Sunday, 20 June 2021

50 Years of Laughs

Jack Benny had a very good idea of why he was a success. He expounded on it for years in the press. Here’s an example from March 10, 1963. The writer was the TV editor for the San Diego Union, which was evidently hooked up with a syndicate.

CALLS THIS BEST SEASON
Self-Knowledge Benny Asset
BY DONALD FREEMAN

HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 24 (CNS) — "This is the greatest season I've ever had" said Jack Benny as he relaxed in his studio dressing room. His mood was reflective, light-hearted, even merry.
And why not? After 30-odd years of radio and television, the Benny shows this season have indeed hit a high water mark. As for Benny himself, he is that rare bird among the comedians — he is shrewdly detached, an expert at the difficult art of self-appraisal. He doesn't, moreover, use a superlative lightly. It was significant that he saw fit to repeat this particular one.
"The greatest season yet," Benny went on, nodding agreeably. "Each year our shows have always been a little better but this year we've had more new things, new ideas. Not that I thought in other years we had a bunch of lousy shows—that we've never had!"
By way of emphasis, he stared a characteristic Jack Benny stare. Then resuming:
"I happen to have a theory about this business — you should never press. Never try to top yourself. Once you try to top yourself, you start straining.
"MY KIND OF COMEDY lasts because, one, I try not to strain and, two, because my character — the Jack Benny character — includes a composite of all the faults people may have, all the human frailties. He's stingy and vain and insecure — insecurity is based on stinginess which is the fear of the future. Who isn't afraid of the future?
"So — we exaggerate, we make a joke of it and people recognize something of themselves.
"There's a lot of everybody," says Jack Benny, thoughtfully, "in Jack Benny."
Benny has started a run at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York — a venture that delights the vaudevillian in him. Benny played the Roxy, a movie house, in 1947; otherwise this engagement marks his first Broadway appearance since he left Earl Carroll's Vanities 31 years ago to enter radio, being introduced thereon by a smiling journalist-emcee named Ed Sullivan.
"I THOUGHT back then that maybe if things worked out, I'd have a little future in radio," Benny said, with a small shrug. "But if anybody would have said, 'Jack 30 years from now you'll still be going strong,' I'd have said, 'What are you — crazy?' But then, nobody in this business thinks they'll last. We always wonder, where will the material come from?"
" And where," I asked "does it come from?"
Benny shrugged again. "All I know is, you can't plan a character," he said. "You can't say, 'Look, fellas, let's invent this cheap vain character who drives a Maxwell, keeps his money buried in a vault and has a butler named Rochester and wears a toupee' — actually, it would be funnier if I really wore a toupee, which I don't. But all of this adds up to 'Jack Benny.'
"And that kind of a character you can't plan. If it works it works and people begin to accept everything about it — the fat announcer, the silly kid tenor. And after 30 years it all gets a little easier because people know that character so well."
BENNY PAUSED. "People have been laughing at me for 50 years now — 50 years! That's more years than I am! So I can't be too lousy a comedian. But I'm also a better editor of material than people realize. A lot of comics would last longer if they knew themselves as well as I know me."
Our conversation turned to the violin, the instrument that Mr. Benny plays with such — uh, dedication.
"Listen, I practice an hour a day on the violin," Benny said. "If I didn't practice, I'd get even worse. I used to holler at Giselle MacKenzie all the time. I'd say, 'Giselle, you can play the violin so beautifully and you hardly ever play!' It makes me sore when I think of how hard I have to work just to play lousy.
"Most people think I can play better and just play this way for a joke," Benny said, then added, resignedly, "But if I could play better, then it wouldn't be funny."

1 comment:

  1. "He doesn't, moreover, use a superlative lightly."

    Of course, one of Benny's most endearing traits according to friends and family, was a tendency to jump to hyperbole when casually describing any object at hand ('This is the greatest cup of coffee I've ever had!')

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