February 22, 2008

The Greatest Comedian

Joe Gandelman has a great post at The Moderate Voice about the greatest comedian in television history, and probably one of the most influential for modern performers, along with Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. Jack Benny ruled the radio and television airwaves for decades with a self-deprecating and seemingly effortless style that presaged the genre of observational comedy. Along with Groucho Marx, his timing was the key part of his mastery:

Jack Benny was one of the 20th century’s most beloved comedians: a star of vaudeville, the golden age of radio, movies and television. He actually invented the situation comedy on radio. And he could milk a laugh by scanning (slowly turning and looking at) the audience — extending a laugh seconds longer than any other comedian. He helped pioneer 20th century comedy that was more attitude than just setup/joke setup/joke. ...

The Benny radio show was WAY before my time and I remember him mostly as a younger looking old man with a TV show in the 60s (this color clip is from that era), right before he left the air. But I have gone back and studied his radio programs and early TV and Benny performances on radio and TV are an instructional manual on verbal timing, body language and stage presence (notice how likable he is).

Joe also performs as a ventriloquist and comedian, and understands Benny's genius. So did Johnny Carson, who idolized Benny and studied his timing. Carson used that to great effect, especially when jokes flopped during his routines. Carson, like Benny, would rescue the routine by joking about how bad the previous gag had been, remaining honest with his audience and inviting them to laugh at him and with him at the same time.

In fact, Benny did that more often than not. In his situational comedies, he was usually the butt of the joke. He surrounded himself with prodigious talent and then let them have the best of the situation, and often the best of the laughs. His generosity in that regard set him apart from most comedians of the age (and most performers of any age), and his comedy was all the better for it.

Joe has a YouTube clip of Benny and Mel Blanc. Be sure to catch it.

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