Monday, November 11, 2013

Radio Greats: High Noon (The Jack Benny Program)

In Back to the Future there's a clever joke that is missed by most viewers:

Dr. Emmett Brown: Then tell me, future boy, who's President of the United States in 1985?
Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan.
Dr. Emmett Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor?
[chuckles in disbelief]
Dr. Emmett Brown: Then who's vice president? Jerry Lewis?
[rushing out and down a hill toward his laboratory]
Dr. Emmett Brown: I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady!
Marty McFly: [following Doc] Whoa. Wait, Doc!
Dr. Emmett Brown: And Jack Benny is secretary of the treasury.
Marty McFly: [outside the lab door] Doc, you gotta listen to me.
Dr. Emmett Brown: [opens the door to the lab] I've had enough practical jokes for one evening. Good night, future boy!

Jerry Lewis is well known. Jane Wyman was Reagan's first wife; in 1955 they would already have been divorced, so it continues the improbability. And Jack Benny as secretary of treasury is a touch of genius, because Jack Benny, the world-famous comedian, had a running gag in which he was the cheapest rich man on earth.

'Jack Benny' was a stage name; he was born Benjamin Kubelsky. He was a professional violinist who first made his name in vaudeville comedy acts, first with the fiddle and then with the jokes. At a Passover seder he met a girl named Sadie Marks in 1922; they married and she took the stage name Mary Livingstone and began helping Benny with his act. He tried to break into movies and failed -- while he got a few parts, the movies themselves flopped. Uncertain about radio, he nevertheless auditioned for a part, and the radio executives were very impressed by him -- so impressed, in fact, that they decided to give him his own show. And comedy was never the same again. While there have been funnier comedians, there has been no comedian in the English-speaking world who has had a greater influence on comedy. He did several different sponsored comedy shows for NBC. In 1949 he switched to CBS (there as a big scandal about CBS stealing NBC talent that year).

Part of Benny's talent was timing; he was famous for the hilarious pause. He was also excellent at impromptu, so that it's often impossible, if you don't actually see the script, to tell whether a particular break-the-fourth-wall joke was intentional or Benny turning a gaff into an impromptu jest. He also had a knack for portraying himself as the exact opposite of what he tried to be in real life: self-centered, miserly, vain.

But perhaps his best gift was the ability to see talent in others and let it work; he was one of the best people in Hollywood to work with because if he thought you had comic ability, he would let you use it. He was smart enough to realize that he would not be hurt if someone else was making his show funny. Thus his cast was one of the most brilliant casts of all time. There's Benny himself, of course, and Mary Livingstone -- who as a character plays a female friend rather than his wife. There was Don Wilson, the announcer, and Phil Harris the bandleader, who always managed to be just inappropriate enough to shock you and yet not inappropriate enough to be offensive (he eventually went on to do his own show). There was Dennis Day, the tenor, who sang the songs and presented himself as naive, oblivious, and without common sense. And greatest of all, himself one of the greatest comedians of the twentieth century, Eddie Anderson, playing Benny's valet Rochester, always three steps ahead of his boss and with such a distinctive voice (his vocal chords had ruptured as a child, giving him a voice somewhere between gravelly and crazy) that nobody could forget. Anderson got a minor part on the show, got asked back a few times, and then was given a permanent position, which made him the first African-American to have a regular role on nationwide radio, and eventually one of the most famous entertainers in the world. And later, when Rochester was far and away the fan favorite on the show, Benny stayed true to his principle: he supported Anderson all the way. And while there are here and there early jokes that don't carry well, it was quite groundbreaking, because Anderson was treated as an equal, and his character was intelligent -- smarter than Benny's character, in fact -- and the equality became more pronounced over time. That's just the regular cast, the ones best known; there were more minor characters coming and going all the time.

Comedy does not seem to age as well as drama and horror, so some jokes are a bit...obscure. One tricky thing about The Jack Benny Program, too, is that they do a lot of running gags; you can listen to them in any order and they get funnier the more you here because minor jokes that don't seem funny as stand-alone jokes get played in crazy variations that are funny all together -- you start looking for them. And there are lots and lots of episodes, so it's difficult to pick out any particular one, just because practically no one has listened to them all. But I've chosen as representative a fairly decent one, "High Noon". It's probably not the funniest episode -- the funniest I've heard are those in which Benny interacts with his neighbors, the normal and thoroughly baffled Cormans -- but it has a lot of the typical Jack Benny elements, the ones that made the show at least good for a few chuckles. It's one of the better movie parodies -- the show did quite a few of them, and they are wide mix (the Casablanca one I find mostly just baffling, but since most of the movies have been classics, many of the jokes have lasted longer than they might otherwise have) -- and we get the standard elements -- Rochester, Mary, Don, Dennis. It's missing Phil Harris, which is too bad; the bandleader is Bob Crosby, who had recently replaced Harris, although it does have a joke about him. We miss some of the more famous minor characters but we do get the gossiping switchboard operators, Gertrude and Mabel, who are usually funny, and we have the single most famous minor character: Mel Blanc, the man of infinite voices (he is, of course, most famous for being the voices for practically every major character in the Looney Tunes cartoons), whom we find in this episode first as a cow and then delivering one of his most famous lines: "All aboard for Anaheim, Azusa, and Cuc-a-monga!" We get a little bit of almost everything, in other words.

You can listen to "High Noon" at My Old Radio.

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