Sunday, 7 October 2018

Directing Jack Benny

If you mention Fred de Cordova’s name, you’ll probably think of Johnny Carson. After all, he called the shots on the Tonight show for 22 years. But before he did that, he was the producer/director of Jack Benny’s TV show for seven years.

Fred talked about Jack in his book Johnny Come Lately, published in 1989. He said Benny “was in a class by himself” and talks about how he and his wife socialised with Jack and Mary. But he was interviewed about Jack much earlier. Here’s a piece from the King Features Syndicate, published August 14, 1961. You kind of get the feeling the columnist would like to have some kind of dirt, any kind, and was annoyed he was getting anything but.

TV Keynotes
Jack Benny and Brook Go On Forever


Frederick de Cordova, the producer-director of CBS’ perennial comedy hit “The Jack Benny Program,” faces a problem almost unique in the quixotic world of television. He must at all times be certain that there is no major departure in what has been a successful format.
“People wouldn’t stand for any changes in Jack,” Fred told me, “so we find we must have a wide variety of shows carefully contained within certain basic limitations. Jack realizes that to stand still in this business is to go back. We have to be careful that he doesn’t go too far forward too fast. We try to keep the show changing as much as possible within the framework of the character and it takes an enormous amount of work to make it look so easy and so casual that it seems as if the entire show were nothing but fun to do.”
“I’ve been directing comedians since 1931,” he continued, “and there’s nobody who’s quite the perfectionist that Jack is. Even after a show is finished, edited, dubbed and ready to go he’ll insist on loking at it again and he’ll find some way to improve it. No amount of work is too hard for him. He’s a magnificent editor of written comedy as it appears on the screen and he’s completely objective about himself as a performer.
‘A Real Champion’
“Jack’s a real champion,” De Cordova went on. “He’s 67 now and he’ll go on as long as there’s a Jack Benny. I think we’ll all give out long before he does. And do you know that if they approached me now and told me I could pick anywhere else to work, but not with Jack. I wouldn’t know where to go.
“The technical end of the show gets easier from year to year,” he added, “but the writing and directing get harder. We try to alter the method of telling the joke but basically we are still faced with the problem of remaining in the context of the character. Jack’s philosophy is: if it begins to get easy, it isn’t going to be funny.
“One interesting thing about Jack,” De Cordova continued his hero worship, “is that he’ll throw away a script that’s been written for a guest and postpone the guest’s appearance if the script doesn’t come off the way he thinks it should. So far, we’ve got 12 of next season’s shows in the can and among our guests are Ernie Ford, Jane Morgan, Shari Lewis and Dimitri Tiomkin. We have Raymond Burr in what I consider to be an outstanding comedy show.
“The opening show of the season will be taped in New York and will star Phil Silvers. The second show will come from Waukeegan, Ill., and will serve as the dedication show for the new Jack Benny High School. Then we’ll start to use the shows we’ve finished.
Trip to Australia
“We’ll also use the James Stewarts again,” De Cordova added, “and we have a script ready for Roberta Peters. There’s also the possibility of a combination business and pleasure trip to Australia for personal appearances and television. Jack likes to do four or five tape shows and spread them through the season so that he may get topical once in a while.”
Fred was appalled at the low survival rate for stand up comics in television. Other than Benny, Skelton, possibly a few performances by Hope and maybe Bob Newhart, there are no comics left on the medium which once spawned them.
Aside from the Benny Show, Fred is happy at the lengthy association he had with another great comedy series, the Burns and Allen Show. He rates both George Burns and Jack Benny as giants in the comedy field. He also did December Bride for four years and was surprised it got that long a ride from what he termed an innocuous idea. During the coming season he’ll slip away from Benny every once in a while to do a few shows for the new “Hazel” series and for the new “Hathaways” series.
“These are great days,” he said with a smile, “for a fellow who’s doing well in comedy. The creation of a brand new comedy idea that’s good is a feat of some proportions and I’ve turned down a number of shows because I didn’t feel there was anything I could contribute to them.”
Likes TV Work
He also indicated that though he occasionally receives scripts, he has no desire to go back to Broadway, where he got his real start in show business. He also doesn’t care to return to feature films (“I get more fun out of television.”)
“I’m snobbish about television,” he insisted, “but unlike most other snobs, I’m snobbish on the side of TV. I get first crack at the best guest stars in the business because we make our guests look good. We haven’t changed our writing staff in 13 years.
“If you ask me, I have only one real problem with the show,” he concluded. “Our guests are often required to insult Jack and some of them can’t bring themselves to do it. Last year Joey Bishop couldn’t go through with it and it sometimes takes brute force to get some guests to insult Jack. Say it as if you mean it, he’ll snap at them and then he’ll go into his long take and instead of insulting him, they’ll break up and they’re useless for hours.”

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