Obituary: Sam Perrin
Monday 02 February 1998
Nominated seven times and twice winner of the Emmy Award for his work on The Jack Benny Show, Sam Perrin was, for a generation, a key member of one of the finest and most successful comedy-writing teams in US radio and television.
Perrin was working as a drummer in 1920s vaudeville when he first met Benny, whose laconic style had al- ready inspired one critic to describe his comedy act as "the most civilised in vaudeville". Perrin's offbeat sense of humour amused the discerning Benny, who commissioned jokes from him.
Perrin was soon selling material to other comedians, including Benny's friend Phil Baker, who had one of radio's top-rated programmes. When Baker was cast in the film The Goldwyn Follies (1938), Perrin was signed to touch up his scenes. Despite 10 other writers, two directors, a host of stars and songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Samuel Goldwyn's extravaganza was a disaster, rightly included in Harry and Michael Medved's 1978 book The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time. Not much better was Warner Brothers' Navy Blues (1941), an Ann Sheridan/Jack Oakie potboiler which Perrin helped to write. Variety declared: "It all adds up to the story department unwittingly scuttling Navy Blues before it was even launched."
In 1943 Jack Benny, whose radio series was being beaten in the ratings by Bob Hope's faster-paced show, hired Perrin and three other writers to streamline the programme. The scripting was divided: Perrin and George Balzer wrote one half of the show; John Tackaberry and Milt Josefsberg wrote the other. The arrangement worked well, and the decline in the series' ratings soon stopped.
Although Perrin was a Jewish atheist and Balzer a devout Catholic, the two men proved an ideal team. In 1945 they took a leave of absence from Benny's employ to go east; they had written the book of a Broadway musical. With a score by the veteran composer Harry Revel, Are You With It? was the story of a shy young accountant who, sacked from his firm for putting a decimal point in the wrong place, joins a carnival and finds his sheltered life transformed. The critic George Jean Nathan praised the show's sets and costumes, its leading lady (Dolores Gray), and the welcome absence of pretentious dream ballets - a staple of 1940s musicals.
"Such minor virtues," Nathan added, "almost atone for the presence of the antiquated plot business about the person whose identity is only to be established by a birthmark on an embarrassing part of the anatomy."
Are You With It? ran for 267 Broadway performances, and was bought by Universal Pictures as a vehicle for their star Donald O'Connor. The comedian Lew Parker, who had scored in the stage version as Goldy, an unprincipled carnival barker ("Even as a boy I had to scrimp and scrape. I saved every cent I stole"), played the same role in the film, but failed to achieve an equivalent success; most of his comedy scores were cut. "George [Balzer] and I had no hand in the movie at all," said Perrin. "Universal even dropped all of Harry Revel's tunes and replaced them! There were two studio geniuses assigned to the picture, one to take out the songs, and one to take out the jokes."
In 1952, searching for gimmicks for the Benny programme, Perrin suggested that Jack write a song, and then try, week after week, to make it a hit. A suitably terrible ballad, "When You Say `I Beg Your Pardon', Then I'll Come Back to You", was duly written, and led to a succession of hilarious programmes, as various reluctant star vocalists were urged to sing it.
In 1950 Benny stepped tentatively into television, taking his four writers with him. "No question about it - Jack Benny is as big a tele click as he has been on top of the radio heap for so many years," enthused Variety. In 1959 and 1960 Perrin's work for the Benny shows won him two Emmy awards. In 1974, when Benny finally stopped doing a regular television series, Milt Josefsberg, by then head writer and script consultant for Lucille Ball's Here's Lucy, hired Perrin and Balzer to turn out scripts for Ball.
In his book The Jack Benny Show (1977), Josefsberg wrote: "To list all the great gags and bits Sam Perrin contributed to the success of our shows would fill volumes."
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