Recently, I attended a dinner in downtown St. Petersburg. I invited a young man I knew to accompany me to introduce him to some people for networking purposes. At age 25, he had already finished a hitch in the Army and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and was now starting his professional career. As we drove home, we discussed the after dinner speaker who had made a reference to Jack Benny, the legendary comedian of yesteryear. My young friend innocently asked, "Who is Jack Benny?"
Not thinking of his age, I said, "You remember, he had his own show for a number of years; had Rochester as his butler, Mel Blank, Dennis Day, Don Wilson, Phil Harris, and his wife, Mary Livingstone; he sold Jello; his car was a Maxwell; 'Your money or your life'; his basement vault guarded by "Ed," an ancient sentry; the Si-Sie-Sue bit, etc. Remember?"
"No sir, I'm afraid not," and he looked at me blankly. It was only then when I realized how young my friend was and how much older I had become. I spent the remainder of our drive home trying to explain Jack Benny to him which I found rather difficult to someone unfamiliar with Jack's gentle style. Today it is common for comics to be crude, vulgar, and "In your face." Benny was certainly more refined and presented himself as a gentleman which is something young people have trouble relating to today. His good friend George Burns referred to him as a "Quiet Riot."
Over the years, Jack cultivated an image as being a spendthrift (cheap), vain, and a pitiful violinist. So much so, his writers had to only suggest a situation and the audience would be conditioned to laugh immediately, as if a button had been pushed. His walk, his ability to stare down someone, and play the dupe for his guests, would naturally result in gales of laughter. It wasn't "what" Jack said that was funny, it was his persona and his predictable reaction to certain situations, such as picking up a check at a restaurant, purchasing Christmas gifts, guessing his age, or receiving a compliment. To illustrate, Jack's biggest laugh came on April 25, 1948 when Dorothy Kirsten was the guest on his show, a famous soprano opera star of the day. During the show, his announcer, Don Wilson, strikes up a conversation with Miss Kirsten regarding opera. Listening to them was Jack and Mary Livingstone who played his girlfriend (his wife in real life):
Don Wilson: "Oh, Miss Kirsten, I wanted to tell you that I saw you in "Madame Butterfly" Wednesday afternoon, and I thought your performance was simply magnificent."
Dorothy Kirsten: "Well, thanks, awfully. It's awfully nice and kind of you, Mr. Wilson. But, uh, who could help singing Puccini? It's so expressive. And particularly in the last act, starting with the allegro vivacissimo."
Don Wilson: "Well, now, that's being very modest, Miss Kirsten. But not every singer has the necessary bel canto and flexibility or range to cope with the high tessitura of the first act."
Dorothy Kirsten: "Thank you, Mr. Wilson. And don't you think that in the aria, "Un bel dì vedremo", that the strings played the con molto passione exceptionally fine and with great sostenuto?"
Jack Benny: "Well, I thought..."
Mary Livingstone (to Jack): "Oh, shut up!"
This resulted in a huge laugh from the audience, not because of what Jack said, but because the audience was sensitive to his character. During this operatic dissertation, the audience knows Jack has to somehow butt in and add his two cents, but they don't know how he can possibly contribute to the pretentious conversation, which is why Mary shuts him down immediately. Youth has trouble comprehending this type of humor, probably because it doesn't exist anymore. When you think about it, Jack is the straight man in this skit and the butt of the joke. By himself he wasn't funny, but because of his persona, people find such a situation hilarious. Please keep in mind, this was all done on the radio, not on television, that's how strong his persona was.
The Benny show was in the top ten for a number of years, both on radio and later on television. Jack's genius was not so much his own personal comedy, but his ability to orchestrate an entire show. It was common for him to afford his guests more laughs than himself, even if he had to be the butt of the joke. He would always heap praise on his writers, his regulars, and everyone else. When asked why he was so generous, he said he didn't want people to tune in just to see him personally, but rather they should tune in to see "The Benny Show." He was very cognizant of the power of teamwork in the cutthroat entertainment industry. It wasn't about him, it was about the show, and Benny laughed all the way to the bank as a result.
Benny had come up the hard way and paid his dues in the entertainment industry. He was one of the few people who had been successful in Vaudeville, radio, television, motion pictures, and the stage, not to mention his music which generated considerable amounts of money for charity.
Jack has been gone for over 36 years now and, without a doubt, comedy has changed considerably since his passing. I can appreciate bawdy humor, but I certainly do not want to be subjected to incessant expletives and vulgarity. There is nothing wrong with a little dignity and class which, frankly, I consider to be more cerebral. That was Jack Benny, a "Quiet Riot."
Keep the Faith!
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Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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