Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Radio Memories: Wednesday Timing

Only a short wait to Christmas..! I thought I'd make the time go faster by reprising the Christmas Radio Memories feature we ran last year at this time, where we devote a post a day to old radio dramas originally broadcast at Christmas-time, back in the day when radio, and not television, held center stage in the hearts and minds, and ears, of families.

The week leading up to Christmas seemed to always bring out the best in radio's creative staff, and one of the series that could always deliver above-average performances at Christmas-time was the Jack Benny program.
Jack's later television work survives in syndication in most cities, on cable somewhere or other, but I've never warmed to his visual comedy in the same way that I enjoy his radio work.
It's fitting to recognize Jack Benny's comedy at Christmas-time, a time of giving, as Jack himself had to be one of the most charitable gentlemen to ever work in the entertainment field. In this sense: even though he was the star of his own comedy show, he frequently gave all the punch lines to his cast. (This was definitely not standard procedure among the giant egos inhabiting the entertainment field, then or now!) He made himself the target of ridicule, put-downs and insults galore; he was penny-pinching, he was vain, he was selfish... except he wasn't, and even though he never explained otherwise, somehow the audience always seemed in on the joke.

Shortly after his start in radio in 1932, Jack Benny began experimenting with the medium; unlike many contemporary vaudeville stars who made the risky move from stage to radio, he saw radio as a new art form, and pioneered a style that he would call "picture jokes", painting funny images with words and sounds, where audiences would laugh at what they saw in their own minds as much as what they heard over the air.

I hope every Jack Benny fan gets the chance to read the eventual form of his unfinished autobiography; had he lived it would have been called I Always Had Shoes, but in truth-is-stranger-than-fiction fashion, fragments of it were later published within another book, a 1990 biography written by his daughter Joan: Sunday Nights At Seven: The Jack Benny Story. Among the amusing stories and intriguing behind-the-scenes details, there lurk the occasional moments of analysis and insight into the mystery of comedy itself. I particularly appreciate his analysis of his characteristic timing:

It has many times been written that I am a master of timing. I would agree to some extent. I am a master of my kind of timing. Critics are sometimes more conscious of my timing because I have a slow paced delivery. Bob Hope, on the other hand, has a fast, Gatling gun style. Hope is as much a master of timing as I am. But it's his timing.

I'll tell you what timing is. Timing is not so much knowing when to speak, but when to pause. Timing is pauses. The closest to the kind of timing a comedian has to learn to master is the timing of hitting a golf ball, where your swing has to be perfect, otherwise you will hook or slice the ball or -- if you're a real duffer like George Burns -- even miss the ball altogether.

The episode we present today was originally broadcast back on December 8th, 1946, when his program was riding high: his show's popularity was such that no less than three of his cast members had sufficient appeal to win radio shows of their own. Singer Dennis Day, bandleader Phil Harris (better known to younger folks like me as the voice of Disney's animated bears in both The Jungle Book and Robin Hood), and Mel Blanc, who fitted the Benny program in-between voice work for virtually every single Warner Brothers cartoon made through the 1940s and 50s. When Phil Harris' program switched time slots, Benny's real-life generosity revealed itself yet again: he made a point of scripting Harris' role so that he would only be heard during the first half of each week's program, in order to allow his employee a decent amount of time to rush over to another recording studio in time to participate in the live broadcast of his own show.

A few running gags would be developed for the annual Christmas programs, and many were carried over into his television run, so perhaps some of the material heard below may have a familiar ring. Yet: surely surly floorwalker Frank Nelson could not be as funny as when you, the listener, could imagine his annoyed expression at having to deal with his least favorite customer; surely no visual image could be as ticklish as an imagined one of a racetrack tout giving tips in a department store on what floors to shop at and which elevators to ride to get there; and no matter how many times I saw Jack Benny on television, resting his hands on his chin in trademark fashion as his long drawn out signature line, "Well-l-l-l...", it never seems as funny as when it gets triggered in one's mind's eye, courtesy of the master of timing, Jack Benny.


Blazing Cat Fur said...

Merry Christmas!

Charles Henry said...

Merry Christmas to you, BCF!

wishing you all the best in the coming New Year, may you and your family have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2010.