Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fun with flops

Readers have asked why I continue to bring up AfterMASH and my involvement in it? Well, number one – it was a legendary failure. In only a year we went from a 48 share to a 19. Had we stayed on the air longer we might’ve broken single digits. How many people can say they were part of history?  That PEOPLE magazine cover had to be from when we premiered.  And what says comedy more than an I.V. drip?

Number two – it keeps me humble. Everyone who has been in the business for any length of time has an AfterMASH or two (or six). Ever see 1941? Or LIFE WITH LUCY?

Number three is that a flop is good fodder for humor. The truth is I had a decent time on that show. Got to work and learn from the great Larry Gelbart. And the hours allowed me to be home every night to give my newborn son a bath. And the final product wasn’t end of the world bad, just global crisis bad.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. I stole the bit.

Using a past flop as a running gag was not an original idea of mine. I lifted it from Jack Benny.

Who’s Jack Benny many of you are saying? He was a comedian who had his own radio and television show for four or five decades in the first part of the last century. In his day he was as well-known and popular as Robin Williams, David Letterman, and Louis CK put together.

Benny was the master of running gags. He was (or should I say his character was?) notoriously cheap. The famous line (written by Milt Josephsberg): Benny is held up at gunpoint. The robber says, “Your money or your life.” There’s a long long pause. The robber says, “Well?” and Benny says, “I’m thinking!”  His character supposedly drove an old beat up Maxwell car, kept his money in an underground vault guarded by alligators, and saw himself as a virtuoso violinist although he was terrible (again, in real life he was quite good).

He was once in a movie called THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT. It did not do well at the boxoffice. And for years Benny or someone in his cast would bring up THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT and what a flop it was. This always produced big laughs. To say I “stole” the bit is not completely accurate. I didn’t use any of the specific jokes, I just adopted the form.

But my point is this: I consider myself a student of comedy. Most, if not all of the comedy we see today is merely a variation on what has come before. The trick is to make yourself aware of it. Do your homework. How?

You want to be a stand-up comedian? Get albums or watch YouTube videos of Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, Danny Thomas, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Elayne Boosler, and many more. Yes, there were funny people before Chris Rock.

Want to be a comic playwright? Read Neil Simon. Read Kaufman & Hart. Read Herb Gardner. Read Alan Ayckbourn. Read Paul Rudnick. Read Woody Allen. Read Hecht & MacArthur. Read Larry Gelbart. 

For comic timing in movies study the silents. Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd.

There are some dazzling comic screenplay writers from the distant past. Preston Sturgess, Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond, Morrie Ryskind, and Joseph Mankiewicz to name but a few.  Judd Apatow did not invent comedy. 

You get the idea. These people have much to teach you. And as a bonus, they’ll also throw in a ton of belly laughs along the way.

Tomorrow I talk more about the study of comedy. Dan O’Shannon, one of the Executive Producers of MODERN FAMILY and formerly with CHEERS and FRASIER just wrote a book called WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING AT? It’s the most complete analysis of comedy ever written (certainly ever attempted). Tomorrow I’ll interview him.

There's no need to re-invent the wheel.  These conventions are out there and yours for the updating.  Go find them.   Or read about them.  See you tomorrow.

74 comments:

Ane said...

It was T. S. Eliot who in 1920 wrote “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal”. God post, looking forward to reading that interview.

Steve Zeoli said...

Jack Benny may have been the greatest comiedian ever. Thanks for mentioning him. Gotta keep the flop flame alive.

Billy Rags said...

Watch Frasier (and other shows as well) and you'll see Jack Benny or at least his mannerisms - Kelsey Grammer does a great Jack Benny.

The Curmudgeon said...

The exact line was, "I'm thinking it over," and it came after the longest silence in radio history. Even the burglar threw in a "C'mon already," or something like that and there was still another looooong pause before Benny said his line. Of course, the audience was in stitches the entire time. They already knew what Benny was thinking. That's when a character is established: He doesn't even have to speak and we know what's on his mind.

"The Horn Blows at Midnight" is not available on DVD. I saw it some years ago on TV and it wasn't half bad -- certainly not as bad as Benny joked.

Johnny Walker said...

Oh, wow! O'Shannon's book is out! I've been looking forward to reading that for ages!

*Excitement!*

Damn, no Kindle version. I'm going to have it import it.

Anonymous said...

Do you know the history of the line "I'm thinking it over?"

Milt Josefsberg was working on the bit with another Benny radio writer named John Tackaberry, a big ol' laconic Texan. I've never seen a picture of him but I always imagine Ron White. Anyway, Josefberg is working, all nervous energy, pacing and trying to come up with a joke. I always picture Morey Amsterdam.

Tackaberry is just lying on the couch, seemingly just cruising and letting his partner do the work. Josefsberg is coming up dry, getting no help and finally snaps at his partner, "Damn it, John! Come on! We need a line!"

Tackaberry, pissed at the assumption that he's not trying, shoots back, "I'm thinking it over!" and a classic is born.

PolyWogg said...

Far more important in your roundup today is that I now know where I had seen Rosalind Chao before DS9! I had never looked it up, so thanks for answering that question I didn't know I had.

P.

Rob said...

You got to hang out with Rosalind Chao every day - every job has its perks! Whatever happened to her?

Michael said...

Curmudgeon, you nailed it. I'll add something from Josefsberg. He and another writer, John Tackaberry, were struggling with the punch line. Tackaberry was relaxing on a couch while Josefsberg paced around throwing out ideas and finally started yelling at him that he was just lying there doing nothing and Tackaberry replied, "I'm thinking it over."

Benny also had the "feud" with Fred Allen, and one time Allen said Benny "couldn't ad-lib a belch at a Hungarian banquet." Benny said, "You wouldn't dare say that if my writers were here." Ken referred to Benny's great admiration for his writers in a recent post. Benny appreciated them, but they all knew he was a great EDITOR--he knew what to keep and what to drop.

He also knew something else worth mentioning: not to overdo a running gag. Ken mentioned several of them, like the Maxwell; there also was the vault where he kept his money, there was the racetrack tout he met everywhere, and so on. But he didn't use them every week, so they didn't wear thin with the audience.

Michael said...

Sorry. I didn't see the post from Anonymous with the Tackaberry story. Gotta remember to scroll.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Wasn't Benny's show also the first ongoing show about show business? He didn't have some pretend job; he was just Jack Benny, comedian, gifted actor, movie star, and sublime violinist. He also occasionally did other people's laundry.

The "Money or Your Life" line is in this episode: http://www.otr.net/r/jbny/386.ram
If you don't have Real Player, you'll need to download it. A very extensive catalog can be listened to at www.otr.net
Most comedy from the Golden Age of Radio doesn't hold up all that well, but Jack Benny is the best, particularly later in the run when the casts' characters are well-established. It's interesting hearing this again when I've been watching Curb Your Enthusiasm DVD collections - like Benny, Larry David plays a version of himself who never has anything turn out his way on social situations.

Johnny Walker said...

Damn. $31 to the UK with Amazon's shipping. *sob*

Doug said...

Since we're talking about Benny's running gags; the community theater in Rancho Cucamonga has a statue of Jack in its foyer. If you get the gag, you've seen or heard a lot of Jack Benny programs.

mark said...

What an honor for After Mash to be on the cover of People Magazine along with the mention of the legendary musical artist Taco

mark bosselman said...

What an honor for After Mash to be put on the cover of People Magazine along with the mention of legendary musical artist Taco

David K. M. Klaus said...

I didn't get to see the show while it was on the air, but I saw the AfterMASH pilot on YouTube, and liked it a lot, particularly when the judge shows mercy to Klinger. Why can't judges be like that anymore?

It wasn't a flop to me.

Ryan Patrick said...

Benny is the greatest. Period. Thank you for bring his genius back into the spotlight. Nobody played straight man better than Jack. He showed that the star of the show didn't have to get the punchline every time. Surround yourself with talented people and allow them to do what they do best.

Donald said...

I did not consider myself old until I read this column in which you felt you had to explain who Jack Benny was. And then depression set in. Anyway, for those who haven't had the pleasure, rent the original Lubitsch version of "To Be or Not to Be" (avoid the Mel Brooks remake like the Kardashians).

Also, Letterman also uses his Oscar stint as his "Horn Blows at Midnight."

Mike said...

A 19 share sounds like a very successful show.

gottacook said...

Y'know, I thought I was pretty well read in showbiz history, but I never knew Danny Thomas was once a standup comic.

As for Paul Rudnick, I think his first screenplay (Addams Family Values) was a hoot, especially with such great guest actors as Peter MacNicol and Christine Baranski on hand to portray the summer camp directors. Perhaps one day Rudnick will again have such sympathetic collaborators - the unfunniness of some of the later movies with his name on them can't be entirely attributed to him, or so I believe.

Ken Levine said...

Check out Paul's plays. Also his humor pieces in The New Yorker. And here's a little secret: If you read ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY -- those hysterical essays by Libby Gelman-Waxner. Guess who Libby really is?

One of These Things is Not Like the Other said...

Elayne Boosler?!?!?

Ken Levine said...

Yes, Elayne Boosler. Great material and delivery. One of the first women comediennes, and still one of the best.

chris mcdermott said...

God Bless Jack Benny. His alligator-laden path to "the vault" is burned into my brain. He and George Burns' TV shows were my favorite growing up, and those were the afternoon re-runs, long past the original airings of the shows. Hobo Kelly couldn't compete. Having owned and worn thin the complete audio-cassette version of his radio years, I almost lost my life one night driving through Laurel Canyon laughing and listening, nearly missing a deer, I can't remember the bit, but Mel Blanc had the punchline. He contributed so much to that show. Come to think of it, it might have been a quip
about Dennis Day's mother that drove me to distraction. Either way, you're correct, any Benny is a must for everyone, in or out of the business. His daughter Joan's book is one of the most affectionate memoirs I've ever read, she found his "autobiography" hidden in a shoebox in a closet after he died, and started from there. Several books have been written about him, many by his former writing staff, but hers surely had the sweetest photos!

RCP said...

What a great post - and I'm looking forward to your interview with Dan O'Shannon tomorrow.

I loved the great Jack Benny. With a simple look he could hold an audience in his hand.

Johnny Walker said...

I'm guessing the interview has probably already been done with Dan O'Shannon, but if, on the off-chance that it's not too late to add one to the pile, I'd love to know the answer to the following.

In his introduction O'Shannon states, "If you're looking for a book that will teach you how to write comedy, I suggest you keep moving."

Does he think the book might be useful for writers, or just those who are students of comedy itself?

(Maybe you could answer, Ken?)

Mr. Kitzel said...

I love Jack Benny. Unselfish, too, he didn't mind if other cast members got "better" lines at his expense.

This prompts a Friday question. Jack Benny had many catch phrases ("Well!" "I will NOT!" "Fool around with me, sister!") and so did his cast members (Rochester: "Oh come now, boss!" Phil Harris: Some variation extolling his cleverness. etc.)
Was this common in radio? I can't think of "Taint funny McGee" and "That ain't they way I heered it!"
I always thought Benny's phrases fit the piece--vs. a lot of latter day sitcoms ("How rude!" "Cut it out!" "Sit on it," "AAAAAAAY," where is became pretty tired. Did you ever attempt to create a catchphrase? Why or why not?

Johnny Walker said...

I've ordered my copy, but if people fancy reading the first 46 pages you can do so here:

http://bit.ly/WhatAreYouLaughingAt

(It's the publisher's website.)

Barry Traylor said...

Ah yes, those early Bob Newhart albums. What a joy they were/are. I used to keep my friends entertained by stealing bits that Bob used. Two that come to mind are the gag about the submarine commander and the one with the cab driver stuck with the embalmed corpse of either Stalin or Lenin (forget which).

Paul Duca said...

Benny was once asked by a woman why so many comedicans were either Irish or Jewish. After a moment's pause, Jack replied "Madame, have you ever met a funny Lutheran?"

Paul Duca said...

Benny was once asked by a woman why so many comedicans were either Irish or Jewish. After a moment's pause, Jack replied "Madame, have you ever met a funny Lutheran?"

Andy said...

Speaking of Fred Allen's line about ad-libbing a belch, and speaking of borrowing from the masters, Carson borrowed from his idol, Benny, when he said about Chevy Chase during the days his burst upon the SNL scene must have annoyed him, "Chevy Chase couldn't ad-lib a fart at a bean eating contest." (In later years, Chevy was among the folks, like Steve Martin, Johnny played cards with.)

Andy said...

Make that indirectly borrowed, seeing as how it's attributed to Fred Allen!

Rich said...

Love Jack Benny, especially the radio shows (which you can now buy on OTR sites for pennies.

Surprised no one has made a connection between Andy Griffith and Benny. Both had great, long runs and became beloved icons of comedy. What was their secret? Both them "gave focus" -- let others be as funny, or funnier on their shows. Griffith let Don Knotts carry most of the comedy on the show. Benny's radio show -- well, if you listen, the whole show is Benny's cast coming in and giving him a hard time (and getting great punchlines). Dennis Day, Phil Harris, Don Wilson, Rochester, Mel Blanc -- every one of them gets to ridicule Benny for his cheapness, his vanity, etc.

Both were smart enough to see that letting others be funny helped them thrive.

The Mutt said...

1941?!? I love that movie! It has maybe the greatest visual joke ever: Army tank crashes through the wall of a paint factory. It crashes out the other side, splattered all over in primary colors. Then it crashes through the wall of a turpentine factory. It comes out the other side squeaky clean.

-bee said...

Life With Lucy is the Mt. Rushmore of sitcom awfulness (wasn't it pulled off the air after the first episode?) - you'll have to try a lot harder, Ken, if you want to do something that bad.

I don't want to say that without saying from her earliest movies, Lucille Ball was often wonderful - there was just some monumentally bad judgement at work in that case.

For classic stage comedy, I don't know if there is anything that can beat the Pyramus and Thisbe sequence in Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night Dream.

DBenson said...

I remember AfterMash and actually enjoyed it, even though it was clear adjustments were being made (replacing the younger doctor; inventing an excuse for Klinger to feign insanity again).

Maybe a comedy about damaged vets was a bit too much at that moment, considering how real vets were either being swept under the rug or used as political pawns as America tried to forget or rewrite Vietnam.

danrydell said...

Anyone remember when AfterMASH was about to debut. At the time a lot of MASH actors were doing commercials for IBM. And I believe someone asked, "What do you think the members of the 4077 are doing today?" and the answer was "I think they're all working at IBM, aren't they?"

VP81955 said...

Since we're talking about Benny's running gags; the community theater in Rancho Cucamonga has a statue of Jack in its foyer.

But did the statue make earlier stops at Anaheim and Azusa?

Jack Benny was the first celebrity I ever met; he was performing in Niagara Falls, NY in the summer of 1969 and was staying at the same hotel we were. We crossed paths at the entrance, and my brother and I shook his hand. A nice man.

Alas, I was all of 13 at the time and as yet unaware of his genius work on radio (or his best film, Lubitsch's "To Be Or Not To Be," co-starring the lady in my avatar). And few in the industry had more appreciation for writers.

"The Jack Benny Program" was perhaps radio's first true personality comedy. Buy some mp3 discs and catch a master at work.

Jeffrey Mark said...

I was 16 and my family was on summer vacation staying at the Sahara in Las Vegas in the mob-run days of 1972. (Those were the damn best days, too!) Jack Benny was performing at the hotel that July and one burning hot afternoon he came out for a swim in the pool. I was with my dad, my brother and my two first cousins in the pool as we spotted him slowly working himself into the water at the shallow end. I said to my dad, "there's Jack Benny - go over and talk to him." My dad was the easiest guy in the world to talk to, and not star-struck in the least. I egged my dad on, and he waded over to where Benny was blowing bubbles in the water. My brother and cousins and I watched in awe as dad approached him. He didn't stay long and waded back over to us. "What did you say - what did you say to him," I asked excitedly. All of us were beaming and excited. My dad quietly said, "I said hello." I said,"Well, what else did you say - what did Jack Benny say?" My dad quietly said, "He said hello." And that was that. Quick and to the point. It was no big deal to my dad, but it was all so very cool to all of us kids in the pool with the legendary Mr. Benny. He stayed in the pool just a little longer, very low-key, keeping to himself. I kept on staring at him just wondering what he thinks of all of us staring at him...just a man in a bathing suit in a pool.

iain said...

VP81955: In honor of Jack Benny, you made the 39th post on this thread! The Jack Benny Program is reun on Sirus/XM & the episodes hold up wonderfully.

Jeffrey Mark said...

Speaking of Lucy...on maybe the last season of The Lucy Show back around '67-68 there's a brilliant episode where Lucy is trying to convince Jack to bring his money to her bank and Mr. Mooney. You've all seen it - Lucy goes down into Jack's dungeon to his vault to see where he keeps all his money. Great scene - great comedy...some of the last gasps of Lucy-Benny TV comedy from their slowly dying era as it was quickly evolving into the next "golden age" era of early '70s comedy. Always adored Lucy and Benny - loved that episode. Go find it if you haven't seen it. Young TV comedy writers should be locked away in a room all weekend long watching it over and over.

D. McEwan said...

Anyone who needs who Jack Benny is explained to them, I don't want to talk with. Seeing Jack Benny work live, taping one-liners for Laugh-In was one of the greatest moments of my life. Watching him edit jokes on his feet was amazing. He knew which lines would work and which wouldn't.

And then he suckered everyone. George Schlatter was literally lying on the floor in front of him feeding him lines, and he gave him their usual "You bet your Bippy." Benny pretended to not understand the word "Bippy." George assured him it was just a nonsense word they used. "But what does it mean?" asked Benny. "Nothing, it's just a silly word we made up," explained George, probably wondering why the great Jack Benny was being so dense. Benny then agreed to say it, told them to slate it. They did. He turned to the camera and said: "You bet my sweet ass."

Everyone in the room burst out laughing. The crew were dying. Since Schlatter was already lying on the floor, he was now rolling on the floor. A few moments later, Jack killed the room once more with another ad lib: "But I thought 'Wagnell's' was the dirty word." I think that one may have made it onto the air.

I remember one bit on Jack's show where he came to a movie studio, and the studio gate guard, played, of course, by Mel Blanc, freaked out at the sight of him and tried to kill Jack, and then was restrained by the other guard, after which he began sobbing. Blanc then explained to the other studio guard that he hadn't always been a studio guard. Once he had been a major film director, but then, he had directed The Horn Blows at Midnight.

Not to contradict a previous commentor, but I've seen The Horn Blows at Midnight and while it's not as bad as Plan Nine From Outer Space or Robot Monster is does stink up the room. After M*A*S*H is The Importence of Being Earnest by comparison.

Glad to see the plug for Paul Rudnick. I'm a big fan of Paul. His play Jeffrey is wonderful. A one-sheet poster for the film of it is on my living room closet's door. Also in my living room are the two acting awards I won for playing John Barrymore's ghost in Paul's great play I Hate Hamlet. When accepting one of those awards (presented by the late Miss Betty Garrett) I said: "This is Paul Rudnick's award. The way this play is written, all an actor needs to do is accurately memorise it and pronounce the words clearly enough to be understood, and you'll get huge laughs."

Paul had had HUGE problems with Nicol Williamson in my role in the Broadway produciton, so big they caused the other lead, Evan Handler<.i> to walk out of the play at intermission one performance and never come back after Williamson stabbed him onstage with a sword. On the cover of my script, Paul wrote: "Douglas, John Barrymore was a great, alcoholic star, but you don't need to be one to play him."

Less well-known is that Paul is also a terrific comic novelist. I can only strive to make my books as funny as his novel I'll Take It!. Seek out this hilarious book. You can't borrow my copy; it's signed by Paul. (And "Libby" signed my copy of "her" film essays.)

Jeffrey Mark said...

I think all aspiring comics and comedy writers for either TV or film should - must study the brilliance of the CHUCK JONES MICHAEL MALTESE Warner Brothers cartoons of the mid-'40s to the end of the '50s. Especially study the three extraordinary Bugs Bunny-Wile E. Coyote cartoons they created. Those contain the most perfect dead-dead-on hilarious pure comedy you will ever see. How much funnier can it get watching the continued blunders of perfect inventions going bad on "Super Genius" Wile E? Bringing a collapsible door to put over Bugs' hole when he first comes over to introduce himself? Of course he didn't need to bring the door over! And then, disguised as a burglar, going over to Bugs' hole with a window, setting it down, and then taking the trouble to break into the window just to get to Bugs? Are you kidding me? Amazing comedy brilliance! Or when Wile E. sends out a flying saucer bomb with a lever set on "Rabbit" and Bugs quickly dons a rooster mask and writes down in pen on the saucer, "Coyote", flicks the switch to that and Wile E. is instantly blown-up in his cave. No one writes this brilliance any longer...it's all been done...Michael Maltese...now he was a "Soupa-genius." In everything he did with Chuck Jones masterful comedy perfection. The timing was perfection - that was everything that made it so perfect - the gags - the writing - the swiftness of animation.

But it was the writing...to come up with a script about two mice(Hubie & Bertie) who, in a cheese factory, after stuffing themselves to death decide they cannot eat another piece of cheese ever again and decide to end their lives because of it. They want Claude cat to eat them...this scares him to death and he in turn decides he no longer wants to live and gives himself up easily to Marc Anthony the bulldog. Folks, have we forgotten just how perfect this comedy is? How much more deeply funnier can it get?

One more: just the best...final scene in like the second Road Runner cartoon, 1949-1950...Wile E. dons a female road runner disguise and in a heartbeat instant the moment he dons it a billion Wile E. Coyote's forks and knives in hand, napkins around their necks come out of every crack and crevice salivating at the sight of him. I gave it away for those kids in the audience who haven't seen this comedy brilliance...now go and try and create comedy of that level. Michael Maltese. Chuck Jones. Study their work. Yes. Really. You will get a Harvard-Stanford education I kid you not.

Phillip B said...

Jackie Gleason may have handled a flop as well as anyone. After doing one episode of a terrible game show called "You're in the Picture" he came back the next week to do a formal on air apology. He then completed his commitment to his sponsor with a talk show. (Remember when sponsors dictated programming decisions?)

His monologue is classic and very funny -http://www.yourememberthat.com/media/6019/Jackie_Gleason_Game_Show_Flop/

I was 8 years old. I thought he was the bravest man I'd ever seen on TV, and seem to remember his apology almost word for word.

"Show business is a very strange and intangible endeavor."

ScottyB said...

OK Ken, while you're on the topic of doing what's already come before, here's a Friday question for you: I cringe whenever childbirth comes up in a sitcom. (Woman screams incessantly, blames husband, begs for drugs too late, etc. etc.) It's been beaten to death a zillion times, yet, you'd figure *someone* in all these years would have a different take on it. SO -- if you were a screenwriter right now or a script consultant, how would you tackle this one?

Chris said...

One of the big problems with AfterMASH is that it wasn't MASH. Compared to MASH it wasn't great. But on its own merits, it was a fair-to-midding sitcom. And it lasted a season and a half, didn't it?

Life With Lucy, by comparison, only aired 8 episodes (5 additional were produced) and was a critical abomination. It was embarrassingly bad.

ScottB said...

And here's another Friday question, Ken: I see the name Gary David Goldberg pop up in your blog periodically as someone very worth emulating, not only in terms of someone who's been spectacularly successful in a horrendously cut-throat industry, but because of the inherent human feel of his shows over the years. One of his rarely if ever mentioned shows was 'Brooklyn Bridge', from the very early '90s which only lasted 2-3 seasons before it was canned. WTF is it with the TV industry -- especially given the major success of awesome-written and acted shows like 'Modern Family' -- that there isn't more room for shows on par with 'Brooklyn Bridge'? Has the entire industry just devolved into just one huge vagina joke?

Brian Smith said...

Rob: Rosalind Chao is still acting, playing the pastor of the Korean Baptist church that June (Dreama Walker) attends in "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23". She looks eerily unchanged from when she took that photo for "People," too.

As for explaining Jack Benny to people...just two days ago, I had to explain to my 21-year-old coworker what "SCTV" was. I'll have to work my way up to a conversation about Jack Benny.

ScottyB said...

OK, Ken -- last Friday question. I promise. For today :). In your experience, why do the network suits insist on sticking their stupid faces in where it clearly doesn't belong after like the first or second season of what's obviously a huge hit? I ask this because even going back to 'The Andy Griffith Show' in the early '60s, you can see a definite change watching the compilations today where some muckety-muck dickhead decided Andy needed to be way less golly-gee-whiz homespun and unpolished, and I think the show suffered a bit content-wise because of it. Same thing happened IMO to 'The John Larroquette Show' (where he was running a bus depot) and yeah. even to 'Becker', which I loved even more than 'Cheers'. SO -- WTF is it with these TV people who seemingly like to bite the hand that feeds them so profitably?

Jake Mabe said...

Jack Benny was, is, will forever be the king of comedy. Period. I listen to his radio shows at night when I can't sleep. Half the time, I'm laughing so hard I wake up my wife. To say he was a genius is an understatement.

As always, great post Mr. Levine.

P.S. I didn't think "AfterMASH" was all that bad.

Breadbaker said...

Well, I must be the only one (apart from my wife, who agrees with me) who enjoyed The Horn Blows at Midnight. No, it's no To Be or Not To Be, but it's a fine little movie. It's world sort of passed it by, but it's quite watchable.

Anonymous said...

Great comments to a great post. One more bit of advice to aspiring comedy writers: NEVER have your characters use the word "penis" or "vagina" just to get a laugh. In the real world, you can go your whole life without hearing anyone utter either of those words in a social setting. (Unless things are different in California.)

Michael said...

Mr. Kitzel (honoring a Benny show character, I see) and Rich bring up a great point. There was an episode set on one of those buses touring Hollywood stars' homes. The guide announces the home of each cast member, we go inside, and in each case they're joking about something Benny-related--when Dennis does his song, his mother is complaining about how Benny treats him, etc. At the end of the show, the guide says, "Here is the home of Jack Benny," and Benny says, "Driver, this is where I get off." His ONLY line in the show, yet he was the center of the show. A genius, indeed.

Andy, Carson wrote a thesis about Benny and did a spectacular routine with him that Benny reused with other people, where Carson comes on as a young comedian who idolizes him and then goes on about all the things Benny could do to be funnier.

The references to Mel Blanc and Warner Bros. cartoons bring up not just the geniuses there, but a special favorite: "The Mouse That Jack Built," http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBvx3-cZmgA. Bob McKimson was the underrated genius of the great Warners cartoon directors.

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous said...
In the real world, you can go your whole life without hearing anyone utter either of those words in a social setting. (Unless things are different in California.)"


Things are different in California. It's the 21st Century out here. (Unless you do all your socilaizing with Mormons.)

chalmers said...

In the last year or so, HBO has run a conversation on stage between Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett.

There are a lot of funny parts, but one of the best is Cavett's recollection of Benny's response after a group of fans peppered him with the predictable questions he'd certainly heard thousands of times.

I'll fight the urge to spoil the line here, but the entire show is definitely worth seeking out.

Anonymous said...

Bob Newhart was also a master who let the other cast members have the jokes but would get the biggest laughs with his delivery of a single line afterwards. Somethng like -
George Utley: "...well, who's the idiot who did that?!"
Dick Louden: "That, uh, that would be me."
I laugh just thinking of his delivery of lines like that.

Anonymous said...

Paul Duca said...

Benny was once asked by a woman why so many comedicans were either Irish or Jewish. After a moment's pause, Jack replied "Madame, have you ever met a funny Lutheran?"

Garrison Keillor?

Anonymous said...

In Seinfeld's "Comedian" documentary that followed him around just after his tv show ended as he returned to standup, I was really surprised how Chris Rock was saying that Seinfeld had to check out Cosby's shows, and both were discussing how important Cosby's stand-up was at the time. I never would imagine Cosby as relevant to either. It was meant as a performer, how he could go for a few hours, at his age, and shape a monolog, but still, that was one of the surprises, the difference between what performers looking at their classic craft would say, versus the trends of the moment.

Jeffrey Mark said...

Yeah, right, D McEwan...uh, not really...not here in Oakland (a magnificent community in which to raise your children...and a pretty darn swell and hip town, too - and perfect summer weather - best in Caifornia, may I say)where between my best friend, best next-door neighbor I'll ever have - and MORMAN - and...a dead ringer for Dennis Hopper, I might add, we both know the 21st century don't mean shit, and we still can have an intelligent conversation and never revert once to saying vagina or penis. Yeah...California...and in the 21st Century...y'all come up to Oakland sometime and see if you can keep up in a conversation between Mark Palmer (a Viet Nam vet - and damn proud of it) and I. Maybe he'll even teach you the proper way to fire a gun.

iain said...

Anonymous, I read an interview with Chris Rock where he listed Cosby & Newhart as 2 of his bigger influences. You may or may not appreciate Rock's particular style of humor, but the man knows & respects his stand-up history.

D. McEwan said...

Jeffrey, having a father born in Salt Lake City who escaped Mormonism at 16, I have many Mormon releatives, and have been subjected to them many, many times my whole life. My beloved grandmother was in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir a century ago. My great-great grandfather was the oldest living Mormon bishop in the world back in 1886, personally converted by Joseph Smith back in Navoo, and a close personal friend of Brigham Young. (He was also a polygamist, so his views on "Traditional Marraige" are a joke.) I deliberately choose NEVER to socialize with Mormons, and never to vote for them. Did your bestest ever BFF vote for Prop H8 as the Mormon church ordered him and all Mormons too, against my rights to marry because of their religious delusions?

However, I have been to Oakland (Hello! My Mormon Aunt Evelyn used to live in Oakland before the blessed day she went to Morman Heaven, where she is welcome to stay!), and "penis" and "vagina" still - ah - popped up in conversations. But then, as I mostly socialize with other gay people, "penis" gets used more than "vagina."

I am struck, however, by your statement: "we still can have an intelligent conversation and never revert once to saying vagina or penis." So you prefer saying "cunt" and "cock"?

And thanks, but I have no interest in learning the proper way to fire a gun. I am not a gun nut. My penis is sufficiently sized that I do not need to compensate with guns. Clearly we travel in different social circles, and I am in favor of keeping it that way. I'll bet you are also.

But thanks for confirming my assertion that if you never use penis or vagina in social conversations in California, you're probably talking with Mormons.

Jeffrey Mark said...

D: I know my brilliant MORMAN friend since 1989, living next door to him, with gazillions of intelligent conversations about world history, of which my friend Mark is a masterful historian - so, so very keen and fluent in rich history. He could have very easily been an extraordinary tenured professor at Cal here in Berkeley if he chose to teach - or at any - and I mean any - and I deeply know and understand my friend Mark Palmer - at any pedigreed university in the US, hands down. He's taught me a helluva lot about common sense living over the years that I've had the brilliant pleasure knowing him. Taught me a helluva lot about being a man...a GOOD MAN...a man NOT AFRAID to protect his family if it came down to it. A true MAN not afraid of anyone, anywhere, anytime...who taught me how to look any man in the eye and be confident in yourself. A man who knows the meaning of the word WORK, and isn't afraid to work hard and toil and be honorable about it. That's who my MORMAN neighbor Mark Palmer is. He's not afraid of anyone. And I learned something about myself and life and history from him since 1989. He's bloody awesome and the real deal, baby, let me tell you. And he and I never...never...ever have to say...(oh here it comes now)penis or vagina. We know what those natural body parts are, so what? We all have 'em - so what? Yeah...big deal. I don't have to tell him how big mine is, he doesn't have to tell me how big his is. The children in their 20s and 30s who live to hear the words Penis and Vagina on tee-vee need to simply grow up, get up and go to work. They need to know the great honor of WORK. They don't...and boo-hoo, I can't fix them. Penis and Vagina...geez...those two words never come up in my intelligent, enriching, learning conversation with my Mormon friend Mark...and I'm the better for it. Grow up and go out and work!

Anonymous said...

The original point was that the masters could be funny without ever resorting to saying words just for shock value. Today's sitcom writers are lazy and throw these words in for cheap laughs, but it sounds NOTHING like real people talk. Check out The Dick Van Dyke Show if you want to hear natural-sounding dialog that's also funny.

D. McEwan said...

Jeffrey, what makes you think I don't work? I'm publshing two books this year while also writing a third for next year. You think that's not work? How many books have you written? Why do you equate using frank-but-clinical terms for sexual organs equates with not-working?

As for your awesome friend, if he's so intelligent, why is he still a Mormon? I'd be more impressed with him if he managed what my dad managed at age 16, to look at the warped religion he was being raised in and say: "This is wrong, igornant, bigoted, and superstitious blather. Only a moron could be a devout Mormon," and walk out, never to return. Ooh, he's "not afraid"! So what? That is relevant to what exactly?

I notice you did not answer my question about how he voted on Prop H8. Did he have the guts to stand up to his evil church and vote against it, or did he cave-in to religious pressure and vote for it, or worse, did he enthusiastically vote for it, in which case, he is not "awesome," he's an asshole.

I know the meaning of the words "to work". I've written four books, 13 TV shows, countless radio and stage sketches, a long list of stage plays, and worked as an actor for decades as well. And there was a long line of hideous day-jobs 30 years ago also. 2 years as a bank teller were my two years in hell. More enjoyable was the two years I spent as the Associate Editor of The Hollywood Reporter Studio Blu-Book Directory. Trust me, it was work. But it was also ture that we didn't hear "penis" or "vagaina" spoken much in the Hollywood Reporter office. What we heard arounf the office was: "Why is that dickhead screwing up my copy?" or "Tell that stupid twat to shut the fuck up." But that was at work. Socializing we reverted to Penis and vagina.

I also know how to think, which is why no church has a claim on me.

You know, Jeff, you and your Mormon friend are penises.

Greg Ehrbar said...

In 1981, Johnny Carson hosted a special called "A Love Letter to Jack Benny. As I recall it was one of his last, if not the last, TV specials.

Kelsey Grammer is one of many comedy talents who freely admits devotion to Benny as the master of timing and character-driven comedy.

Merv Griffin, in one of his clip shows, cites a moment with Jack Benny as the longest laugh ever on his talk show. He asked Benny something like, "When did you get your first laugh?" Benny stared at him for what seemed like a hysterical eternity as the audience went wild. Then he said, "Now that's the stupidest question I've ever heard."

For the Benny-deprived, it's easy to actually track the path of his "cheap" character, his catch phrases, vanity and more just by listening to his radio shows, which, as another poster wrote, are very accessible. You can get almost every show from around 1934 to the mid-50s.

Listening to these precious shows, of which there are several hundred, are an enhancement to anyone's lifetime.

cadavra said...

Doug: you beat me to it about the scene with Benny and Blanc (as the studio guard), though IIRC, the actual dialogue was even funnier--Jack: "Did you see THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT?" Mel (irate): "See it? I DIRECTED IT!!!"

Speaking of which, Monday night the Academy ran a gorgeous 70mm print of the Greatest. Movie. Ever. (aka IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD) to a packed house of 1000+. In a movie already overflowing with laughter, one of the biggest howls came when Benny drove by, asked if he could help, and Ethel Merman bellows, "We don't need any help from you!" Cut back to Jack. Doesn't speak. Doesn't mug. Doesn't move. Just a slightly wounded expression. And the house came down. He then sniffed, "Well!" and topped himself. Not many people could get such a huge laugh by doing absolutely nothing.

Jeffrey: If you really want to hear Mike Maltese at his best, check out Jones' "Hunter Trilogy" (RABBIT FIRE, RABBIT SEASONING and DUCK, RABBIT, DUCK!), which are seven minutes each of almost nothing but Bugs, Daffy and Elmer standing around talking to each other. That's genius.

Jeffrey Mark said...

Hey,D: Thanks for the compliment! And, I'll pass this along to my neighbor, the Mormon, as well. Made my day!

D. McEwan said...

How will you do that when the two of you are so repressed that you can't can't use "penis" in a sentence? Sign language? Or just by flashing him?

cadavra said...

Well, I TRIED to get it back on topic...

D. McEwan said...

"cadavra said...
Well, I TRIED to get it back on topic..."


Well thanks for refreshing my memory. It's been rather a long time since I saw that particular Jack Benny episode.

That evening of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World sounded like a lot of fun. I'm sorry I couldn't make it to the screening. I watch the film at least annually, and my Uncle Mack worked on the picture. (I went to first grade witin sight of the "Big W".) And leave us not forget that in that scene, Jack is driving the famous Maxwell. (The mock-sad music track under Jack's take helps the bit also.)

cadavra said...

Well, I hate to be a pedant, but: it wasn't a Maxwell, but an early 30s Cadillac. I guess they assumed only hardcore car buffs would notice. (I didn't; I only know this because an actual car buff posted this on IMDb.)

Always wondered why they didn't use "Love in Bloom" instead of a sound-alike. It couldn't have been a question of money!

chuckcd said...

I liked 1941...oh well.

SkippyMom said...

We LOVE Jack Benny - he is legendary. I wasn't old enough to enjoy his show originally, but thank goodness for rerunds and now cable.

My 14 year old daughter watches "The Jack Benny Show" and "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" everynight - and just laugh and laugh. The jokes may be "old" but they are hysterical. They're new to us. :)

I just have to look at her and say "That lettuce is wilted" and she'll reply "It wasn't when you got here."

Timeless.