Sunday 29 January 2017

The Life and Times of Jack Benny, Part 4 of 6

Jack Benny’s show debuted on radio on May 2, 1932, and among the other shows you could hear that night on WEAF (and a number of NBC Red affiliates) were Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, impersonator Ward Wilson, Ireene Wicker the Singing Lady, the Stebbins Boys and Lum and Abner. When Jack finally signed off on May 22, 1955, all of them were gone.

Benny’s longevity was matched by his popularity. Even when sponsors dropped him, it wasn’t because of ratings (Chevrolet dropped him solely because an executive wanted music, not comedy). Benny managed to find ways to keep his show fresh during his long time on radio; what he put on the air in 1932 was quite different than his broadcasts of 1955.

Jack had appeared on radio several times before he began his series for Canada Day, even before his appearance on Ed Sullivan’s interview show that landed him the job with the soft drink company. Except for Sullivan, Benny didn’t feel the others were significant and may have forgotten about them. But several were detailed in the third part of the New York Post’s profile of Benny, published on February 6, 1958. The article also goes into Benny’s comedy timing. We’ll have part five next week.

The Jack Benny Story

In the late 1920s, American light culture was being dispensed from three different sources—vaudeville, the movies and, to a lesser extent, radio.
Like a speculator in futures, Jack Benny kept a hand in all three.
In 1928, at the peak of his vaudeville popularity, he signed a movie contract with MGM at $850 a week, which turned out to be a very comfortable pension. Benny had almost nothing to do for the money.
In the dressing room adjacent to Benny's at the time was fellow vaudevillian Benny Rubin, who was getting nearly as, much money for even less work.
"With nothing better to do," Rubin recalls, "we put a sign over the dressing rooms that said: 'Jack-Benny-Rubin, Music Publishers.' Every time one of the MGM boys wrote a song hit, Jack and I would rewrite the lyrics and they spread around so fast the guys wanted to kill us. Gus Edwards almost came after us with a pistol when we rewrote the lyrics to a song he wrote about mothers, this way:
'Your mother and my Uncle Sam,
They are from Kishnev, I mean Alabam’... '"

That year both Benny and Rubin were considered for a local radio show.
"I got the job," Rubin said, "and to compensate I hired Mary (Livingston) as my singer and foil. Jack helped to write the first show. One of the jokes called for Mary to ask me where I came from and I had to say, Ireland—I mean Coney Ireland.'
"When the show was over the sponsor came out of the control room and walked over to Mary and said, 'Who told you you could sing? You're through!' I protested and he said, 'And as for you, you're through too. You and your Coney Ireland!' Oh, it was a great night for the three of us because the Coney Ireland joke was one Jack dreamed up."
The experience effectively squelched Jack's radio ambitions for the time but he filed it away for further investigation. Meanwhile he idled around the MGM lot long enough to make one Grade A type movie, "Hollywood Revue of 1929," then begged out of his contract to do the Earl Carroll Vanities on Broadway for $1,500 a week.
While the show was touring Chicago, Benny was enticed into doing a local radio show and again the results were discouraging. There was a blizzard on the night of the broadcast, the scheduled singer failed to appear and Jack had to fill in the spaces with jokes.
'Who Cares?'
The ubiquitous Rubin, who was appearing in "Girl Crazy" in Chicago, dropped in at the broadcast studio, passed a note to Benny telling him to announce that he would do an imitation of Benny Rubin, then stepped up and did the imitation himself. The next day the local critics panned the show and advised Jack to stick to his own material instead of doing bad imitations.
It was a minor failure. Radio in those days was largely the province of the dance bands and, outside of the newspaper critics, there were few listeners to judge its merits as an entertainment medium.
But by 1932, the little brown box had assumed a vastly increased importance in thousands of American living rooms where it had come to roost, squat, ugly and owlish, and yet somehow sparkling with personality.
Names like Amos and Andy, and Stoopnagle and Bud had come into the household language from nowhere and veteran stage performers like Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn and Burns and Allen were finding a mass audience for the first time.
Reflecting recently on that distant dawning of modern times, Benny recalled:
"I suddenly realized that radio was becoming important to the people and radio people were becoming more important than stage people. I went to Earl Carroll and asked him to let me out of my contract. There I'd quit a $1,500-a-week job without the prospect of anything definite in radio. I was married and had almost no money to speak of. Then Ed Sullivan signed me to appear on his radio show and the Canada Dry people heard me and gave me a job."
It happened pretty much that way. On the Sullivan show, in February, 1932, a network audience for the first time heard the mild, medium-pitched, faintly nasal voice of Jack Benny uttering his first national self-effacement:
"Hello folks. This is Jack Benny. There will be a slight pause for everyone to say, "Who cares?'"
It is possible that at that very moment a large number of people did say just that But in any case Canada Dry Ginger Ale cared and a few months later Jack had a regular radio show of his own.
At 9:30 p.m. (EDT) on May 2, 1932, on the old Blue Network of the National Broadcasting Co., announcer Ed Thorgerson introduced a new program featuring George Olsen and his orchestra, singer Ethel Shutta (Olsen's wife), and starring "that suave comedian, dry humorist and famous master of Ceremonies—Jack "Benny."
There was no studio audience to hail this event but to the vast (about 60,000) unseen home audience, Benny explained in his patient, mock-earnest inflections that he was "making my first appearance on the air professionally. By that I mean I am finally getting paid, which will be a great relief to my creditors."
By comparison with his later self-castigation, this was almost flattery. But the seed of the Benny syndrome was already visible, it's interesting to note, however, that during this early stage, he concentrated on the outgoing insult, the insult directed toward others.
For example, after his opening monologue on the first broadcast, he said:
"Oh, George, come here—I want you to say 'hello' to the folks."
GEORGE: "Hello, everybody."
JACK: "That was George Olsen, ladies and gentlemen. He rehearsed that speech all week."
Even the stingy insult, which by now of course homes to Benny like a faithful shaggy dog, was out-going then. On the same show, Jack used this one on Olsen:
"He invited me to dinner the other night, much to his own surprise, and he paid the check with a $5 bill that was in his pocket so long that Lincoln's eyes were blood-shot."
Olsen was the hapless target for most of the sponsored abuse that night. There was really no other target available. Thorgerson was not an integrated member of the cast (as was announcer Don Wilson later), and therefore not fair game.
Ethel Shutta was—and for that master still is—a lady, and ladies were never insulted on the Benny show, except for the mythical ones like Benny's off-stage girl friend on the first program who, he said, "poses for the beauty ads entitled 'before taking.'"
Years later the Lincoln joke turned up again the show, only now Benny himself was the object, Fred Allen was the aggressor, the $5 bill had been devalued to a nickel and Lincoln had become an Indian.
This was only a small sample of the infinite variety of the same old things on the Benny program. Old jokes never die there. They merely dissemble.
Once accorded the tribute of studio audience laughter, a Benny joke is apt to become a tradition. The same may be said of the familiar cast of characters on the show, most of whom were hired on the most tentative terms and then simply stayed and stayed.
'Who Goes There?'
The longevity figures on some of the people connected with Benny read a bit like the seniority chart of a life insurance office: Don Wilson, 24 years; Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, 21 years; Dennis Day, 19 years; Mel Blanc, 15 years; guitar player Frank Remley, 20 years; writers Sam Perrin and George Balzer, 15 years.
When Benny tells his secretary, Bert Scott (16 years), "Send in the new writers," he means Hal Goldman and Al Gordon, who have been with him eight years.
But by far the oldest thing on the show (next to Benny) is the money bit, which received what many consider its apotheosis several years ago in a situation that had Benny going down to the secret vault under his house where he hoards his cash.
It was for the most part a pure sound gag. For nearly a full minute nothing was heard from the stage but the tap-tap of Benny's footsteps down an apparently endless staircase toward the vault. As the descent became deeper and deeper, the idea became more, and more preposterous, Benny's stinginess became more and more fantastic and the studio audience became more and more hysterical with laughter.
For the sake of comparison it might be argued that, had Fred Allen used the same joke, he would have stopped at the first landing; Bob Hope perhaps would have gone as far as the second landing, and any number of others would have gone to a third landing.
Benny went all the way to some incredibly subterranean cellar and when he reached bottom a guard called out:
"Who goes there?"
The timing and execution came off perfectly, the response was overwhelming, and it was in fact very funny. And this is Benny's art, take it or leave it.
"Like everything I've ever done on the show," Jack said recently, "becoming the butt of the jokes may have started on one program and gotten such a good response that we Just kept it up. I can't say that I appreciated its lasting value at first. It just happened by accident.
"Like the Fred Allen feud. If we had contrived the thing, if we had said, 'Let's start a feud,' it wouldn't have lasted a week. That's the way all the jokes that have stayed with me started. They all started with one joke."
TOMORROW: The Benny Era.


  1. I was with an elementary school class trip back around 1966 or so that went to see three episodes of "To Tell the Truth" being taped, and as part of the warm-up, Johnny Olson and an elderly woman (in hindsight obviously a plant) in the audience did the "Ireland / Coney Ireland" bit. Even if the station manager didn't like it, the third graders and the adults in the TTTT audience thought it was funny. Nice to see the dialect pun had a high-class pedigree if Jack really did think it up.

    1. I defy anyone to dislike anything Johnny Olson did. He was the best.