Sunday 11 June 2023

Jack's Formula

On the radio, Joe Penner had “Wanna buy a duck?” “You naaaasty man!” and “Don’t ever DO that?” Jack Pearl had “Vass you dere, Sharlie?” And when those phrases got tiresome, there wasn’t a whole lot left.

Jack Benny was different. Yes, he had pet phrases, but over the years he also developed so many traits and side characters that his show didn’t sound exactly the same every week.

Unlike Penner and Pearl, whose repetitious routines wore out in time, Jack was able to carry on year after year, adding a host of occasional, but familiar, traits into plots with his established characters.

The entertainment columnist of the Kansas City Star commented on that in a column of January 25, 1948, admitting audiences were quite happy with Benny’s approach.

The Jack Benny Show Follows A Strict Comedy Formula
On Almost Every Program the Listener May Expect the Dialogue to Touch on at Least Ten Set Subjects and the Dialers Like It
ACCORDING to a Sedalia reader, this department has been derelict in its duty to radio listeners. We have been paying too much attention to Bob Hope and overlooking two of the greatest comedians on the air— Jack Benny and Fred Allen.
The letter from the reader was kind of rough in spots and we will not quote any of it directly. The theme was that Hope is lousy and if it were not for his stooges he wouldn't have a listener, and that Benny and Allen are so doggone funny they leave him rolling in the living room floor or someplace every Sunday night.
Laugh at Their Jokes
Our sense of humor apparently isn't quite as keenly developed as that of the Sedalia man, but we laugh occasionally at both Mr. Benny and Mr. Allen as we do sometimes at Mr. Hope. And we may not have given either Benny or Allen any “plugs" recently but it isn't because we have anything against them. A year or so ago we used so much about Allen we were accused of being on his pay roll.
That pay-roll crack hurt us. Someone thought all those "plugs" were good enough to bring in some of that stuff comedians call "happy lettuce" and we weren't getting a cent. So we just quit saying anything about Mr. Allen and he kept right on being funny (occasionally) and staying in the first ten (every week).
We kept right on listening, too, and probably haven't missed any more broadcasts of Benny or Allen than the Sedalia fan. However, we can truthfully say we never have been knocked off our chair by either. The only radio comedian who ever did that was an upstart named Henry Morgan and it wasn't with a joke about being stingy, having no hair, the bags under Allen's eyes. But more of that later.
His Timing Is Tops
We still are sensitive about that Allen affair so until the wound heals we will confine this largely to Benny's program. We believe Benny is one of the top comedians of the air. He has a remarkable sense of timing and emphasis. Sixteen years on the air and still in the in the top ten testifies to his ability and appeal better than anything we could say. But Benny like so many others isn't any better than his writers, and like the writers in other camps, they have built an illusion from which most of the comedy springs.
For some reason or other people like to laugh at the shortcomings, the abnormal traits and physical deficiencies of others, especially when the others are radio comedians. Benny and his writers have capitalized on that. The show generally follows the formula sometimes (as in the case of last week's program in Denver) almost exclusively.
Maybe it isn't fair to pick last week's show for analysis since it was on the road and all the bromides were dusted off. However it emphasizes the pattern.
A Formula Broken Down
There must be at least one joke or mention of:
1. Don Wilson's bulk.
2. Benny's (imaginary) toupe.
3. Benny's frugality.
4. Mary Livingstone's poem (or letter from mother).
5. Phil Harris's lack or education.
6. Harris's fondness for hard liquor.
7. Fred Allen.
8. Benny's age (38).
9. Dennis Day’s innocence (not used in Denver).
10. The latest magazine in which a picture or article appeared about Benny or one of the cast.
With these essentials as a starting point, the writers get together and throw in a few topical jokes, a couple of places for Mary to go haw, HAW, HAW, and if there is a guest, some formula gags that have come to fit the particular star. It's good stuff though.
The Denver broadcast followed the pattern pretty closely. Wilson told Benny that he was an incubator baby, born in Denver, and that Denver loves him (Wilson).
Benny to Wilson—Denver loves every square mile of you. They still have the incubator and are holding a rodeo in it—ro-dayo as in Anaheim, Cucamonga and Azusa.
Mary remarked to Benny that Denver's mayor was only 35 years old and Benny answered that he was only three years older than the mayor.
Mary read a poem about Wilson's size.
Wilson told Benny he heard the "that's a lot of bull" line on the Fred Allen show two weeks ago.
Harris didn't know what was the capital of Colorado but knew how many pool rooms there were in the state.
Rented Out His Suite.
Rochester called on the telephone to tell Benny that the hotel was complaining because Benny rented out the twin bed, rented part of the suite for a coffee shop, a barber shop and laundry in the bathroom and had installed slot machines.
A telegram from Fred Allen was read which said: "I understand there also is a stock show in Denver and it is fighting a losing battle."
And finally there was a plug about a Liberty magazine picture of Benny.
The high spots of the show, in the opinion of this listener, were:
When Rochester was told that Colorado's governor was 38 years old, he replied:
"Ain't everybody."
When Kitzel said he was carrying an .88 revolver and Benny asked him if he didn't mean .44, Kitzel said:
"No, an .88, why be half safe."
And the quartet singing the commercial to the tune of "Home On the Range."
Benny is the man behind the improved commercials on the show. The quartet idea is one of the best and most clever on the air. And it has been due to Benny's insistence that the tobacco auctioneers have become less and less a part of the commercial message.
The only solid criticism we have of the Benny programs is its tendency to get extremely loud at times, especially when Benny goes into his screaming routine in an attempt to stop the quartet. Then we would just as soon hear the auctioneers.
And speaking of commercials, if Fred Allen does his "Tobacco Opera" a few more times, he may laugh the outlandish cigarette claims off the air.

The columnist, on one hand, seems dismissive of the Benny formula, but admits “it’s good stuff.” And he or she misses the fact that Jack was involved in the writing and gave the “yea” or “nay” to every word spoken on the show (with the exception of ad-libs by Bob Hope, Fred Allen, Bing “Who the Hell Picked Out This Key” Crosby and other guests).

And there was much more to the Benny show than what was outlined in the column. All kinds of rotating elements were added: the telephone operators, Sheldon Leonard’s tout, Frank Nelson’s floorwalker, the Maxwell, Sara Berner’s sinus-y singer, Professor LeBlanc, the vault, and many more familiar to, and loved by, Benny fans. Jack was still getting mileage out of both Kenny Baker and Carmichael/gas man into the ‘50s, long after they left the show. He had a knack of knowing when those gags might work. It provided him with an audience on television, long after other top radio acts faded away.

1 comment:

  1. Benny actually told Pearl that he should lay off the phrase for a couple of weeks so it would be funnier when he did say it, and Pearl replied that's what people tuned in to hear. They were both right, except Pearl's show didn't last, and that was one reason. Benny would avoid using certain gags, like the people you mention as characters, every week.

    He also talked about how to build up a joke. He had on the Colmans and Benita was munching an apple when Ronald said he had just been at a rehearsal by Phil Harris's orchestra and she replied, "Ronnie, not while I'm eating." Benny said, that line in itself wasn't really funny, but they had spent all those years talking about the reprobates in the band, and so it went over big.