Re: Chicago History Fair Project - Jack Benny

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Posted ByLaura Leff on April 06, 2002 at 19:04:44:

In Reply to: Chicago History Fair Project - Jack Benny posted byDaniel Cohn on March 18, 2002 at 22:44:25:

Daniel, et al:

Here are my thoughts on these questions as well. A word of disclaimer before I start: Benny fans, like most, tend to run the gamut. Some people just like to listen to/watch the shows and enjoy them at face value. Others like to dissect them to bits, analyzing every gesture and nuance. Some want to know nothing of Jack's personal life. Some have practically done brain mappings of him and his relationships throughout his life. As President of the Fan Club, you have to strike a balance to be able to keep the majority happy. So this posting may end up being very analytical, but hopefully won't be so much so that it goes over the top.

:I am currently working on the Chicago History Fair and the topic I chose to work on, was the way Jack Benny's style has influenced comedy on radio and TV. The material that I am looking for is how his style of comedy has been reflected on both radio and TV.:
The Jack Benny Program defined and established RADIO comedy the way Ernie Kovacs defined TELEVISION comedy. It took advantage of the unique qualities of the medium, and used them to the best comedic advantage.

Consider Internet humor. It started off as mainly E-mailing the same jokes and cartoons that were xeroxed and forwarded hand-to-hand around the office (e.g., Guide to Safe Fax, "Is it broke" flow chart, etc.). It was the same stuff, just through an electonic medium. Now there's a range of Web sites providing things like Hamster Dance (and many others), the magic trick where you pick a card and it disappears from the layout of six, the joke about technology where they can take your picture through the screen and then "your" picture (showing a monkey) is provided. Hamster Dance, et. al. couldn't have been forwarded with a copier. It requires the technology of the Internet/Web. This is what distinguishes it as INTERNET humor.

Same thing with Jack's program. In vaudeville and burlesque there were monologists (like Fred Allen), and comedy skits or teams (like Baron Munchausen or Abbott and Costello). Jack himself was playing the role of a monologist and emcee during those years. He continued in that role in his early radio years. But as the show developed:

+ WRITING: initially at the pens of Harry Conn and Al Boasberg and then fully blossoming under Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin,
+ CAST: Mary, then Don, Kenny (later Dennis), Rochester, and Phil, each creating their own unique character
+ DELIVERY: Jack always had a more laid-back presentation than other comedians, and the timing and pauses continued to improve through the years

It took advantage of the unique qualities of the medium. Silences became more meaningful and funny, there was more use of sound effects (beyond just knocking on a door), etc.

Consider the vault routine: could this have become as much a classic in any other medium? People complained when it was first shown on television, because it wasn't nearly as cavernous and complex as they had always pictured it. Pure theatre of the mind.

With the cast development, the show played on situational comedy. You know the characteristics of each person, so you create a situation and then the laughs come from imagining those characters in that situation. Dennis, the silly kid, catches a cold taking a call from Jack, because the phone is a payphone across the street and he ran over there in the buff ("It was really a problem when I closed the door and the light went on."). Phil is diagnosed as being allergic to alcohol, and Jack asks him what he's going to do. "Grow long fingernails, I've got a lot of scratchin' to do!" Professor LeBlanc coaches Jack on playing "Glow Worm" with the instruction of, "Monsieur BenNEE, eet eez such a small worm. Do not keel it." And so on.

Much of it goes back to the old addage about a comic is one who says funny things, and a comedian is one who says things funny. What is so funny about the line "Si" or "Well!" or "Oh shut up!" or "I'm thinking it over"? All of these lines could get screams on the Benny program because of how they were delivered, and the character who delivered them. That was the nature of what made the Jack Benny program different.

: (a) What comedians have been influenced by Jack Benny?
It's been said, but Johnny Carson was directly influenced by Jack. Kelsey Grammar also claims inspiration from him. I don't know if there is a direct connection, but watching Woody Allen do standup at the Academy Awards was like watching Jack on too much caffeine (the hand motions were all the same, just more frenetic).

: (b) In what way would Jack Benny be considered
: historical?
It depends on your definition of "historical." Did Jack change the course of world events? Probably not. He is historical to entertainment in the sense that he defined the comedy of a specific medium (as discussed above). Some of the camp shows could be considered historical, as they show a nation at war and how we mentally and emotionally escaped from it for a little while.

He can also be considered historical for saving so many symphony orchestras through his benefit concerts, including his contributions to saving Carnegie Hall.

But so much of Jack's programs are *not* time-bound but timeLESS, which makes them as funny today as they were then. History so often shows how much things have changed through the ages. In a way, Jack's programs show how people and their foibles are still much the same today as they were then.

: (c) In the history of US entertainment, has there been any one more popular than Jack Benny?:

Everyone has their favorites, and there are many comedians who are more popular today (and in the years since Jack's passing) than Jack. During his time on the air, his show was not always number one. The importance was more that Jack remained active and popular through more than two generations. His radio show ran for 23 years; how many TV programs have been on that long? His television show ran for 14 years; again, how many can challenge that? Then the specials continued up until his death 9 years later. Plus
he performed on stage off and on for over 60 years, in vaudeville, Broadway shows, stage shows, camp shows during the war, Las Vegas, and symphony orchestras. Few, if any, can challenge that record today; it leads one to wonder if any of today's performers will have such longevity.

So that's what I think. Hope that helps. Good luck with your project!!!

--Laura Leff
President, IJBFC

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