Sunday, 19 June 2016

Writing For Benny

Jack Benny and his radio writers didn’t spend their time in Palm Springs because of the weather. Or because of the busy social scene, though that may have been part of the reason; the little town was filled with vacationing film stars and executives in the ‘30s and ’40s. I suspect they spent their time in Palm Springs because of Mary Livingstone.

Mary didn’t go with them to Palm Springs. And she pretty much stated why.

Here’s a story from the March 1945 edition of the movie magazine Screenland. Whether Mary actually wrote it is debateable but I have no doubt it reveals her true feelings—that she really didn’t like her peace and quiet being disrupted by Jack and his writers putting together the weekly radio show at their home. It seems perfectly logical that Jack tried to keep his wife happy by getting in the car and heading to Palm Springs to do the writing there, and enjoy some sun and sociability.

The photos accompanied the article. There’s one of Mary, Jack and Don Wilson that has an ink splotch on it, so I’ve left that one out.

My Life in a Gag Factory
by Mary Livingstone

Benny Exclusive! You're invited to the home of the Jack Bennys, where you will learn just how the Benny brain-trust works out those hilarious scripts

IF THE powers-that-be in the City of Beverly Hills read this article, I hope they will not descend on our home and condemn it simply because I choose to call it a gag factory. Our street is not zoned for industrial activity. It's strictly residence territory. And, however we might choose to kid about it, the Benny domicile is likewise strictly residence.
But, for nine months of the year, this home of ours is likewise the scene of activity which produces some thirty-nine weekly radio programs and is a contributing force in such motion pictures as my spouse, one Jack Benny, gets to play in.
There was a day when a radio performer, especially a comedian, would cringe at the thought that the public was wise to the fact that he didn't write all of his own broadcast material. That day has long gone, and if you follow the columns about this hectic profession of ours you see constant references to huge stables of writers for one performer or another. Now, Jack doesn't have a huge stable, but he has a nice-sized team of five. They are, reading from left to right, up or down, on the bias, or running around in circles, which is more usual, Sam Perrin, Milt Josefsberg, George Balzer, John Tackaberry, and Jack Benny. Yes, Jack works with the boys and provides the locale for its many and long writing conferences which go on a good part of the day for some five to seven days per week.
The innocent little script which is to flow merrily along for exactly thirty minutes on a Sunday evening is carved out of hard rock, syllable by syllable; gag by gag; floor-pacing by floor-pacing; re-write by re-write.
The brain-trust confers for a policy meeting ten minutes after a Sunday broadcast in Jack's dressing room at the studio where a very rough outline of what they expect to do for next week is drawn up. Then each scrivener goes to his own home to pick his own brains for next week's laughs. They may team up into two groups of twos the following day, but by Tuesday, bright and early — I know because their merry prattle and their foot-pounding, fist-pounding, and argument-pounding awakens me — they are at the Benny menage loaded with cute gags and funny sequences.
Then it starts. They may come up to Jack's bedroom. Jack, since it's his house and he's the boss, avails himself of the privilege of sleeping up to the last minute of their arrival. He probably puts on a bathrobe, gets word through the grapevine to the kitchen that he's ready for a little coffee and juice, and then the gang starts to really put together the show.
There's a soft-voiced amanuensis (and that's a $50 word for secretary that would throw Phil Harris completely out of gear) whose name is Jane Tucker, and who acts as sort of a script girl. I would say hers is the most difficult job because first, she has to record the basic gag. Then she has to extract from each person's reaction to the basic gag exactly what Jack wants to have kept in the final script. There may be eighteen reactions, one topping the other, before they all feel they've got something. Then Jack will say, "Read it back, Janie." Janie reads it and this time he might say that it should be changed thus and so, and then they're off again with another dozen toppers to the line she just read. And finally that thirty second to two minute spot is ironed out.
Now this goes on all week. Sometimes they'll call me in and say, "Mary, this one will kill you. What do you think of it.'" I listen. If it kills me, I act properly dead. If it doesn't, I react properly or improperly deadpan and Jack sighs a disappointed "Oh" and they start all over.
And if you think that I'm the only one in the house who's called in to act as guinea pig, then you don't know what happens to my daughter, Joan; to the cook; to the man who comes over to take care of our garden and who would be summoned from the other end of the Victory patch, and to the boy who might be delivering a bundle of laundry, the grocery man, or even the mailman, if he happens to ring twice just when the Benny brain-trust is in and wants a fast reaction. I'm certain that if most of our neighbors weren't professionals themselves, they would all think we were slightly nuts and would wonder what kind of a household I was running.
Sometimes I wish I could share the five to six day non-concern of most of the members of our troupe. Phil Harris can play tiddly-winks or backgammon with Alice and his youngsters, and not worry about Benny from each Sunday until the following Saturday. Don Wilson can make small talk with his wife and be the squire who examines the fruit on his citrus ranch in the Valley without a concern about Jack or his sponsor for the same length of time. The same Bennyless five days go for Rochester who can, unless he is doing a picture, tinker with his model airplanes, or spend time with his model wife and model son. But not Mary Livingstone. She is Mrs. Jack Benny, keeper of the key to his kingdom, steward of his household, foil for his jokes, mother of his child, and, above all, audience supreme, and guinea pig deluxe.
During the summer, my house was comparatively peaceful. I could wake up in the morning any time it pleased me, and there would be a luscious quiet, broken only by a faint whir of a lawn mower, or possibly by distant sounds of breakfast being prepared in the kitchen. I could come downstairs and eat with my daughter, Joan, and carry on an uninterrupted conversation. I could wander from room to room and contemplate the furniture Jack and I are pleased to call our own and were so pleased to shop for when we built the house. I could walk into the garden. I could chat with the gardener. I could go into my own kitchen and have an unharrassed talk with the cook, and find out what we had in the house and what we needed for the next day or two. I could sit at my desk and write letters without tripping over gag writers. I could work at my household accounts and figure out, on my fingers of course, how well within (or without) my budget I was keeping, and do it without making any false starts because of interruptions. All this was because the summer was without Benny, without jokes or joke writers, without radio. Mr. B. was in the South Pacific entertaining G.I.'s. That's the way he spent his vacation, and it was a rest for him because he didn't have any gag men in his hair either — and no cracks about the hair; he has some, you know. Or don't you?
The first two or three weeks he was gone, this new-found quiet was paradise. Then the letters started coming from the South Pacific, and though it was still kind of paradise to be at peace, I began to wonder what the new show would be like for the following season. By the end of the second month the quiet I wanted so badly began to bore me. And by the middle of the final month there was nothing so noisy as that same silence. I literally yearned for the return to our normal life of abnormal activity. Soon I would hear the patter of gag writers' feet. Soon the pacing would recommence. Soon I would be interrupted as I was brushing my teeth by Jack running in and saying, "Doll! This is terrific. It will kill you! What do you think?" Soon agents would come up with picture offers, Bob Ballin, the radio program producer, and sound effect men would come up with gadgets, gimmicks and bit players to which Jack would listen. Soon I would be going crazy again and that would make me sane, because, believe me, by September this sane existence had me literally insane.
So Jack arrived home from the South Pacific September 15 and the brain-trust started functioning the following week. We went on the air on October 1 and just to make it a little more complicated Jack went back to work in his picture out at Warners, "The Horn Blows At Midnight," early in October. At this point not only did he saturate the household with his radio activity, but his producer, his director, his picture writers were out to the house making plans. Looks like Warners established a beachhead at the Bennys, then Jack established a beachhead at Warners — in his dressing room — for his radio writers and himself to carry on with each week's program, but he kept in constant communication with the house to make sure that we were all part of everything that went on.
However, I'm not complaining. I can still remember the summer quiet, particularly at the latter part of the summer, where I swore that never again would I resent living in a gag factory.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for making these old articles on the Jack Benny Show and cast available for a new generation of fans!