Sunday, 30 July 2017

Why Jack Benny's Show Was a Success

There was the broken-down Maxwell, the obviously phoney age 39, someone shouting “Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga!” and really ear-splitting violin playing. That was all part of the Jack Benny radio show. But even before any of that was invented, Benny’s show was a huge hit on radio.


All those things mentioned above were only part of the show. The basic Benny character—and his relationships with others in his main cast—was developed before any of that stuff. That was the foundation of the programme. And that’s one of the things that made Benny’s show a hit in the beginning.

The foundation was the invention of Benny in tandem with his original writer, Harry Conn, and built piece-by-piece starting in 1932. There were other things in the early days that attracted listeners. Benny and his crew did parodies (or travesties) of current movies. They made fun of the sponsor’s product; in the Depression, people didn’t mind hearing someone stick it to a big company. To some degree, all those elements carried on as part of the show until it went off the air in 1955.

Here’s a Washington Star story from March 15, 1936 which gives you an idea of what attitudes were like around the Benny show back then. It’s odd to think of Don Wilson as a sportscaster, but that’s how he made his name in the early ‘30s. And listeners in 1955 likely wouldn’t think of Mary as a poetess, though her “Labor Day” poem was a running gag before Conn’s ego imploded in an I-quit-no-you’re-fired departure not many months after this story was published.

The explanation of Mary’s arrival on the show is, well, far-fetched. It’s clear she didn’t just show up with no notice and ad-lib. You can read a transcription of the first show on which she appeared IN THIS POST. The mention of a feud involving Benny and his former bandleader is interesting. Benny’s new writers tried to pull the same thing with Phil Harris when he arrived on the show in 1936. In my opinion, it was a dismal failure. The writers (and Benny, I suspect) were astute enough to realise that Phil came across as boring and Jack as petty. Instead, they turned up the volume on Harris’ attempt to one-up Benny and along the way, hit on making him a hokey, bragging ladies’ man who enjoyed his life. It was a great characterisation and one sorely missed when Harris left the show in 1952.

Incidentally, the show in question featured Kathrine Lee, Georges Metaxa and Hugh McIlevey, not usual support players but ones who were evidently convenient to travel to Washington to the broadcast. The last two only appeared on the Benny show in this one broadcast.

Comedian Is Surrounded By Distinguished Personel

Broadcast From National Press Club Includes Mary Livingstone, Kenny Baker, Johnny Green and Don Wilson.
By the Radio Editor.
THE Jack Benny program, which the Nation’s radio critics have chosen as the outstanding air attraction for the past two years, and whose star they have elected as their favorite microphone comedian three years running, will originate tonight in Washington. The broadcast will be staged in the National Press Club Auditorium at 8 p.m.
Along with Benny will be heard that modern poetess, Mary Livingstone, whose ode to “Labor Day” will go down in literary history as a twentieth century classic; Kenny Baker, the timid tenor from California; Johnny Green, composer-conductor-pianist, leading a local orchestra, and Don Wilson, the sports announcer, who turns in a pretty good acting job every now and then.
WHAT is the formula for the success of the Benny programs? Why is it that his suave, easy-going humor seems to be making a consistently bigger hit with listeners throughout the country than that of his comic colleagues? To start out finding the answers to these questions one might visit a small room in New York’s Park Central Hotel any Wednesday morning. A knock on the door of Room 1510 about 9 o’clock will bring a hearty “Come in” from a fellow named Harry Conn. As you walk in, you see a solidly-built man—you’d guess he’s in his late thirties—seated in front of a portable typewriter.
Conn is Benny’s collaborator. He never starts working on the Sunday broadcast until the preceding Wednesday. “What are you going to have Sunday?” you ask Harry. He doesn’t know, will be the reply. “Well, isn’t it about time you get to thinking about it,” you continue.
“You’re telling me. And what do you suppose this typewriter is for?” he comes back—and then, “The first thing I have to do this morning is work out a situation that will make a good vehicle for Jack and his cast. We always try to get something topical—a current screen or stage success, a public event about which there is a lot of discussion or an episode which has been implanted on a previous program. Illustrative of the latter is the famous ‘feud’ between Jack and Don Bestor last year. This grew out of the very simple notion of having Jack not give Don a Christmas present. When this structure has been carefully planned, I begin thinking about gags.”
UNDERLYING all of Benny’s thinking in building a show are two principals which have governed his comedy ever since he first faced the microphone. Although he is the comedy star, the majority of the laughs must go to the other members of the cast; there must be good-natured kidding of the typical method of commercial announcing.
In every script Jack Benny is the underdog. Johnny Green comes on and flips a few wisecracks at him. Mary deflates him further with a couple of well-aimed darts. Even Kenny Baker and Wilson take him down a few pegs. With the result that the sympathy of the listeners is with Benny from the start. The heckling of the star by his supporters is a sound comedy formula, but it brings even more laughs in the Benny show, because, no matter how many times they have heard them before, members of the audience never expect tenors, band leaders and announcers to say anything funny. Neither Baker, Wilson nor Green are trained actors, and yet under Benny’s watchful eye they have become first-rate comedy players.
MARY LIVINGSTONE, who is Mrs. Benny outside of the studios, rates a paragraph by herself. She was not in the first Benny series. One night Jack found his script was running short, and he signaled Mary, who was in the audience, to step over to the mike and ad-lib with him for a minute or two in order to fill out the remaining time. She made such a hit on this impromptu occasion that Jack has kept her in the show as one of his foils ever since.
In the matter of kidding the announcements, Jack Benny is considered a past master. There is too much pompous commercial spieling on the air, he feels. As a result the product he represents finds its way into Benny comedy sequence[s] at the most unexpected moments. The “plugs” are generally effective because they are genuinely funny and because they are brief.

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