Sunday, 30 May 2021

The Shrewd Showman

Ups and downs greeted Jack Benny’s broadcasting career, but few could boast they were on the air regularly for 33 years.

That’s despite the fact that Jack went through a revolving door of sponsors in the early years and his career could have ended with any non-renewal. But his shows were popular, therefore agencies and potential advertisers were interested in signing with him.

Benny’s popularity was explained by many newspaper columnists to their readers (and, presumably, listeners). One example is in Bruce Nicole’s “Behind the Mike” column of the Lincoln Journal and Star, May 5, 1940. It also outlines the time-line to get the broadcast on the air.

The comedian's job of making people laugh is the toughest phase of broadcasting. Perhaps that is why the turnover of radio comics is exceedingly high. But tonight a radio comedian who has conducted one of radio's most popular shows for the past eight years will mark the start of his ninth year on the air.
The comedian is Jack Benny who came to radio from vaudeville and the stage and is now paid $10,000 a week for his efforts and an additional $15,000 weekly for time and talent.
Benny had an advantage over other comedians who came to radio when vaudeville folded. His vaudeville act consisted of "ear" gags rather than "eye and ear" gags. His humor could be propelled across the footlights by his voice alone. A shrewd showman, Benny saw that gags wouldn't be enough to sustain him on the air for a long period. So he mapped out a formula which has drawn to his weekly program millions of regular listeners.
The Benny character in radio has been based on Jack's philosophy that the performance must be real— at least the listeners must think so while the show is on the air. His character on the air is aimed dead-center at the universal tendency to howl at the self-confident man who makes a fool of himself. He isn't the wise guy that knows all the answers, but on the other end of the gun. He is the target for most of the gags because he is a combination of everybody's faults.
His cast also represents characters whom everyone knows in real life—Phil Harris the typical fresh guy; Mary Livingstone, the fresh dame; and Dennis Day the very naive character. There's also another block in the Benny comedy foundation. It is his ability to outline quickly a basic situation so that the listener can readily grasp its fundamentals. He doesn't depend on the conventional question-and-answer routine. He builds a crystal-clear picture of himself in a given situation and because it is so clear, it's simple for the audience to follow him through the laugh-provoking complications that develop out of a situation. This is because they understand completely the basic humor of the situation and his relation to it.
For example, when Benny was on the skis during his mythical trip to Yosemite it was a real situation, a real person engaged in a struggle to master a problem. Gags about skis or skiing which were probably plentiful but never used, because the situation was in itself humorous. Benny's situations are never contrived for the purpose of working around to a preconceived gag or a specific joke which does not fit properly into the idea of the show. His laughs are placed where the audience is least expecting them.
How does he go about getting the laughs? Benny is a workman. His humor is the result of long and carefully rehearsed effort. Unlike his friend Fred Allen, who is the master of the quick retort and writes his show from inspiration, Benny builds his show slowly and methodically.
Following his Sunday night broadcast, Benny and his two script writers, Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin, get together on an idea for the next week's show. Out of this huddle comes a theme for the program. Monday and Tuesday Morrow and Beloin work out a rough draft and present it to Benny on Wednesday. The three of them spend Wednesday and Thursday polishing up the script. They spend from eight to eighteen hours a day, depending on whether they're clicking or not.
Friday they rest and Saturday the cast is called for the first rehearsal, sometimes in the studio sometimes at Jack's home. The whole cast comments on the script, changes are made. Then Benny, Beloin and Morrow, together with the producer of the show mull over the script until late Saturday night.
The cast rehearses all day Sunday until 4 p. m.. (Pacific coast time) when the first show goes on the air. Sometimes the scripts are revised for the rebroadcast to the Pacific coast three hours later. While this is the routine, the infinite labor of getting the right line and situation to produce the right effect often boils down to laboring over a one minute dialogue for several hours. Even the slips made in rehearsals, if they sound funny, are put into the script. All the informalities which suggest spontaneity to the listener have been carefully rehearsed.
They also make the studio audience laugh. That's important, Jack thinks, because if the studio crowd doesn't laugh the air audience feels the show is a flop.

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