The Kings of Comedy: George Burns

Comedy usually doesn’t win awards but it should. I am about to begin an endeavor that I hope you, dear reader, will enjoy. It won’t change the world, bring peace in the Middle East, nor, for that matter, bring a World Series championship to the North Side of Chicago. What it will do is re-introduce you to the geniuses of film and TV, the comedians and hopefully, along the way, shuck of the stuffiness of Shakespeare, jettison the fantastic of Marvel, and make you just laugh.

The first person I would like to re-introduce you to is George Burns. Born Nathan Birnbaum on January 20, 1886, George Burns was one of the few entertainers whose career successfully spanned vaudeville, film, radio and TV. He won an Academy Award for his role in the 1975 film The Sunshine Boys. Usually associated with his wife Gracie Allen, Burns’ career extended well beyond her death in 1964.

It was with Gracie that George Burns’ career really took off, though. He slogged around the Vaudeville circuit for a number of years and, as he would admit, a number of partners. Allen’s delivery of her lines were a revelation to the act. At first, Gracie was the straight person and George provided the jokes. But George noted how the audience took to her and switched the act around. That was the genius of George. He was a great constructionist. He became the straight man and Gracie became, well, Gracie. Her illogical logic, that made sense only to her, was the catalyst to their success, aided by George’s ability to set her up and then milk the laughter for all it was worth.

Comedy was different then. Subtlety was an art form that is very much lost today. Sure, George Burns was the straight man, but, in that role, he created an unparalleled legacy that would put Will Farrell and Adam Sandler to shame. Beginning in 1950, Burns revolutionized TV by breaking character and carrying on a dialogue with the audience. He would transverse freely between his character and the audience. As well, George made it his life long goal to always crack up his friend the sometimes gullible Jack Benny. From the Irving Fein book Jack Benny: An Intimate Biography:

One day, they were lunching at a Hollywood restaurant, and Benny was wrestling with the problem of whether or not to butter his bread.
“I like butter on my bread,” he said, “but my diet strictly forbids butter. Maybe I should call Mary and ask her what to do.”

“Jack,” Burns said, “don’t be ridiculous. You’re a grown man. Youshould be able to decide, without your wife’s help, whether or not to butter your own bread.”
“You’re right,” Benny said. “I’ll just have the butter, that’s all.”
When the waiter arrived with the check, Burns pointed to Benny and said, “He’s paying.”
“What?” Benny said. “Why should I have to pay the whole bill?”
“Because if you don’t,” Burns said, “I’ll tell Mary about the butter.”

Another example, again from Irving Fein:

George always frustrated his best friend. One time Jack spent hours composing a funny 300-word telegram to George. George wired back: DON’T WORRY JACK I WON’T SHOW YOUR WIRE TO ANYONE.

When you go looking for a laugh, look up George Burns. He’ll show you what comedy is all about.

Tags: Comedy George Burns Television

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