What's the funniest part of the joke: the words, the timing, or the lack of laughter?

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THERE has been a small exchange of correspondence recently in this paper about the famous though perhaps not very well-known Jack Benny radio sketch in which a mugger stops the notoriously mean comedian Jack Benny and says "Your money or your life" and the notoriously mean Jack Benny says nothing and the mugger says, "Well?" and the notoriously mean Jack Benny says, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking!", or words to that effect.

What the correspondents were arguing about, I think, was why it was so funny - was the line funny? was the silence funny? was it a sketch or a one-liner? - and I am in the odd position that I should be able to settle all arguments, because I have actually heard that Jack Benny sketch. I don't mean I heard it when it first went out, which was in the 1930s, some while before I was born, but that I heard it when I visited the Museum of Broadcasting in New York a few years ago. This is where they keep all the famous TV moments, the historic moon walks, the great shows of yesteryear, blah blah blah, but where they also keep the great moments of radio.

Now, I am just about old enough to remember the first great radio stars, if only from the era when they were being turned into aged TV stars - my Dad was always watching the Jack Benny Show, and George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Bob Hope, and Vic Oliver, and I watched along with him - so I do feel some link with that golden age. I know that Vic Oliver played the violin badly and spoke English curiously. I know that Jack Benny also played the violin badly and in addition was mean, and had a black valet named Rochester. Indeed, I knew about Jack Benny's Rochester before I had ever heard of the Brontes' Rochester...

So even when young I could understand the joke when Bob Hope said: "Jack Benny is the meanest man I know. That man is so mean that... Why, I was having dinner with him the other night, and when the waiter brought the check, he tried to hide in the toilet! But I wouldn't let him in..."

Funny, eh? Well, it was funny back then. But this explains why I do remember being told about this famous moment when the mugger stopped Jack Benny and said, "Your money or your life!", so when they said to me at the Museum of Broadcasting that I could choose a clip from the past, any clip I liked, I ignored things like the Kennedy assassination and went straight for that one. I had heard about it so much and yet I had never actually heard it.

And sure enough they had it, and I listened to it, and it was much as you might imagine, apart from the extra crackles. The robber did stop Jack Benny and did suggest a choice between life and money and Jack Benny did pause an awful long time and made it clear he couldn't make up his mind which was more important, his life or his money, which is a very funny idea, but what came across on this old clip was something which nobody had ever told me about and which came as a dreadful shock: the audience didn't laugh much at it. Sure, there was a bit of a titter, but no belly laugh, no chorus of roaring, no sign that this was one of the great moments of radio. Just a slight, polite ripple of chuckles. Here was this great comedy moment and all those who were privileged to be there didn't know it was a great comedy moment. It was like being transported back into the Globe Theatre by a time machine to see a Shakespeare play and discovering that everyone was eating nuts and flirting, and nobody listening.

Maybe that's part of the reason that radio comedies these days so rarely have live audiences. Television comedies very often still have audiences, but then TV comedy is much more old-fashioned than radio comedy. Radio has learnt how to be funny without an audience. The chunk of comedy that appears on Radio 4 on Wednesday nights under the title of Late Night Opening is a good example. There are three programmes involved, "Armstrong and Miller", "The World of Pub", and "Life, Death and Sex with Mikeand Sue", and only the last-named has an audience. Well, being a pastiche of a chat show, I suppose it has to. But the other two move so fast and are so intricate that an audience would only get in the way.

All three are pretty funny, funnier than most TV comedy, but "The World of Pub", which I have only just discovered, is something else - breathtakingly inventive, quick-thinking, allusive and so fast to bounce off its own references that an audience reaction would only get in the way. It's written by someone called Tony Roche. I don't know who Tony Roche is, but if ever someone comes to him and says, "You've got a really funny show there, Tony - why don't we try and get it on TV?", I hope he turns round and says, "Forget it. TV's not ready for a REALLY fast show. Besides, we'd probably have to have an audience on TV and they might not laugh and how would that sound in the Museum of Broadcasting?"

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