“. . . that same young man in that same brown suit”: A "Jackass" Takes a Bow

For the life of me, I can’t turn a phrase. At least, not at a speed that would encourage anyone to keep up with me. I can’t seem to cut a line short enough to make it worthwhile anyone’s time or spin it fast enough to lasso in the crowds. By the time I’m done editing myself, everyone else has left the spot I failed to hit. As a matter of fact, I am still editing what you are reading now. I would have failed miserably in the days when radio demanded rapid-fire gags at a rate that prematurely aged funnymen like Lou Holtz, who had drawers full of them, and wrecked the nerves of his assistants (among them, the young Herman Wouk, aformentioned). “Take all the words in all the full-length pictures produced in Hollywood in a year,” Erik Barnouw calculated in 1939, “and you do not have enough words to keep radio in the United States going for twenty-four hours.”

Comedians and the largely anonymous writers who fed them their lines sure had to work fast; yet, energy aside, they also needed stamina to sustain an act through the seasons. Sure, you can get almost anyone to “Wanna buy a duck”; but to make it something other than a lame one and not to end up with egg on your face after a few weeks, let alone decades, requires some convincing.

That said, quite a number of comedians, most of them seasoned vaudevillians, enjoyed a long career on the air, a durability that, with a few exceptions, is foreign to today’s short-attention-spanned YouTubeans whose mental databases have been outsourced and replaced by all sorts of gadgetry (or re-call centers) designed to make us forget anything other than to heed those reminders of how to pay dearly, if conveniently, for our carefully nurtured deficiencies. Their mental faculties scattered along the hard drive, future generations may well be on too short a term with the world even to get a running gag. (As I was saying, my syntax just wouldn’t do for broadcasting.)

Celebrating his seventh year on the air, on this day, 30 April, in 1939, was Jack Benny, that perennial middle-age dodger from Waukegan. “Exactly seven years ago today a young man walked into a small New York broadcasting studio and spoke into a microphone for the first time,” announcer Don Wilson (pictured, above, to the right of comedian Jerry Colonna) told those tuning in to the Jell-O Program. There he stood, “that same young man in that same brown suit,” still shaking before every broadcast. “And that’s what worries me,” Benny confessed, “Now I shake and I’m not nervous.”

From the opening tune, “Man About Town”—the title of Benny’s latest film—the broadcast was to be a half-hour of . . . depreciation, an invitation for Benny’s writers to go to town at the man’s expense. That, in shorthand, is the Benny formula, an instantly recognizable persona that contemporary critics Jack Gaver and Dave Stanley termed the “whipping boy of the airwaves.” Benny’s first words on the air (uttered on 2 May rather than 30 April 1930) already signalled the fashion, but it also reminds us how successfully “that same young man in that same brown suit” retailored his act over the years:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking, and making my first appearance on the air professionally. By that I mean I’m finally getting paid, which of course will be a great relief to my creditors. I, uh, I think you don’t know why I’m here. I’m supposed to be a sort of a master of ceremonies and tell you all the things will happen, which would happen anyway. I must introduce the different artists who could easily introduce themselves, and also talk about the Canada Dry made-to-order by the glass, which is a waste of time as you know all about it. You drink it, like it, and don’t want to hear about it. So, ladies and gentlemen, a master of ceremonies is really a fellow who is unemployed and gets paid for it.

Gradually, such self-consciousness would become tempered with no uncertain vaingloriousness, and Benny (and his writers) left it to fellow cast members and rival comedians to make the fall guy trip. On the seventh anniversary program, even Fred Allen sent a wire, which Mary Livingstone somewhat less than dutifully read to Benny:

Livingstone. Dear Jackass.

Benny. Gimme that wire. Mmm. That’s “Dear Jack. As this is your seventh anniversary . . .”

The joke, however slight when quoted out of context, depends for its punch on a listener’s familiarity with the Benny-Allen feud. Audiences expected an acerbic note from a rival—but to be hearing it from those who worked with Benny, and on the occasion of his taking a bow to boot, gave the line a certain kick, one that was always directed at Benny’s posterior and conveniently administered by those nearest to him. Jackass? Benny was a regular piñata. The more direct the hit, the more likely the chances of hitting the jack(ass)pot.

Meanwhile, the anniversary of that celebratory broadcast is past . . . and I am still editing.

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