer, Josefsberg and Tackaberry and said, “Hmm, sounds like a law firm.”
“Yes,” I said, “and a high-class law firm at that. They have their own ambulance!”
(No wonder people keep telling is that WE ought to be on the radio. Probably they mean instead of a lamp.)
Anyway, the first time I met Perrin and associates—a word I coined myself and which stands for Balzer, Josefsberg and Tackaberry—they put on the razzle-dazzle banter I described in that original piece about them.
But the second time I ran into them they gave every indication of being sane and were even willing to produce their honorable discharge papers from one of America’s best psychopathic wards.
Balzer began to fumble through his pockets in an unsuccessful quest for his, then gave up, explaining: “Hmmm, must have left it in my other strait-jacket.”
Physically they seem to be perfectly normal. They each have a body, two legs, two arms, two heads. Two heads? Oh, that. Well, there’s nothing really unusual about that. They carry one of them under their arms.
Speaking seriously—as I always do when all the gags in sight are under lock and key—I was at a press reception for Benny when I was told Balzer and Perrin were down the hall and wanted to see me.
I finally found them in a small lobby of the hotel where they had set up shop. They had thrown their coats on a chair, opened up their typewriter and were working on the script for Sunday’s broadcast.
I found out right away that they are perfectionists. They had been working for an hour on one line, writing and re-writing it, and still they were not satisfied. And even when they have it polished to their liking, the chances are Benny may not approve and may re-write or even drop it.
Benny, they said, insists that every line “plays” right, a rule that applies even to the straight or feed line as well as to the punch or gag line.
Bob Hope, among others, doesn’t demand such perfection and is happy as long as the gag line clicks.
You don’t need me to tell you that there is a different between the brands of humor dispensed by Hope and Benny, but a few words from Balzer and Perrin might be worth recording.
Perrin says, “We attempt to disguise our jokes. We hide them in the script.” Hope, on the other hand, is about as subtle as a putty nose, especially in that opening monologue.”
Mind, they don’t say which is the preferable type of humor; they merely point out the difference in technique.
Benny’s gags must also be plausible and fit into the general story line and be consistent with the character of the actor who speaks them. In contrast, Hope’s jokes are evaluated on their laugh-getting potentialities with no regard to story development.
“Hope will say ‘I slept in a hotel last night . . .’ to work in an hotel joke,” Perrin explained, “then a few minutes later say he slept in a subway because he has a good subway joke.”
Before I left, Perrin said the best writing teams are made by having a couple of quiet guys—“Like me,” he adds—and a couple of noisy exhibitionists.
Perrin and Balzer, incidentally, do the general story of the script while Tackaberry and Josefsberg are assigned to the writing of a particular incident. The two teams work independently of one another until the latter part of the week when they meet with Benny to turn out the finished product.
After leaving Perrin and Balzer I ran into Josefsberg and due to conditions beyond your control I will now set forth a few facts which were originally scheduled to be set forth at this time.
Among other things he said:
That gag writers are not born, but ad libbed. He began inadvertently by sending items to Walter Winchell. When Winchell printed them his friends told him he was good enough to earn a living at writing gags. They were right.
That Bob Hope is tough to work for because he has no idea of time. He’ll call a story conference at his home for, say, seven o’clock at night and then may not show up till early morning.
That the manpower shortage is not caused by the fact that every man healthy enough to lift a pencil is writing gags for Bob Hope. He has a staff of eight writers. Each writes a complete script (Josefsberg has written a complete show in six hours) and the best gags in each go into the final broadcast.
That Abbott and Costello are an insult to the intelligence of radio listeners.
That A & C won’t accept a joke unless it is old and reliable. “It isn’t funny. We haven’t heard it before” is almost a stock criticism with them. But if the writer says the gag was used on, say the Hope show and again on Benny’s program and got a laugh track each time, they’ll consent to use it. They lift gags without changing a word from the original.
That some gag writers possess voluminous joke files and make as high as $2500 a week by filling orders from comedians. If a comic wants to put on a skit about doctors, for instance, these gag collectors thumb through their files to the one headed “doctors” and supply as many jokes as are needed.
That Groucho Marx is a terrific gag “switcher.” He once gave 15 switches in five minutes to a gag Josefsberg had written for him.
That some of Fred Allen’s gags are so subtle and written specifically for the trade that they go over the heads of men who have been in the business only a few months.
That a writer may turn in a six-page script to Allen, hear him rave about it, sincerely. Then when it finally goes on the air the writer will be lucky if he recognizes one line of the stuff he has written.
I suppose, that inasmuch as today’s column is about radio gag writers, it should close with some kind of a commercial. Well, about the only thing I can think of is to ask you to “Remember that ‘gag’ spelled backwards is ‘gag,’ which means absolutely nothing.”
Benny’s brood left Vancouver on a ferry for a two-day stay in Victoria before returning to the U.S. One of the papers lauded Benny in an editorial for his generosity in helping the war effort. In a way, it’s sad to note that Jack’s programme was no longer heard on Vancouver radio within two months. The show took the summer off and returned in the fall for a new sponsor. As American cigarettes were not sold in Canada, and the sponsor was so interwoven with the show, the CBC could no longer broadcast it. Vancouver listeners had to pick it up from Seattle stations about 110 miles away. However, a little over two decades later, a chap named Jack Cullen ran old network radio broadcasts on his show on suburban CKNW, exposing the Benny gang to many new listeners and giving the 39-year-old miser a whole legion of young fans.


  1. If Gardner was, as appears to be the case (I skimmed), a columnist, his column would naturally have run even if the editor thought it was a lousy one (which may have been overstated for entertainment effect, anyway). Also, it is unlikely Vancouverites had any problem hearing an AM radio station from 110 miles away.

  2. Gardner, like a number of others, had a regular reporting gig plus a once-a-week column. In this case, he used his column to complain about his own story.
    I never said anyone had problems picking up the show in 1944, however, a couple of years after Jack switched to CBS, the CBC station moved two dial positions from the CBS station and blocked it out in Vancouver. There were a lot of angry listeners at the time; people in Vancouver wanted their American network radio.

  3. It's interesting that Jack had a far more defined persona on his radio shows during this time period, which the characters he played in his movie roles were more varied (such as in "To Be or Not To Be"), while Hope had a more defined persona in his Paramount movies, while his radio show eschewed gags based on character for whatever the first gag was that came along (Bob wouldn't get away from his normal screen person until "The Seven Little Foys" and "Beau James" in the mid-1950s).