Sunday 22 November 2020

Benny On Broadway

There are several types of fans. Some are simply casual ones; they like something but they don’t deliberately seek it out. Some enjoy someone’s work but realise not everything will be a hit. And there are some who like everyone someone did, no matter how mediocre, and get angry when someone criticises it.

I fall in the second group for a number of things. If you’ve read my other, on-indefinite-hiatus blog, you’ll know I like the earliest half-hour series produced by Hanna-Barbera, though some individual cartoons don’t quite work for me. Same for Jack Benny. I generally like his radio show, but some episodes or routines simply aren’t entertaining to me.

Jack’s start came on the vaudeville stage. In 1963, he went back to New York to, in essence, put on a vaudeville show. There were a number of different acts, with him emceeing, no different than what he did in the ‘20s and then in the ‘30s when he made some lucrative personal appearances across the U.S.

The way some reviewers put it, the show wasn’t A-list Benny, except maybe for hard-core, Benny-can-do-no-wrong fans. That’s the suggestion from Newsweek magazine’s review, and that was definitely the opinion of—of all people—cartoonist Al Capp, who wrote a syndicated column.

First up is the Newsweek piece of March 11, 1963, the Capp from the Boston Globe the previous day.

Jack Benny is so wise to his following that the moment he steps out on the stage of the Ziegfeld Theater he knows what the talkative womenfolk are buzzing into their escorts’ ears. He says it first: “My God, he looks so much younger on TV.” From there on, the audience at this nameless review could almost play the same trick on Benny. His big blue eyes still serve him as a topic of infinite jest, along with his parsimony and the quirks of the stage entourage he made famous on radio. Delivered with the old familiar mannerisms—hand on cheek, one limp knee bent inward—the running gags still work, even in a production which looks like the only USO show ever cheeky enough to open in New York at a $7.50 top. Of all our illustrious clowns, Benny is the one who can do least, but when he catches himself in the reckless act of discarding some stray horsehairs from his violin bow and frugally pockets them instead, nobody could excel the princely finesse of it. Benny has the glowing patina of the vaudeville veteran, and the stage dins when he walks off. His co-star, Jane Morgan, is a torch howler whose welcome depends heavily on the way she makes an evening gown bulge, and there is a troupe of gospel sings who bully the eardrums beyond human limits. But there is also a two-man juggling act called the Half Brothers whose skill skirts the supernatural. Even Benny is at his funniest when this amazing team interrupts him in the middle of a joke to make him the stunned pivot of a terrifying whirl of Indian clubs.

Beloved Jack

Jack Benny appeared in person the other night for the first time in 30 years in a Broadway theater. It was one of those largely one-man shows, carrying a few other acts whose main function is to stay on long enough for the star to catch his breath or change his shirt.
Benny is the most beloved entertainer of our time, and it was clearly an act of love that so many of his opening-night audience remained in their seats. A few heartless ones walked out.
Us faithful glared at them with contempt. Also, to be truthful, with a bit of envy.
For in a democracy all beloved entertainers have equal rights. Jack Benny has as much right to exhaust us as Carl Sandburg or Maurice Chevalier, anyone who does anything to deprive him of that right, such as getting up and walking out, simply has come with the wrong attitude.
The wrong attitude is to expect that buying a ticket at Broadway prices to a Broadway theater entitles you to an entertainment up to Broadway standards, by an entertainer who has achieved the title “Beloved.”
Anyone who attends the Ziegfeld Theater with that in mind, for the next six weeks, is going to get either mighty fidgety or home mighty early.
The right attitude is the one you bring to a testimonial banquet—where you pay for your ticket for the privilege of paying your respects to someone who has devoted his life to making this a better world, such as Albert Schweitzer or Herbert Hoover.
You don’t expect the distinguished guest of honor to knock himself out all over again to make you happy that night, but to express your appreciation for all he’s done for you in the past.
For nearly 40 years Benny has worked himself into his present exhausted state providing fresh and charming comedy for us, and he certainly is entitled to take it easy for the next six weeks at the Ziegfeld, while we do something for him.
Benny’s show opens with a sort of two-man juggling act which quips, “What a way to make a living!” while they go about their equally obsolete japes.
And then Benny comes on, and I dare say there wasn’t a heart in that immense audience that wasn’t warmed by the sight of him.
Not even Bob Hope or Red Skelton, for all their years of making this a cheerier world, evoke quite the quality of affection he does.
There’s something so unmistakably defeated, yet so unquenchably hopeful about Benny, so irreparably decomposed, yet so stubbornly vain, that he makes his own secret foolishness more laughable than shameful.
Benny so profoundly understands, and sympathizes, with the average dumb and doomed human, that by reflecting him in his hilariously crazy mirror, he comforts him, and that is a great and rare gift.
For his first 15 minutes, Benny was delicious. And this is the limit a standup comic can be mercifully expected to last, as a fighter is expected to last 15 rounds, but no longer. It is as cruel to demand that a comedian slug it out for two hours, as a fighter.
After that first glorious 15 minutes Benny began losing his wind, and his control, but like any champ with heart he kept going.
At his worst he was embarrassing; at his best he had the amiability of the sort of guy you meet at any convention, who talks a bit too long and about subjects you’re not too interested in, but who is so pleasant you don’t resent him.

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