Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Happy Birthday Jack Benny - 39 Again!

When it comes to February 14th each year the first thought in my head is not that of love struck acts of romance, nor is it heart shaped gifts and cards. No, due to the fact that I don’t get out nearly as much as I should, Valentine’s Day - February 14th is solely remarkable for being Jack Benny’s birthday ( and in later years specifically his 39th birthday despite being born in 1894)

To be honest this is a bit of a redundant piece though. What can be said about Jack Benny that hasn’t been said better by others already? Not much at all. Undoubtedly the greatest comedian of the golden age of radio, he created a character so perfectly drawn that he barely had to do anything to get a laugh, almost existing purely by his reactions to the jibes thrown at him by his co-stars. I watched repeats of his television show when they were occasionally shown in my youth, and although I knew who he was and how good he was, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve listened to his radio work and appreciated his genius.

I remember a few years ago raving to a friend about how much I was enjoying listening to Bob Hope’s radio shows, telling him how funny and sharply written they were. He replied that Hope’s stuff was okay, but not a patch on Jack Benny. At the time I really found it hard to believe that there could be a better radio show that Bob Hope’s but he was so right. I got hold of a collection of about 600 Jack Benny shows and over the course of about a year listened intently to the lot, spanning the years 1932 to 1956.

As much as I talk about my enthusiasm for Old Time Radio, you really haven’t heard anything if you haven’t listened to Jack Benny. He is the cornerstone of classic radio, and the glue that holds it all together. Benny always ensured that he employed the freshest writers and that the quality of his show was the best on radio and with himself as head writer, the quality shines out. What I found fascinating from my year long listening journey was hearing the Benny character slowly evolve into the character that everyone unquestionably accepted - penny pinching, mean, vain - by the time his television show started.

When he started his radio show in 1932 it was in the guise of genial master of ceremonies, telling jokes and introducing songs. However, very quickly his cast started to pick apart this façade resulting in the some of the early shows basically being a group of people in a studio arguing with Jack for half an hour with no real plot or direction. Slowly, short plots including the cast replaced the skits and parodies and after about five years on air, the show stopped being set predominantly in a studio and the home life of Jack Benny was explored, giving the show the format of a situation comedy.

Jack Benny’s real strength as a comedian was not only to hire the best writers but to surround himself with a lovable ‘gang’ of comic characters to bounce off. From wise cracking Mary Livingston (Benny’s real life wife, though this was rarely acknowledged even though everyone knew they were married), chiselling servant Eddie ’Rochester’ Anderson, drunken band leader Phil Harris, obese product shilling announcer Don Wilson, naïve man-boy singers Kenny Baker and Dennis Day and early on, fun loving western star Andy Devine; they existed to make Benny’s life  more complicated and provide him with a source of irritation and frustration at the everyday trivialities he encountered.

His incredulity and exasperation at his cohorts slowly built up the details of Benny’s character in tiny increments. For example it took over five years for the signature Benny meanness to be mentioned, and many more months before it became a regular running gag. It’s the myriad of details in his character that give him his depth as a comic, from the bad violin playing, to his supposed toupee, his perennial age of thirty nine to the legendary rivalry with Fred Allen. The result was that in many ways the later shows (although they maintained the high standard) ended up that they almost wrote themselves. The Jack Benny character could be placed into any situation with guaranteed comic results

Jack Benny’s film career was respectable but never truly captured the genius of his radio and television work. Of course, he is primarily known for his much lauded turn in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, but a few more of his film appearances are worth watching. Both The Meanest Man in the World and George Washington Slept Here are very entertaining and use a version of his established character very well. Although I haven’t watched them yet, Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (with Mitzi Green), Love Thy Neighbor (with arch nemesis Fred Allen) and Buck Benny Rides Again (with his radio gang) look in theory to be pretty good uses of his talents. However, though his films are usually fun they generally paint his character in broad brush strokes that lack the subtlety and intimacy of his appearances in other mediums.

One thing that is interesting about his radio shows is the choice of regular guest stars. From 1945 to 1951 Jack lived next door in storyline to Ronald and Bonita Colman. The running gag was that Jack continually borrowed items from the Colmans’ without returning them, which culminated in a famous storyline where Jack borrows, then loses Ronald Colman’s Oscar. The stint revealed Colman as a very adept comedian, increasingly pained each time Jack arrived at his door. Both he and Bonita are hilarious as they wearily deadpan their disgust at their horrid leeching neighbour to the point that in later shows their whole daily existence involves trying to avoid Jack. Another interesting guest was Orson Welles, who took over Jack’s hosting duties on the show for a month in 1943 while Jack was ill. The humorous end result was that Jack’s cast didn’t want him to return from his illness, but the choice of Welles was an interesting one (and one that also showed Welles' hidden talent for comedy), implying a mutual respect and friendship between the two.

While people may argue the merits (or lack thereof) of Bob Hope or Bing Crosby in private life, everyone seems to agree that Jack Benny was a kind and generous man who was universally liked and respected. His marriage to Mary Livingston wasn’t always the smoothest but it gave him enough of a stable family life to keep his career on track. In the end it doesn’t really matter what he was like in private as the Jack Benny character became so entwined with his own persona that the two were indistinguishable to the average person. And that is the genius of Jack Benny – to create a character, a radio show and a career that made his comedy look ridiculously simple and effortlessly natural. So many people have been fooled into thinking that comedy is an easy business but Benny made it look so easy because of a minute and painstaking attention to detail, absolutely perfect comic timing (probably the best ‘reaction’ timing of any comic there has ever been) and an uncanny ability to understand his character and his audience.

It took me a while but I realise now how far ahead of his contemporaries on radio Jack Benny was (the exceptions would be probably Fred Allen and Henry Morgan but their brand of comedy was so different in nature that it can’t really be compared). His comedy can be sophisticated, surreal, nuanced and ridiculous, but most of all it’s still after all these years laugh out loud funny. And what more can a comedian ask for?

I’m not quite thirty nine yet (getting there though) but I have decided that when I reach that age, and for all the years after, like Jack whenever someone asks my age I’m going to reply “Thirty Nine”. So this Valentine’s day I’m putting aside the love hearts and the roses, and raising my violin, affixing my toupee and saying “Jell-O again!”  to Jack Benny, the world’s oldest thirty nine year old.

And if we really want to get mushy for Valentine’s day, lest we forget in his will Jack Benny specified that after his death a single red rose be delivered to his wife Mary Livingstone each day for the rest of her life. And if that isn’t one of the nicest, most romantic gestures you’ve ever heard of then romance truly is dead.