Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Phil Harris, Jack Benny, and . . . Robert Musil?

Monday night's post about Michael Lesy's Murder City wasn't what I had intended to write when I plopped down with the old laptop. But as I flipped through the book's pages, I kept coming across lines that were too good not to share . . . and an hour later, I had a whole post.

All I'd intended to do was extract a single pair of sentences about the soon-to-be-murdered rake Herbert Ziegler, from the testimony of a woman with whom he danced early on that fatal evening:
Herbert was so drunk that, when he did ask Mrs. Lewinsky to dance, he could barely stand. After three minutes on the dance floor, Herbert's knees buckled.
Why those lines? Because they give me a chance to tell my favorite Phil Harris joke from The Jack Benny Program. Harris, who led the band on Benny's show, played himself as an uneducated, smooth-talking wild man with an overly developed sense of his powers of attraction, intellect, and humor--a man so self-regarding that his young daughter always asked for "Hotshot" when she called for him on the phone. "Oh, that's cute. Is that what your mother calls him?" Jack asked once. "No," she replied. "That's what he calls himself."

Harris's band was a motley assortment of ex-cons and drunkards, with the worst of the tipplers his trumpet player, Frankie Remley. That gets me to the joke that started all this, which comes after Phil has explained to Jack that he had to wake Remley up and drag him out of a trash barrel to get him to rehearsal:
Now tell me, Phil: why on earth would Frankie be sleeping in a trash barrel?

Jackson, when your knees buckle, you ain't always over a featherbed!
My delay in posting this was unexpectedly fortunate, because in the interim I found another reminder of Jack Benny--much to my surprise--in The Man Without Qualities. Appearing in a jailhouse rumination by the Simenon-esque sex murderer Moosbrugger, this passage could easily be describing Jack's experiences with a certain recurrent nemesis:
In a bad mood, he could tell by a fleeting glance at a man's face that here was the same man who always gave him trouble, everywhere, no matter how differently he disguised himself each time. How can anyone object to this? We all have trouble with the same man almost every time. If we were to investigate who the people are we get so idiotically fixated on, it is bound to turn out to be the one with the lock to which we have the key.
Non-Benny fans may be confused, but those in the know surely just recognized their cue to turn and bellow, "Yeeessss?"

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