Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

Open, general discussion of old-time radio and early television
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Smari1989

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Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Sep 22, 2015 4:31 am

(Sorry, couldn't think of a better title...)

For the last year and a half, I've been listening quite a lot to Jack Benny's radio program of the 30s, 40s and 50s; more than a 100 shows now (I listen to them mostly while inking my cartoons). I'd seen a few of his TV episodes before and found some of them amusing enough; however, I think radio really proved to be Benny's medium. When expected to do visual gags in the TV show, he relies quite a bit on tried-and-true material borrowed from silent comedies and the like; not bad, but in his radio show he comes across as a true original, doing many things quite different from other radio shows of the day. His best shows are absolutely hilarious, so much so that I have to put my drawing pen down at times to avoid an accident. I also love his supporting players such as Rochester, Dennis Day, etc.; they all have so good chemistry.

The odd thing is, I've been listening to Abbott & Costello's radio shows a bit as well, and I find it to be rather the other way around in their case. Some routines on A&C's radio show are brilliant, of course, but I find them rather exhausting to listen to in the long run; I find Benny's show to have more warmth, it's simply more "cozy" to listen to, though I can't quite put my finger on why as his shows are filled with wise-cracks and people being unpleasant to one another, just as in A&C.

On the other hand, I absolutely love A&C's TV show (the first season, anyway) and find it to be much more innovative than Benny's TV show.

Another thing I've noticed is that while Benny indeed has brilliant timing, he needs to be given a few concrete "characteristics" to stand out; in his very earliest radio appearances, before the stingy-always 39-traits have been given him, he comes off as rather anonymous.

Anyway, sorry if this thread appears a bit rambling. I'm just interested to hear other thoughts and opinions on Benny, his radio and TV shows. Being not yet 26 years old and coming from a country where Benny was never well known in the first place, I've no other place to share these thoughts. :roll:
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Ray Faiola

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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Sep 22, 2015 5:27 am

The writing is completely different. The Benny shows are adult in nature, even when they verge into silliness. The A&C shows are, for the most part, adolescent. The gags are infantile and usually more than obvious. Subtlety is a dirty word. Lou's "Sam Shovel" detective tales are probably the most interesting parts of the series.

As for Benny's timing, impeccable. It takes a great setup, of course, but it is miraculous how Jack gets escalating bellylaughs by just saying "But...But......But Mr....But.....................But.....But..."

The chemistry of Jack's cast was also impeccable. While the later shows are funny, Bob Crosby doing gags about Remley just didn't have the same devastating cut as did Phil Harris. Kenny Baker was cute, but Dennis Day really took the ante through the roof when he took over as the resident tenor. And with Mel Blanc, Eddie Anderson, Sheldon Leonard, Frank Nelson, Benny Rubin and Artie Auerbach you have an amazing array of comedy talent.

And speaking of Harris - if you haven't listened to the Phil Harris and Alice Faye Show, listen! While Alice is not much more than window dressing, Phil and Elliott Lewis as Frankie Remley made one of the great comedy pairings of all time. Add Walter Tetley and you have another great comedy show.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Sep 22, 2015 8:55 am

QUOTE:
Ray Faiola wrote:The writing is completely different. The Benny shows are adult in nature, even when they verge into silliness. The A&C shows are, for the most part, adolescent. The gags are infantile and usually more than obvious. Subtlety is a dirty word. Lou's "Sam Shovel" detective tales are probably the most interesting parts of the series.

As for Benny's timing, impeccable. It takes a great setup, of course, but it is miraculous how Jack gets escalating bellylaughs by just saying "But...But......But Mr....But.....................But.....But..."

The chemistry of Jack's cast was also impeccable. While the later shows are funny, Bob Crosby doing gags about Remley just didn't have the same devastating cut as did Phil Harris. Kenny Baker was cute, but Dennis Day really took the ante through the roof when he took over as the resident tenor. And with Mel Blanc, Eddie Anderson, Sheldon Leonard, Frank Nelson, Benny Rubin and Artie Auerbach you have an amazing array of comedy talent.

And speaking of Harris - if you haven't listened to the Phil Harris and Alice Faye Show, listen! While Alice is not much more than window dressing, Phil and Elliott Lewis as Frankie Remley made one of the great comedy pairings of all time. Add Walter Tetley and you have another great comedy show.


You have a definite point about Abbott & Costello being more "infantile" than Jack Benny, or many other comedians for that matter. It may explain why I find them (A&C, that is) somewhat uneven; with good material, they're gold, but I also often find them quite predictable. Despite this, I think almost the entire first season of their TV show is delightful, containing much of the funniest stuff ever done on TV (excepting the first two or three episodes or so).

Thanks for recommending the Phil Harris and Alice Faye Show, I'll check it out.

Just gotta add, one of my favorite "recurring moments" on Benny's radio show has Benny going "Ooh Ro-chest-eer!" to which the valet replies "Ye-ees bo-ooss?" I crack up at that.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Sep 22, 2015 9:28 am

I recall watching the last years of the Benny TV show first-run, and finding them - pleasant? - rather than memorable.

As an adult, I've heard a good deal of the radio series. And I'd agree that once the show really hit its stride, it was something of a masterpiece of the sitcom medium (whose influence can still be seen today.)

And yes, Jack himself was a kind of genius. But in a very subtle, quiet manner, that takes a while to recognize.

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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Sep 22, 2015 9:29 am

As regards Benny's TV shows, I've always found a big difference between the live vs. filmed. By live, I mean those shot on video before a live audience in the 1950s - not the later one-shot specials of the 1970s. Those half-hour live shows are much more in the vein of the radio program, both in content and especially in performance. The filmed shows have their moments, but even watching them as a kid in their original airings they never had the fun of the live ones.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Sep 22, 2015 9:51 am

QUOTE:
wich2 wrote:
And yes, Jack himself was a kind of genius. But in a very subtle, quiet manner, that takes a while to recognize.

-Craig



This is very well said. Yes, Benny won't amaze you as a radio comedian as, say, Buster Keaton will when doing his stunts; at first, I found Benny himself to be mostly amusing and pleasant to listen to. It took a few shows to recognize how good his timing and delivery truly is.

Is there a general consensus as to when Benny's radio show was at its peak? I know he started in 1932, but characters such as Rochester and Dennis Day didn't arrive until later in the 30s. I'd probably say that I find his shows from the late 40s/early 50s the most hilarious, as that's when the truly surreal bits began to appear regularly (the vault, etc), though I find it most *interesting* to listen to the 30s shows, being such early examples of radio comedy.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Sep 22, 2015 3:53 pm

Thanks, Smari.

I'd put the sweet spot about there in the late '40s/early '50s, too. The annual Christmas Shopping shows are a special favorite.

(As far as that era in radio drama, it's very sad but true: as many folks have said about Silents passing to Talkies, the medium died just when it was getting REALLY good!)

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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Sep 22, 2015 4:20 pm

Among the shows we got when TV started here in Oz in 1956 was "The Jack Benny Programme" - and it was always a favourite. Prior to this we had only seen him at the pictures and those did not show his many talents. I was always amazed at how he could get so much laughter from doing absolutely nothing. That "slow burn" of his where he just looked out with a blank expression before slapping his face and extorting "Well!" always managed to send everyone into hysterics.

I too have been delving into the shows he did on the wireless and there is one I remember in which Dennis Day was singing "You Go to My Head", He put this number over very well, but I have not been able to trace a copy of him doing it these days and you may perhaps know of it being somewhere on "You Tube"? Just a thought. :D
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Sep 22, 2015 9:14 pm

The television programs were in syndication when i was a kid and were special favorites of mine. I got to know the radio programs in high school and have heard them on and off ever since. I do think they hold up better than a lot of OTR comedy, for example his "rival" Fred Allen.

And i loved it that Ronald Colman and Benita Hume were semi-regular guests as Benny's neighbors who try to avoid him.

While in the book stacks the other day i came across a chapter on Bennys' films that had an interesting discussion on the radio program. Darned if i can remember the book title, though, since i read it on the spot and didn't check it out. I'll see if i can find that reference.

greta

Edit--here it is: Balcerzak, Scott. Buffoon Men : Classic Hollywood Comedians and Queered Masculinity, 2013. I see it also covers WC Fields, Eddie Cantor, A&C, L&H, W&W.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostWed Sep 23, 2015 3:53 am

QUOTE:
greta de groat wrote:The television programs were in syndication when i was a kid and were special favorites of mine. I got to know the radio programs in high school and have heard them on and off ever since. I do think they hold up better than a lot of OTR comedy, for example his "rival" Fred Allen.


Fred Allen relied more on specific references of his own time than Benny, or even the news of the particular week his show was made, thus I often find him more difficult to "follow." However, when I do get Allen's references, I think he's really clever, and I understand he contributed quite a lot as a *writer* on his show.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostFri Sep 25, 2015 3:25 pm

Smari1989 wrote:QUOTE:
greta de groat wrote:The television programs were in syndication when i was a kid and were special favorites of mine. I got to know the radio programs in high school and have heard them on and off ever since. I do think they hold up better than a lot of OTR comedy, for example his "rival" Fred Allen.


Fred Allen relied more on specific references of his own time than Benny, or even the news of the particular week his show was made, thus I often find him more difficult to "follow." However, when I do get Allen's references, I think he's really clever, and I understand he contributed quite a lot as a *writer* on his show.


I didn't realize how good Allen was until I had absorbed enough '30s/'40s pop culture to get the references. It was worth the trouble. Benny's humor was more universal hence safer, though more troubling in the case of Rochester (one of the reasons I prefer Benny's later radio shows and TV).
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostFri Sep 25, 2015 11:08 pm

Comedy with a lot of contemporary references shows its age more than character driven comedy. I remember how funny Bob Hope used to be.

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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostSat Sep 26, 2015 3:08 am

Rochester is my favorite character on the Benny show, I often get a smile on my face whenever his voice turns up, but it's true that he tended to be used for jokes that would now be considered problematic, in the early years. These were still generally mild compared to what appeared on other comedy shows in the 30s, though (with a few exceptions), and then after the war, fortunately, seemed to disappear altogether (as far as I can tell).
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostSat Sep 26, 2015 6:41 am

I found problematic episodes up to 1946.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostSat Sep 26, 2015 10:52 am

The treatment of Rochester was an issue Benny himself was increasingly concerned about as the years went by. One of his writers, Milt Josefsberg, wrote a very interesting book about his experiences on the radio & TV shows, and he related an anecdote about an occasion when his boss was taken aback by racism. On one episode of the show, Jack decides to take boxing lessons, and he works with Rochester as his sparring partner. In the midst of their session, Rochester accidentally wallops Benny and knocks him out. This was on radio mind you, so it was all suggested with sound effects.

A few days later Benny received a letter from a listener, a Southern lady who expressed great indignation over this sequence, and demanded that Benny reprimand Rochester, on the air, in the very next episode. To his credit, Benny wrote her immediately and said, in effect, listeners like you I don’t need. But he told his colleagues he found the letter something of a shock.

While we’re on the subject, I really enjoyed the DVD set of Benny episodes that Shout Factory put out a couple of years ago. And I’d agree with the poster above that the live episodes are somehow more enjoyable, more lively and engaging, than the ones filmed in advance, even when punchlines get flubbed or props fall apart. That said, I do prefer the radio shows to the TV episodes over all. I used to have many of them on audio tape, and it seemed to me that the period from about 1946 to ‘50 was the show’s absolute peak, just pure gold.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostSun Sep 27, 2015 8:45 am

Yes. I thought it was Benny's aesthetic conservatism that was the cause, which was good in a sense as his shows didn't fall on their ass as badly as Allen's could. However, Benny kept what worked for his audience even in changing times, which was unfortunate in this case.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostSun Sep 27, 2015 11:14 am

If it helps, Benny was well known for going out of his way to treat Eddie Anderson well offscreen, refusing to stay at hotels that would not also allow him to stay and so forth. The fact that he chose an actual African American to voice the role rather than go the Amos and Andy route said something, and later in the run he specifically sought to tone down the stereotypical aspects of Rochester's character.

I don't know whether it's because it was such a vernacular form, but casual racism often seems to go much further in early radio than it does in the movies. There's an episode of the Jack Haley Wonder Show with a cringeworthy extended riff on Italians which is not only uncomfortable to listen to today, but even the audience of the time seems uneasy about.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostSun Sep 27, 2015 12:21 pm

Eddie Anderson always spoke well of Benny as an employer. According to the Josefsberg book, there was only one occasion when they had a serious falling out. There was a day when Anderson got caught in a traffic jam, and barely made it to the studio just moments before the radio show went on the air. Benny was furious, and wanted to fire him on the spot, but eventually simmered down. He also must have realized that Anderson would be difficult if not impossible to replace.
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Jack Benny, and his writers

PostSun Sep 27, 2015 5:00 pm


Last edited by JFK on Tue Jul 12, 2016 5:11 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Sep 29, 2015 4:20 am

QUOTE:
Wm. Charles Morrow wrote:Eddie Anderson always spoke well of Benny as an employer. According to the Josefsberg book, there was only one occasion when they had a serious falling out. There was a day when Anderson got caught in a traffic jam, and barely made it to the studio just moments before the radio show went on the air. Benny was furious, and wanted to fire him on the spot, but eventually simmered down. He also must have realized that Anderson would be difficult if not impossible to replace.


Wow... Jack Benny angry for real. That's hard to imagine, actually, though it's easy to understand why he'd be stressed in such a situation.

This leads me to one thing I've wondered: what the heck would CBS (or whatever network) have done if Benny suddenly had to call in sick? Would they rerun an earlier episode? I recently heard an episode, early 40s, where none of the characters other than Dennis Day showed up, and the whole episode was devoted to Dennis singing songs. This seemed to have been planned, however, though no reason was given.

About racial stereotyping again, I do also get uncomfortable on occasion when I listen to 30s episodes of Benny's show, but again, it's still mostly mild compared to what many other comedians were doing at that time (I find a couple of Billy Bevan-shorts from the 20s, included in the BluR Mack Sennett-set, downright disgusting, and would be amazed if not some contemporary audiences felt the same way). And as I said, Rochester is my favorite character on Benny's show, at least from the late 40s on when the stereotyping got toned down, Eddie Anderson was a marvelous comedian.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Sep 29, 2015 5:13 am

Smari1989 wrote: Despite this, I think almost the entire first season of their TV show is delightful, containing much of the funniest stuff ever done on TV (excepting the first two or three episodes or so


I was speaking of the radio specifically. The television program is another animal ENTIRELY. Lou produced this show with the expressed desire of filming and owning all of the old burlesque routines that he and Bud had adopted. The first season is a delightful, surreal array of characters and routines. Filmed with one camera, the edited shows were shown to live audiences and the reactions recorded. One set of prints (including all of my 16mm prints) had just these recorded audience tracks. A second set of prints (most of the ones that Taffner syndicated back in the 90's) had sweetened tracks laid on top of the originals.

The first season of TV shows are some of the best half-hours of television. "Who's on First" in THE ACTORS HOME is an incredible performance, with Lou going wild and Bud doing a beautiful job of bringing him pack to point. SAFARI has some of the best pantomime Lou ever did.

The second season was pure situation. Lou was tired. The scripts were mundane and, with very few exceptions, the shows were pretty poor. Season one was filmed at Hal Roach. Season two at General Service Studios. A few scenes that were filmed for Season One show up in these episodes and the difference in quality and comedy is striking.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Sep 29, 2015 5:40 pm

>Wow... Jack Benny angry for real. That's hard to imagine, actually, though it's easy to understand why he'd be stressed in such a situation.<

There's a wonderful "fiery Jack" story: his radio writers took an early draft of their script to that week's guest star, Groucho Marx. He read it, and proclaimed it was crap, and they'd have to redo it. Jack's response when told this? "Get another guest for this week." Bless him.

>This leads me to one thing I've wondered: what the heck would CBS (or whatever network) have done if Benny suddenly had to call in sick?<

It happened. Orson Welles stepped in for several weeks:

http://kevinsotrlinks.6te.net/wellesonbenny.htm

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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostWed Sep 30, 2015 10:27 am

wich2 wrote:>This leads me to one thing I've wondered: what the heck would CBS (or whatever network) have done if Benny suddenly had to call in sick?<

It happened. Orson Welles stepped in for several weeks:

http://kevinsotrlinks.6te.net/wellesonbenny.htm" target="_blank" target="_blank" target="_blank" target="_blank

-Craig


The Orson Welles shows are hilarious. He fits in well with the regular cast, and plays his stereotypical radio persona to the hilt. I especially like the way Phil Harris "sucks up" to Welles (a brief excerpt from one of these shows can be heard in the recent Orson Welles documentary MAGICIAN).

On another occasion, Mary Livingstone called in sick, and Barbara Stanwyck took over for her.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostTue Oct 13, 2015 3:46 pm

Smari1989 wrote:This leads me to one thing I've wondered: what the heck would CBS (or whatever network) have done if Benny suddenly had to call in sick? Would they rerun an earlier episode? I recently heard an episode, early 40s, where none of the characters other than Dennis Day showed up, and the whole episode was devoted to Dennis singing songs. This seemed to have been planned, however, though no reason was given.


I think the episode you're referring to immediately followed the plane crash that killed Carole Lombard.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostThu Oct 15, 2015 5:31 am

QUOTE:

dr.giraud wrote:
Smari1989 wrote:This leads me to one thing I've wondered: what the heck would CBS (or whatever network) have done if Benny suddenly had to call in sick? Would they rerun an earlier episode? I recently heard an episode, early 40s, where none of the characters other than Dennis Day showed up, and the whole episode was devoted to Dennis singing songs. This seemed to have been planned, however, though no reason was given.


I think the episode you're referring to immediately followed the plane crash that killed Carole Lombard.


Thanks for this info. It certainly makes sense that Benny didn't feel it proper to do jokes so shortly after that incident.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostThu Oct 15, 2015 6:56 am

mndean wrote:Yes. I thought it was Benny's aesthetic conservatism that was the cause, which was good in a sense as his shows didn't fall on their ass as badly as Allen's could. However, Benny kept what worked for his audience even in changing times, which was unfortunate in this case.



Fred Allen was brilliant, but just didn't transfer to television at all well - or to movies for that matter.

Benny was a better movie actor that he'd ever admit
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostSun Nov 22, 2015 5:07 pm

Smari1989 wrote:QUOTE: This leads me to one thing I've wondered: what the heck would CBS (or whatever network) have done if Benny suddenly had to call in sick? Would they rerun an earlier episode? I recently heard an episode, early 40s, where none of the characters other than Dennis Day showed up, and the whole episode was devoted to Dennis singing songs. This seemed to have been planned, however, though no reason was given.

The networks in those days insisted that all broadcasts be live, so rerunning an earlier episode would not have been an option. There are several known instances of Jack not being able to make a broadcast -- for a month in 1943 (I think), Orson Welles took over the show. Jack's illness, which was real, was the source of many of the jokes. Alice Faye substituted for Mary Livingstone on at least one occasion.
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostSun Nov 22, 2015 6:21 pm

We touched on the Welles run just above.

It actually inspired him to try his own variety/comedy show, which was hit-or-miss.

-Craig
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostWed Jun 29, 2016 8:46 am

Well, as a Chaplin-diehard who regret that Charlie didn't do any appearances on radio comedy shows (though it's understandable, considering that his most extraordinary talent was pantomime, not jokes as such), I thought I might add, just for fun, that I just heard the first Chaplin-reference on Benny's program that I know of, listening to the show of March 22, 1942: as Jack is said to wear a huge cap while on the golf course, Mary snaps that he "looks like Jackie Coogan in THE KID." (Wonder if many listeners got that one.)
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Re: Jack Benny, and his contemporaries

PostWed Jun 29, 2016 10:10 am

I was lucky enough to see Benny in a show at the London Palladium.I found him funny then and still do.
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