Sunday, 15 July 2018

It's Just Not Funny Any More

Parody and satire was originally Jack Benny’s stock-in-trade, long before he turned 39, owned a Maxwell, or turned to the audience and shouted “Well!”

On Benny’s first show in 1932, he satirised advertising by making fun of the sponsor’s product, Canada Dry Ginger Ale. Soon, he was making fun of plays and movies in the second half of his show, which bound his “gang” together in the minds of the audience.

When Benny left radio in 1955, he was still having fun with his sponsor, at least during the middle commercial with special music by Mahlon Merrick (the opening and closing spots became increasingly uninteresting). And every once in a while, he’d drag out a movie parody, but only when he had a guest star (eg. Bob Hope). But along the way, Benny tried and abandoned other routines that just didn’t work or stopped getting laughs from the studio audience.

Here’s Jack in his ubiquitous bathrobe (he did a lot of interviews wearing one) chatting with the Associated Press. I cannot find out if Hub Keavy or someone else wrote this. He talks about dumping a number of running situations that highlighted his shows for several seasons. This appeared in papers on April 19, 1941.
HOLLYWOOD, April 19 —(AP)— Tomorrow evening Jack Benny will formally (and funnily, he hopes) say goodbye to the Quiz Kids "because the situation is washed up."
When the Benny jokes become more important than the Benny situations, Jack finds something else to talk about.
The Buck Benny situation is washed up, as a running, week-to-week gag.
So is Jack's fiddle-playing, temporarily at least. The Fred Allen feud isn't washed up, but it's been deferred.
A quarter of a century of vaudeville and 10 years of radio have taught Benny most of the intricate ins and outs of humor.
"Well, I worry a little, too. That seems to help," Jack admitted.
Nervous Toll Is Great
Jack was in a secret-telling mood, pale blue shorts and a white terry cloth bathrobe, in the den of his home, the same home he uses so often for his humor.
For some, reason he felt like taking down his professional hair to show why his program goes on clicking like it does. His own hair was soon mussed by nervous hands. He smoked cigarettes continuously, often paced the room, jumped to answer the phone.
Obviously the toll on his nervous system is great. Getting to be radio's No. 1 man was comparatively easy; staying there is no cinch.
Uses "Situation" Comedy
Jack worries about his precious situations so much that he usually can anticipate when one is about to be washed up. Here's what he means by washing it up:
"Ours is a situation comedy. We don't just tell jokes. The gags we have fit the situation. We use a situation—say like the Buck Benny business—only as long as it is funnier than the jokes.
"The longer you use a situation, tho funnier the jokes must become. Phil Harris was the drunken pappy in that series.
"After four weeks, his jokes had to be twice as funny. In eight weeks, four times as funny. Just go on multiplying—brother, jokes just ain't that funny."
Likes Joke About Hotel
The Quiz Kids played on the Benny program for the past two Sundays, building up for Jack's Wednesday appearance with them. It was a new situation for him.
"Having them with us once more is as much as we could get out of that situation," he confessed.
"Last week they were staying at my house and everybody thinks it's nice of me to have them as my guests until we overhear one say, 'I think it would be just as cheap at a hotel'."
Jack first chuckled when he repeated that line, then laughed uproariously.
"You can't top a gag like that. I couldn't have them back at the house. But, since the idea is still good, I take them to the train."
Of course! Jack can't take them in anything but his Maxwell during tomorrow's episode at 7 o'clock (over WBEN). You've never heard him use the ancient bus unless the business at hand called for it.
Play Satires Are Finished
He seldom uses Rochester unless the scene, is laid at the Benny house. When the program is in the studio, Rochester telephones.
The play satire situation is just about washed up.
The last, "Tobacco Road," read well and sounded good in rehearsal, but the studio audience didn't react the way Jack hoped they would.
In other words, it wasn't too funny. Two or three years ago, satires on current movies went best on the Benny program. Times change, and so does humor.
"And situations," added Jack. "Let's see, now, on the first Sunday in May we oughta......"
Benny changed writers in 1943 out of necessity. Afterward, the show foundered a bit for several reasons. Jack insisted on doing shows at military hubs; jokes were aimed at servicemen in the seats, not listeners at home. Lucky Strike commercials were strident and repetitive and, frankly, a tune-out factor; the insistent cigarette sell was the first thing the listener heard instead of Don Wilson soothingly regaling the audience about six delicious flavours and big red letters. The writers needed to get their bearings—they invented characters like whiny insurance man Herman Peabody and a pet camel that didn’t work. Losing Dennis Day and, for a time, Phil Harris to the war didn’t help. It seems the Benny brain trust wouldn’t entrust singer Larry Stevens with comedy and the lines handed to the replacement bandleaders sounded strained at times. The McFarland Twins were more amusing when they were parodied by Bob and Ray.

But the writers looked at those tried-and-true routines Jack talked about above and came up with new twists on them. Jack inherited a violin teacher that allowed for very good comedy byplay and reactions. Creative song parodies livened up the middle spot. The Fred Allen feud was resurrected with funnier insults and less outright nastiness. More and more of the show moved into situations at Jack’s home. That meant more Rochester. The audience loved Rochester. Rochester was the guy who symbolised the attitude they’d have with their unfair boss if they had the nerve. Ratings rose. Benny was still pretty well near the top when radio coughed and sputtered as it was fed less advertising money in the 1950s and the show had to leave the air. No matter. Benny found a home on television for some of those same routines until his show ended weekly production in 1965.

1 comment:

  1. Just the greatest comedian on radio. Maybe on television as well. He really understood humor.