Burns tells how Benny made 'em laugh -- and how it's done today
Los Angeles — George Burns, all solicitous smiles and hospitality, waves an interviewer into his office. "You sit there, kid," he insists, shepherding his visitor into the padded leather chair behind his desk.
"Oh, no, I never sit there," explains the comedian as he pulls up a straight-backed chair for himself. "Only important people sit there."
There is nothing even vaguely pretentious about this short, familiar, even folksy man, an Academy Award-winning performer who has been making audiences laugh for more than half a century.
Today he wants to reminisce about his best friend for nearly six decades, the late Jack Benny -- whose television work will be celebrated in "A Love Letter to Jack Benny," (NBC, 9 p.m., Feb. 5, check local listings), hosted by Mr. Burns, Bob Hope, and Johnny Carson.
This is the man credited with making Mr. Benny laugh louder and longer than any other comedian could, who played pranks as childish as calling to Benny from a parked car, only to roar off when the eternally 39-year-old comedian walked up. It was a gag, Burns says, which "is not too funny when I tell it. But he fell for that same thing three or four times.
"Jack was a quiet riot. He stood there quietly and he'd kill the audience," remembers Burns. "I once saw him do something I don't think any other comedian could do.
"He walked on stage at Caesar's Palace," he continues. "And he stood in the center of the stage, folded his arms, and looked at the audience for practically a minute -- and that's a long time.
"And the audience laughed," he says, "and they didn't just laugh, they laughed loud. And he finally looked at them and said, 'What are you laughing at?' That was his opening. I don't think any other comedian around today could do that."
Comedy today, says Burns, develops much faster than during the days of the endless vaudeville circuits where "you could break in bad stuff that eventually turned out to be good after you developed it."
"Kids," he says, the word he uses to describe virtually everyone, it seems, younger than himself, "develop it fast. Necessity is the magic word. If people want it fast, they do it fast. You've got a lot of great young comedians coming around -- like Milton Berle, all those kids.
"They tell jokes now and they use three-letter words," he says. "Is there a dirty three-letter word? Me, I wouldn't know. But it's accepted. That's the way kids talk and that's the name of the game. But look, I still go on stage, do shows. . . . And I do it my way."
Burns also does this interview his way. He is disarmingly chatty, a veritable storehouse of anecdotes. But when posed with somewhat philosophical questions, such as whether Americans have become more serious over the years, he responds: "I don't know what that means. When you have to be serious, you are.
"Look," he says firmly, "I can talk about show business. But I don't help Ronnie Reagan run the country, and I don't think he's going to sing 'Red Rose Rag.'"
As for the future, Burns is noncommittal. At an age when most people are comfortably settled in retirement, he's diving into a new career as a country and western singer. And there are always movies, although he says he doesn't expect a third chapter in the "Oh, God" series. "But if they want to make one," he says, "I'll come down."
It was the movies, after all -- specifically "The Sunshine Boys," for which he won an Oscar -- that marked a comeback for Burns after several years of relatively little performing. When asked if it was difficult to step into a role originally to have been played by Benny (who passed on before the movie was filmed), Burns responded:
"You know, there was a thing in vaudeville, where you'd know your engagement was cut short if the management of a theater took down your pictures in the lobby and handed them back to you. Well, Jack got handed his pictures.
"But do you know what I'm going to do when I get handed my pictures?" He asks. "I'm not going to take them."