Sunday 27 December 2020

Farewell, NBC, says Jack Benny

Jack Benny was no cheapskate. But Jack Benny was not one to put up with the U.S. government siphoning away huge amounts of his radio pay cheque in income tax. So his wily managers at MCA figured out how to package him into a corporation that would be taxed at a lower rate, and then shopped around the corporation to the radio networks.

There’s been a lot of dot-connecting and speculation over the years about what went on behind the scenes, but we can unequivocally remark that a deal was signed by CBS, and Jack Benny’s show left NBC after December 26, 1948.

Benny had been known and loved by radio audiences for years so the move brought a lot of attention from inside and outside the industry—the government wasn’t going to lose all that tax money without a fight. Papers quoted from the final NBC broadcast. Trades talked about NBC trying to sign Martin and Lewis before the network dumped Horace Heidt’s young people’s talent show into the Benny slot and pushed it as the number-one time slot in radio; Variety reported on one on-air promo from an unusually cheeky NBC—a sexy-voiced woman exclaimed “Darling, you’re wonderful . . . but Horace Heidt at 7 is even more wonderful.” That didn’t stop the spot from no longer being number one on NBC any longer. (Variety shrewdly sold box ads to CBS stations heralding the impending Benny arrival.

Fellow radio comedians couldn’t resist making fun of what was a very public move. What they had to say was documented by the New York Times Herald’s John Crosby in his December 30, 1948 column. Crosby was generally a Benny fan; occasionally, he’d complain about the show’s repetitiveness but he knew (as did Benny) that’s what the audience wanted, and it paid off in ratings. The reference to “Mr. Gitzell” is puzzling. I’m pretty sure Crosby knew Frank Nelson and Mr. Kitzel were two different characters. Maybe his copy editor was testing the contents of a bottle in a desk drawer before looking at the column and sending it to the composing room.
Radio In Review
Death of a Joke

Jack Benny bowed off NBC last Sunday after 17 years with gracious thanks for a pleasant relationship, thus ending an era and terminating a joke that has served the comedians well the last few weeks. Benny, who owned the 7 p.m. time (EST) on NBC, the only radio personality so honored, will be heard hereafter at the same time on CBS and to commemorate this great migration from one kilocycle to another I have collected a little list of jokes that has circulated about it.
Commenting on Benny's possession of 7 o'clock, Fred Allen commented: "Benny is the only comedian who ever owned a slice of eternity and he's giving it up for a paltry $2,000,000." The general stampede to CBS provoked Allen to remark that "even Eisenhower has gone over to Columbia." And last Sunday, Portland Hoffa remarked "After all these years, it'll seem funny without Jack Benny."
"It always seems funnier without Jack Benny than with him," said Mr. A.
* * *
Bob Hope spoke up the other night as follows: "Gee, the poor little Christmas tree all alone on that lot. It must feel like Fred Allen on Sunday night." Later, he was overheard to remark: "And if I'm not telling the truth may I never get an offer from another network."
The only person who kept silent during this gagfest was Mr. Benny himself. He kept quiet that is, up until the last minute. Then Rochester told his master: "There's an airplane over the house skywriting 'Jack Benny moves to . . ."
"Moves to where?" asked Benny.
"I don't know. NBC's anti-aircraft shot it down."
So much for the jokes which had that special intermural intimacy characteristic of running gags in radio. As to Benny himself taking his switch from one network to another as an excuse to discuss someone who requires no particular explanation he is certainly a remarkable man. A couple of years ago his program dove headlong in popular favor. No one quite knows whether it was because the show was tired or the public was tired. Then he suddenly bounded back to the top again.
This year he was picked by radio editors in Motion Picture Daily's annual poll as Champion of Champions, a title more appropriate to a dog show than to a radio comedian, and also as best comedian. I don't know as I'd call him best comedian exactly. He is certainly the most durable and the most consistent. Almost accidentally, he appears to have solved the problem of entertaining a few people in a living room, not just once a year but once a week.
* * *
He has surrounded himself with diverse people each with his or her separate characteristics—the cynical, efficient Rochester; the rowdy Phil Harris, the innocent Dennis Day, the hearty Don Wilson, the acid Mary Livingston; and, when necessary, others equally well-defined—the suave Ronald Colman, the rude ticket salesman, Mr. Gitzell [sic]. The Benny program is closer to a vaudeville act than it appears on the surface. Each of these people appears and displays his special personality for a minute or two like a juggler doing his act.
This is the most economical of all comedy. A single joke can be bandied about by Wilson, by Harris, by Mary, by Dennis Day—each giving it his own inflection. The joke ripens as it goes along like a family joke.
Benny, the master of inflection and timing, unlike Fred Allen or Edgar Bergen, is no deep thinker. But he's the best editor in the business of the material his writers provide. It's a great gift, worth Benny's weight in gold. Well, actually, it's worth more than that. Two million dollars weigh quite a lot more than Benny.
Earlier this year, this humble blog posted this story of one newspaper reviewer listening to the first CBS show. However, Variety, in its December 29, 1948 edition, set aside some space for a humorous speculation dialogue of what might happen on the first night of the network change in the home of likely the only couple in America that did not know about the change. It was written by Alan Lipscott, one of the men who laboured on scripts for the Jackie Gleason version of The Life of Riley.
Asleep at the Switch

The Time: Sunday, Jan. 2. 7 p.m.
The Place: A flat in Brooklyn.
The Wife: Doris.
The Husband: Joe.

Doris: Seven o'clock, Joe. It's time for Benny.
Joe: (Chuckles, as he fiddles with dials on radio). Ah, that Rochester. What a joke he cracked last Sunday about the . . . what's the number of the station, honey?
Doris: Again with that "What's the number of the station, honey?" The same question every Sunday for the past 15 years. How can you be so stupid?
Joe: Well, what's the number?
Doris: How should I know! How many times have I told you, the number is written down on a paper bag behind the third tube in the radio! Such a shmo I never. . . .
Joe: (interrupting) Pipe down already. I got the paper bag. It's 660. (Dials) Here. . . .660, right on the button. Now, let's keep quiet and listen.
Doris: Dear, it's not Benny.
Joe: It's 660. I'm not a dope, you know.
Doris: Dope, or no dope, on the program you just tuned in, somebody's giving away money. It can't be Jack Benny. Now, please, dear, tune in 660. F. E. Boone must be finished already and. . .
Joe: Here wise guy, look for yourself.
Doris: (looks at dial) I must admit, you're right. It is 660. (Looks at wrist watch) Maybe my watch is wrong.
Joe: Could be. Remember, yesterday, you fished it out of the drain?
Doris: But the clock on the mantlepiece has the same time.
Joe: Could also be a cheap clock. Remember, it was your brother's wedding present.
Doris: I'll dial the time operator, (dials phone) Thank you. Joe, it's time for Benny.
Joe: You can't trust those operators. Always got boys on their minds.
(Clanking of a can heard outside kitchen door).
Doris: Joe, it's time for Benny. The garbage man is here.
Joe: Still no proof. Maybe he's still working on daylight saving.
Doris: Joe, I'm warning you. If I miss Dennis Day's song, and it's your fault, you can start looking for another wife and children.
Joe: For God's sake, Doris. You saw for yourself. It's 660!
Doris: (Frustrated) What'll I talk about in the butcher shop tomorrow? I'll feel so ignorant. Joe, honey, please, once more look at the paper bag.
Joe: (Pokes around in back of radio) Alright I'll burn my fingers again. Ouch! Here it is. Still 660.
Doris: (Quietly) Joe, wait a minute.
Joe: I'm waiting.
Doris: Maybe today ain't Sunday.
Joe: It's gotta be Sunday. The bank calendar says so. See for yourself.
Doris: But dear, that's the same bank where you pick up blotters that don't blot.
Joe: Aw g'wan! It must be Sunday, otherwise why did we have chicken for dinner.
Doris: You got a point there.
Joe: And how could your two nephews and your sister be here for dinner if it wasn't Sunday? They work every other day.
Doris: (tearfully) All I know is, if the Colmans are on tonight and I miss them, I'll kill myself.
Joe: Look, maybe Benny is sick. Too much New Year's celebration. That's it, he must be drunk.
Doris: Men with blue eyes don't get drunk. Phil Harris yes, but Benny, no!
Joe: (Still fooling with dials) Maybe the earthquake in California made a big mishmash of the meridians and knocked the whole time schedule for a loop. Could happen, you know. I was just reading last week, where Einstein said. . . .
Doris: (sore) Joe, will you stop with that Einstein already. All I know is, that I'm not in the kitchen washing dishes and you're not on the couch snoring, so it must be time for Benny.
Joe: (dials furiously. Suddenly he tunes in on Benny saying "Hmmm." Very excited) Doris, I got him. I, I, I, got him. It's Benny already. Sure. Nobody can say "Hmmmm" like he can. Shhh! Now be quiet!
Doris: (Whispering) On 660. like on the paper bag?
Joe: (Whispers back) No, on 880. Shhh!
Doris: What's 880?
Joe: How should I know?
Doris: It must be the radio.
Joe: Yeah! I'll have it fixed the first thing tomorrow.
Doris: Yeah! And before you do anything, put the number 880 on the paper bag behind the third tube.
Joe: Good idea.
Doris: And cross out 660.
(Pokes around in back of radio.)
Doris: Shhh! Quiet, dear. Dennis is going to sing.
Changing networks weren’t the only thing Jack and his gang were doing at the start of 1949. That story next week.


  1. Lipscott (who'd write for another loud comedian in the 1950s when he did "Make Room for Daddy") was being New York-centric with his frequencies in the Variety piece, since 660 AM in 1948 was WNBC and 880 was (and still is) WCBS.

  2. Lipscott wrote for the original William Bendix "RILEY" radio show- with Reuben Ship and the series' producer and uncredited head writer, Irving Brecher (Brecher also adapted 26 radio scripts for the Jackie Gleason TV edition he produced in the 1949-'50 season). Alan later collaborated with Bob Fisher on scripts for numerous TV series [including "MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY", "THE PEOPLE'S CHOICE", "BACHELOR FATHER", and "THE DONNA REED SHOW"] until his death in December 1961.

  3. Lipscott was apparently responsible for a running gag on "THE LIFE OF RILEY" when Riley often confessed to Peg, "I hid $10 in the radio. It's behind the third tube from the left!" (It also turned up in two of the Gleason TV episodes.)

  4. Thanks for all these great articles and the accompanying notes, over the years. They are much appreciated. I keep meaning to say thanks and keep forgetting.