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August 7th, 2010

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03:14 am - Rule #1: Don't Disembowel the Stuffed Duck
There's a few things here on the ol' YouTube which I think you might like to look at if you like Jack Benny or old things.

1. Jack Benny plays "You Bet Your Life" with Groucho Marx.
Oh boy! Groucho appears on Benny's television program and this little number plays out. Benny appears in costume on You Bet Your Life and tries his damndest to get the $100 from the duck. You Bet Your Life was an interesting mix of talk show and quiz show. A two-contestant team would play a trivia game (with rules that changed over the seasons) but that wasn't really important. Being grilled by Groucho before the quiz was the important part.. Sometimes the contestants had an odd connection between them. General Omar Bradley was teamed up with a GI, whom Groucho goaded into complaining to the General about military life. Not a bad bit, there.

And then there was the woman with thirteen children. While it's true she appeared on the show (people with large families were a favorite source of contestants for some reason), Snopes and Uncle Cecil are divided on whether or not Groucho actually told her "I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth sometimes."

Groucho's ad-libbed interaction with the guests was the cornerstone of the show, and the verbal back-and-forth actually transitioned quite easily from radio to television. Now you could actually see the duck drop down and give someone a hundred bucks for saying the Secret Word of the game. As you'll see in the Benny clip, Groucho always explained that it was a common word, "something you'd find around the house." Jack's miserly-grubby character comes out in full force as he attempts to play the system, only to be foiled at the end by a question so brilliantly timed that once it's properly set up, all Groucho has to do is say "So your question for $3000 is..." and hold for the audience's laughter to build. They recognize and love Benny's character so much that the anticipation of the inevitable joke is a joke itself.

That anticipation of character is what made Benny's "Your money or your life!" routine the classic it was, and very few comedians since have presented a comic character so wholly understood by the audience. Groucho expertly handles the audience's swell of recognition throughout and he has a grand old time trying to corpse Benny, especially after Benny introduces himself as "Ronald Forsyth". Groucho muses "Ronald, eh? It was Rodney in rehearsal." The look on Benny's face trying to keep from breaking is beautiful. (By all accounts, Jack was one of the easiest guys to break up, onstage or off.)

This brings us to...

2. Jack Benny visits Walt Disney.
Disney guest-starred in another one of Benny's television programs, welcoming Jack to his office and then listening, bemused, as Benny attempts to put the touch on Uncle Walt for one hundred and ten free tickets to Disneyland. He wants to take his entire cast and crew out to celebrate making the program, which is pretty generous of him if you think about it.

Disney plays a very affable straight man to Benny. He always did act pretty well, and isn't so bad at comedy. He even gets a good delivery out of a topper for a lame gag. Disney's assistant reminds him that Benny was upset for not having been cast in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The concept comes out of nowhere, but Disney capably delivers his line and it's all mercifully over with quickly.

Overall the material is pretty weak, the audience laughter is definitely sweetened, and it and borders on the surreal. There's a talking bird which pecks at the fourth wall, breaks a hole, and comments on the jokes. It is annoying. But it is also fascinating as well, because one of Disney's first Audio-Animatronics projects was a toy bird that he found in New Orleans and then tinkered with to improve its range of movements. That was the basis for The Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland and you can see where it went from there.

That doesn't explain the tiger in Uncle Walt's office, though.

My favorite part of the entire thing is Disney's very first few lines. He's not on Benny's shows out of the kindness of his heart. Nay, he's there to plug his latest film, and he gets it out of the way the very first chance he gets. His lecture to the assistant about making sure to punch up the title so that people will remember it -- THAT DARN CAT -- is a lovely little piece of meta-television.

And finally we have

3. Jack Benny and Mel Blanc tell stories to Johnny Carson.
This 1974 clip was Benny's last appearance on the Tonight Show, according to the YouTube people. Jack and Mel reminisce about the good old days working on Benny's radio program. Blanc played quite a few characters on Benny's show, not the least of which was Jack's ancient, broken-down Maxwell automobile. Blanc is truly a master of his craft.

Benny goes into a story about the time they tried to stump Mel in a cold reading. Benny is a natural storyteller, and you can just see him telling this one to George Burns, Milton Berle and maybe even Groucho at the Hillcrest Country Club. And Mel's reaction is priceless.

Benny and Blanc also do the "Si, Sy, Sue" routine they used to perform on the show. The accent and the character may not have aged well, but you have to admit the timing and the wordplay are just fantastic. And remember what I said about Benny being an easy guy to break up? Hell, he pretty much breaks himself up here as he's going through the routine. And if there's one person who should be allowed to crack himself up, it's Jack Benny, because it's freakin' hilarious to watch.

And Carson wisely sits back and laughs. You can tell, though, that he's genuinely having a blast listening to them. That's what I liked about Carson. Some nights he had the best job in the world, and he knew it. (Other nights the monologue jokes would bomb, the guests would stink, and Carson would continually adjust his tie.)

Anyway, there's some stuff to watch. I've got some more Groucho stuff to share, too, but I have some research to do first.

1. What was the name of Walt Disney's upcoming feature film?
2. What do you think would happen if Dora the Explorer met Speedy Gonzales? Would he be embarrassed with himself? Would Dora reassure him that portrayals of Latinos in American children's entertainment have changed for the better since his days, or would she sic Diego on him? Discuss.
3. If you were sitting at Carson's desk, which three celebrities would you want on your panel, and in what order? Would Ed be allowed to hang out too?
4. Work out, to the nearest mammal, the total number of animals which relieved themselves on Carson courtesy of Joan Embery. Show all work.

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:August 7th, 2010 07:31 am (UTC)
There's a few things here on the ol' YouTue which I think you might like to look at if you like Jack Benny or old things.

Dude. Thank you.
[User Picture]
Date:August 8th, 2010 01:23 am (UTC)
Seconding the "Dude. Thank you."

And also: Yes, Benny was the Jimmy Fallon of his day, in re cracking up. Legend has it that most of his persona came from that -- the long, slow, sweeping looks from his costar across the audience to the opposite side of the stage started less because of his masterful comic timing than because it let him keep his mouth shut long enough to keep from busting up before he could say his line.

As for which three celebrities -- one of Carson's later shows had Arnold Schwarzenegger, Itzhak Perlman and (I think) Paul Provenza, and the three of them bounced off each other in a way that I have not seen since. The point at which I literally had to slap myself to start breathing again was when Provenza said, in reference to a conversation they had in the green room, "And so Perlman -- jeez, listen to me. Like he's on my softball team. 'Hey, PERLMAN! Let's see some hustle out there!'" Schwarzenegger was dying, Carson was dying, Perlman was dying -- and they were all still jumping in as much as they could to bounce off Provenza, who was on the roll of his life. It was a totally unpredictable combination of a movie star so huge that he had no need to be there, a musician so good and so non-mainstream that he barely had any reason to be there, and a guy who knew that he'd maybe get five minutes at the end to rock the goddamn house down, and he DID.
[User Picture]
Date:August 10th, 2010 09:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks for those!

Man, Benny really did have the worst hands ever. Whenever I start to get over-conscious of mine, I think of him, and know I can't be doing *that* badly :)

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