Saturday, 14 January 2012

Jack Benny Broke Up My Partner and I

A writing partnership is a wonderful thing - when it works. I know there are many men and women who climb that hill alone, I've done it often enough myself, but to have someone else alongside is heaven sent. I worked with a partner for nearly ten years.

The most important thing about a partnership - and there are many important things - but the MOST important thing is that you laugh at the same time at the same things. Okay, maybe one has a darker take on things than the other, or likes puns or appreciates physical comedy a little bit more, doesn't matter, what matters is that you share a sense of humour.

If you think of comedy as being like a structure made of fine crystal, whilst one of you is building it the other is throwing rocks at it.

For most of our partnership we shared a sense of humour. He was more intellectual than me, likes to strip it down, find out the root cause of why something was funny, I was more the instinct man but happy enough to peel back the layers and see if there was something we could learn and repeat.

He had a facility with lyrics, I could construct a joke. We laughed a lot, talked for hours and produced some decent scripts. Sometimes we worked in the same room together - though that was sometimes like pulling teeth, most times we brought our separate bits to the table and then put them together.

But for most of our partnership it was a long distance relationship. He moved to the opposite side of the country. We constructed our comedy on the phone. If the Internet had been around at the time it would've made things easy, doing it now with someone else is like writing in the next room. But me and my first partner were writing in the 80, and early 90's. We were only just getting to grips with computers. We'd bash things out on the phone and then write up the scribbled notes.

But if you write in a partnership you must both contribute equally. I'm not talking about every other line, very often who came up with what gets lost as one comes up with something and that something gets honed and changed and thrown out and brought back in a different form until 'who wrote what' is irrelevant. But you must both contribute, both bring the funny. Our partnership got out of kilter. One was doing a lot more work than the other and obviously so. Like a marriage where neither wants to face or confront the inevitable we had no future.

One day the movie To Be or Not To Be came up in conversation. A wonderful Jack Benny comedy from 1942, directed by Ernst Lubitsch and co starring Carole Lombard in her last role. It tells the tale of a polish theatre company during the early years of the second world war. Occupied by the Germans the players have to resort to a boring Hamlet rather than the zesty satirical stuff they'd been producing. In it the hammy actor played by Jack Benny adopts the identity of a Professor in order to discover if he is a spy - if you haven't seen it, find it, it's wonderful. Another member of the troupe impersonates Hitler.

My then partner insisted that Benny played Hitler. I said no, he played the Professor. No, he played  Hitler!

For the first time in our relationship things got nasty. He insisting that Benny played Hitler, I said no  he didn't. A real nasty argument ensued. And we never really made up after that.
Benny centre, 'Hitler' to his left.
It was a stupid argument. What did it matter who Benny played?  But he went his way I went mine. Whilst the Jack Benny argument wasn't the cause of the break up, like I said we'd been heading that way for some time, it's the moment I look back on and remember as the first time we really didn't agree and couldn't find a funny way out. It was the no way back moment. We didn't trust each other any more.

On such small things our stories often turn. It's not the BIG moments that reveal the most about characters. It's often the small inconsequential things that bring everything to a head.

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