Friday, February 19, 2010

Short Sound Bites & Jack Benny

We've all learned for years about the "sound bites" that sprinkle the news on TV and radio. Anyone under 20 now reads and thinks in even shorter "bites" due to the contractions of texting and Twitter. If you can't speak your piece in 140 characters or less, you're not worth hearing.

For those who suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, this shortening of the pay-attention span is a good thing. Since I may be one of those (at 60 years of age now, I was too young to be diagnosed waaay back then), the sound bite delivery works for me. It just doesn't happen to be illuminating or enlightening, but the basic info is there.

Although I still read long articles, and even books (I hate to brag), but I have to retrace sentences or even paragraphs at a time often to cover up for where my thoughts wandered.

But I digress (naturally-that's my ADD)--how far back do you think this contraction of information started? I can't answer that, but I was surprised to see the following story about Bob Newhart, now 80 years old, in the Los Angeles Times, and about how he had to shorten his stand up comedy stories over 45 years ago because people's attention span at that time had dwindled!

Newhart says he learned comedy from the best, especially Jack Benny, with whom he became close friends.

"I would watch the Sullivan show, the Paar show and 'The Steve Allen Show,' but I would watch the comedians clinically," he says. " 'Why did they use that word? I understand where they are going.' For a comedian, there is nothing better than watching another great comedian."

Another classic routine from his first album featured Abraham Lincoln being coached by his press agent before giving the Gettysburg Address.

"Abe Lincoln came out of a book by Vance Packard called 'The Hidden Persuaders,' " says Newhart. "It was a book about subliminal advertising. I read the book and somehow I made a connection, because all comedy has a connection and an association with something else."

It was Benny's favorite routine. "I was at the Crescendo on Sunset and Jack came in with Mary [his wife] and George Burns and Gracie Allen. They came back afterward and Jack said, 'If we are ever in the same city and I'm in the audience, finish whatever bit you are doing and do Abe Lincoln.' "

Fast forward a few years and Newhart is winding up his engagement at the Palmer House in Chicago. "He's about to open there and he's in the audience. So I do Abe Lincoln. Jack comes back afterward and says, 'You left that out, you left this out. . . .' He was absolutely right. I had tightened it because of the attention span of the public. It was around the time of 'Laugh-In,' and I could tell in Vegas that you couldn't do eight-minute routines anymore. You had to do it in about five minutes."

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