Sunday, 4 April 2021

Looking Forward — Except for Dinner

You can’t be bright and cheery all the time.

Jack Benny wasn’t.

He was reaching close to 80 in the early 1970s and seems to have been doing an awful lot of travelling. It had to have taken a toll. Witness this feature story from the Palm Beach Post of May 11, 1972. Jack has flown in for a convention appearance in Florida, and then had to fly to New York City for another performance. He seems particularly cranky—tired of “cheap” jokes, dismissive of his 23-year career on radio, basically telling Irving Fein to get lost when (and I would bet this wasn’t the first time) trying to get some food into him.

This isn’t the first time, by the way, Jack told reporters he didn’t want to think about what he did in radio. In this case it’s odd, considering a PBS special aired the same night as this story where he, George Burns, Edgar Bergen and others were interviewed about what made them successes on radio. But he went on the record saying he looked forward, not backward, in his career. Radio was backward in time.

It's Vintage Jack Benny

Post Staff Writer
The invitations stated "black tie only'' and there stood Jack Benny wearing a navy blazer and a red-striped tie.
"It's my fault," the public relations man for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores convention said. "I forgot to tell you."
"If it's your fault, then I won't go change." Benny said. "I'll just make a joke about it when I go on tonight."
He walked in front of a full-length mirror at the Breakers Hotel.
"I don't look so bad." he said, turning around. "I know a joke," his manager said. "Tell them that if you had known it was formal you would have rented a tuxedo."
Benny didn't laugh. "Or you could tell them you couldn't afford one," someone else suggested.
Jack Benny had heard his own jokes before, and wasn't particularly amused.
"Actually, I have two tuxedos with me," he said, "but when I eat I always get food all over myself."
Benny was performing last night at the convention in Palm Beach, before flying to New York for a Friar's Club testimonial dinner for himself and comedian George Burns.
"George and I have been friends for 50 years," he said. "A dinner for both of us should be exciting."
It is hard to imagine Benny is 78. Only his hands showed his age.
"I've been in show business more than 60 years," he said. "And I think humor today is the same as yesterday and yesteryesterday and yester-yesteryesterday. What I've been doing the past 60 years has been the same thing, only I've gotten a little better about it."
He wasn't interested in the "nostalgia" theme of last night's entertainment or reminiscences about his old days in radio.
"If anyone tells me how good I used to be. I say thank you, but I don't care. What I'm interested in is my next special or my next show and how good that will be."
He started off into space. "Nostalgia," he snorted, "those were the days, my eye. Those were the days only when we were living them. These are the days."
"But that doesn't mean," he shrugged, "that I'm going to undress or be in a pornographic movie. I still don't believe in those things."
Benny's manager, worried about the time, said. "Mr. Benny, your meal is ready."
"I'm not hungry," Benny said, "I'd rather talk."
His manager retreated, but looked reproving.
"It just happens that I'm not hungry." Benny ("Now everyone call me Jack") repeated.
He talked about things that aren't funny, as well as those that are.
"There are certain things I won't joke about, " he said. “I don't like political jokes. Oh, I do a few, but I don't deprecate anyone."
He looked at his small audience of reporters to see if they were agreeing with him.
"What I think about politics has nothing to do with what the country thinks," he said.
He laughed. "I did do one joke about the primaries: I said all the money the candidates are spending is like spending money on a girl who hasn't said yes yet. His manager approached again. "You've got to get something to eat before you go on."
Benny shrugged his Benny shrug. "All right, but I'm not hungry."
A photographer stopped him. "Before you leave, could I have one of those classic Jack Benny poses?"
"What's a classic Jack Benny pose?" Jack Benny asked. And then he folded his arms and tilted his head and everyone said "That's it." "So that's a classic Benny," he smiled.


  1. I have another late interview with Benny in which he is in a similar bad mood, complaining that he's sick of doing "stingy" jokes and "39-years-old" jokes and insisting that his radio shows (and that era of radio, in general) are overrated. He doesn't know whether or not he's going to do another television special. TV is too much work. He says that all he wants to do are concerts, where he can play his violin, but even there he can't just play because audiences felt cheated if they didn't get "those same old jokes," too.

    1. Hi, Jon. I've run across a few of them. Not many.
      In one case, he held a news conference in a city. One paper printed the tired stuff, the other one treated him like the same old happy Jack.

  2. Any idea what Jack had against his radio shows?

    1. He mentioned in interviews he didn't want to look back at the past. He only wanted to look ahead.