I had no idea why everyone thought Jack Benny was the ‘cat’s pajamas’, but when my parents tuned in their Philco television to his show on Tuesday nights and I saw the laughter he generated, I soon became enamored with the thought of being a comic.
Batman has a sense of humor.
By listening closely to the dialogue, I tried to figure out what all the yuks were about. There was something about Jack being cheap. “Pitching pennies like manhole covers”, was the term my parents used to describe it. Being a second grader, I was puzzled by some of the humor.
“Hey Dad, what’s the deal with Jack Benny being so cheap?” I asked.
“That’s part of his schtick,” he said.
“What’s that mean?”
“That means it’s part of his act.”
“Kind of like what Batman does when he kicks someone in the face?” I asked.
“Why does Phil Harris slur his words?”
“I think he drinks too much coffee.”
“How does that little skinny guy, Dennis Day, sing with such a big voice?”
“How the hell do I know? Watch the show!”
After the show ended, I went to my bedroom and began to devise my routine. I would emulate Jack by using some of his wisecracks about being cheap. Before I would practice my act on someone, I would drink several cups of coffee, with hopes of slurring my words like Phil Harris, and then alternately sing like Dennis Day.
My audience for my first act would be my best friend, Mark Zeego.
“Hey Mark, how ’bout I come over after school and practice my comic act on you?”
“What comic act?” he asked.
“When I grow up, I’m going to be a comedian like Jack Benny.”
“You’re killing me. Are you serious?”
“I’ll be over at four o’clock. Tell your mother we need some milk and cookies, but then she needs to go shopping afterwards. I don’t want anyone around in case I flop.”
“I can’t tell my mother to leave the house.”
“That’s OK-we’ll practice in your bedroom.”
When class finished, I ran home and changed into my play clothes. I waited for my mother to go into the bathroom and quickly guzzled two cups of muddy, black coffee left over from the morning percolator.
“Mom, I’m headed over to Mark’s house to play for awhile.”
“Be back for dinner.”
Walking down the street, my head began to spin. I broke into a trot. Knocking at the front door I greeted Mrs. Zeego. “Hi, Mrs.Zeego, I’mheretoseeMark,” I blurted out.
“Slow down son, I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”
“Hi, Mrs. Zeego, I’m here to see Mark.”
“That’s more like it. Come on in.”
I was directed to Mark’s bedroom. “I don’t want any funny stuff from you guys today-you understand?”
Mark opened the door. “Come on in, I already have the milk and cookies. How come the pupils of your eyes are so small?”
“I don’t know. Forget about that and sit down.” I took a pack of baseball cards from my pocket and held them in my hand. “Pretend that you’re a crook and you’re trying to rob me. Tell me, ‘Your baseball cards or your life’, in a threatening manner.”
“Your baseball cards or your life,” Mark said, pretending to hold a gun on me.
I said nothing.
“Your baseball cards or your life,” he repeated.
“Give me time-I’m thinking about it,” I said.
I had seen Jack use the gag many times and it always provided a laugh. In his case, it was always “your money or your life.”
Mark began laughing so hysterically that he began to choke. I slapped him on the back, but he slumped over and fell to the floor. “C’mon, Mark, this isn’t very funny.” I looked at his eyes, but they were blank. He had passed out.
“Mrs. Zeego, get up here! There’s something wrong with Mark.” She ran up the stairs and began to scream.
“I told him a joke and he passed out.”
“Call the ambulance-and then get the hell out of my house!”
The ambulance arrived and Mark regained consciousness. I walked home and contemplated my aspirations of becoming a comedian. I found out later in elementary school that Mark had a condition that made him prone to faint when excited; a symptom I discovered during our first sex-ed class. I just thought that maybe I was too funny.
I think I like the violent stuff better-I always did want to be a cowboy.
(Excerpt from Bustin’ Chops)