Jack Benny: How Radio Made Comedy Grow Up

Photo of Jack Benny on the cover of the April 1945 issue of Tune In magazine

In the past 20 years, American humor -- accelerated by radio -- has come out of the barnyard. It has been cleaned up, perfumed and sparked by those unsung heroes, the gag writers. Today, the ether is so full of good gags that even the ghosts have hysterics.

I will go out on a limb to say that radio has done for American humor in 10 years what it would have taken vaudeville 50 years to reach. I feel no heartaches over vaudeville's passing, when I think of the way the old-time comic used to get his laughs. Gags were in their infancy then. They were as unsteady as a baby -- and had to be changed just as often. A comedian used to throw a gag at a vaudeville audience with a swing and a prayer, never knowing whether it would roll 'em in the aisle -- or roll up the joint. He might get howls with a certain gag at one show, and at the next the audience would look at him as though he had just read from page 26 of the Zanesville, Ohio, classified directory.

As a result, he desperately needed some sort of "gag insurance." He had to get laughs -- or else. His formula for this was pat. First, he pitched his opening gags across the footlights. If nothing happened, he tossed them his vary best gag, just to make sure that the audience was still there. Then -- if nothing but cigar smoke came back -- he played his trump card. A concealed tug at his belt, a deft wiggle ... and his pants fell down.

That was always sure for a laugh -- until, with dozens of comics doing the same thing all over the country, even this trick grew stale. So new tricks were added. I remember one comic who got thrown off the circuit because his underwear lit up and played "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Gags have grown up since then, and radio methods are quite different. Just contrast the old vaudeville routine for insuring gags with what we have today. Our gag insurance doesn't rely on slapstick but upon what we call a "topper." We then get a topper to top a topper -- and perhaps one to top that, as illustrated by the following dialogue used by Mary Livingstone and Rochester on our program:

Mary: You say you just got in town, Rochester. What took you so long ... was the train late?

Rochester: What train? I was out on Highway 99 freelancing.

Mary: You mean you hitchhiked. Why?

Rochester: Well, instead of a train ticket, Mr. Benny gave me a road map.

Mary: Oh.

Rochester: And a short talk on the generosity of the American tourist.

Mary: You mean that's all Mr. Benny gave you?

Rochester: No ... he also gave me a white glove for night operations.

There you have three toppers, all on the same gag. That's the kind of insurance that you, as a comedian, can feel safe with. It's like holding a ticket on every horse in the race. It's safer, more dignified -- and saves a lot of wear and tear on your pants.

Some people think that comedians and gag men are responsible for bringing American humor out of its giggly youth to manhood. While it would be nice to take the credit, our overtaxed consciences won't stand the strain. No, it's the audience who shoved the "little men" up to voting age.

The clamor for something better and still better has made necessary the same strides in gags as in automobiles and planes. When your gags and routines start lying around on the stage like old eggs from the same tired basket, and your audience reacts to your stuff as though they had lockjaw ... brother, you'd better start looking for better material -- or a rich widow!

The public today demands more of its humor than "a laugh at any price." It resents too much insulting, too much cynicism In short, the public likes good comedy, but it likes good taste even better. I have found that a gag line with too much sting is about as funny to people as a trial fitting for the electric chair.

You've probably noticed that nobody ever gets hurt on our program. Of course, I am subjected to quite a little shoving around -- I'm supposed to be a braggart, I'm supposed to wear a toupee, I'm supposed to be stingy -- but it's all in the spirit of fun! We try to follow one simple rule: "If it hurts, it isn't funny." (Naturally, however, I reserve the right to modify this, in the case of Fred Allen.)

Basically, our show is built on a foundation of real people -- not burlesque characters, but ordinary, everyday people. I'd be willing to bet that there are very few of you who don't know people exactly like Mary, Phil Harris and Rochester, as they are represented on our program. Yes, and there are lots of others who are just as dumb as Dennis Day was on our program (though I'm apparently having a tough time finding one dumb enough to work for the same money as he did.)

We feel that, to a certain extent, we represent the audience. In us, they see themselves. It would be foolish for us to knock each other around, because then we would be knocking the audience around ... and when you start doing that -- well, your sponsor had better be your own brother-in-law.

However, one of America's greatest national characteristics is our ability to laugh at ourselves. When the audience sees themselves through us, they get a special kick out of the jokes that seem to fit them personally. If someone pulls a gag on me about my having false teeth, 98 percent of those in our audience who have false teeth will laugh heartily. (The other two percent would laugh, too, but their gums are still sore.)

Throughout, we try to have things happen to us which would happen to anyone -- things which will be interesting and also, above all, funny. That's why so many of our routines and gags come from what we see around us -- like all that water, when we were coming from Vancouver to Seattle by boat.

We were all on the top deck enjoying the beautiful scenery ... all, that is, except Phil Harris. Harris was down in his stateroom asleep. He isn't very interested in water -- thinks there's too much of it to give it any value. I know this because, once when I was talking to Phil about the earth and how it was three-fourths covered with water, he said, "Yeah. You know, Jackson, I think the Creator slipped up a little there. He could have just as easy made it bourbon!"

Well, we were talking about all that water and started throwing a few ideas around, finally coming up with: "Harris was mad when he saw all that chaser with nothing to go with it." We weren't satisfied, but we knew we were on the track of something. We worked it over some more and then tried another version: "It made Harris mad to see all that water and nothing to break the trail." It still didn't have the snap it needed until my writers switched and changed it to: "Harris was mad when he saw all that chaser -- with nothing to break the trail."

That was it. Why, I don't know. But it was. It may sound like a simple idea and, on paper, look as though very few changes had been made, but the audience roared when we served it up on the program. If we'd tried that in vaudeville 20 years ago, without the split second timing that we use on the air today, it would only have died a quick death on the other side of the footlights. Perhaps audiences, too -- as well as gags -- have grown up.

Let me bow out with this piece of advice. Since you, the listener, are responsible for the present high level of our humor ... keep it that way. Don't let us comedians slip back into the "easy way." Keep writing those letters telling us what you like, what you don't like, and what you want. You're the boss and I'll get it for you -- even if I have to keep my writers up all night to do it!

Jack Benny in Tune In, April 1945

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