Cary Grant Studying George Burns

From Evenings With Cary Grant: Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best:

Cary Grant met George Burns back in his vaudeville days, when he would go on tour as an acrobat, or with stand-up comedians. He met George, Gracie, Jack Benny … all of these giants. He said that one of the greatest influences on him was George Burns. Cary Grant would stand backstage and just STUDY what it was that made George funny, HOW he did it.

I love comedians. I love them (even though they can literally ride your last nerve if they are the kind of person who can NEVER be serious.) I’ve dated a couple comedian guys. I mean, I lived in Chicago. Most people move there for the comedy scene … you couldn’t avoid it. Some of the wannabe comedians were toe-curlingly terrible. You ached, you wanted to run from the room screaming when you saw them onstage. Ick. Nothing worse than someone TRYING to be funny. But then there were others – people who stood out immediately as: “Okay. Wow. That person is FUNNY” – and all of these people are stars now. I remember seeing them perform in tiny grungy improv clubs, and now they’re all on Saturday Night Live, or writing for Conan O’Brien, or whatever. So there were definitely some stars in the bunch, and I dated one in particular. He was a genius, that dude. He had perfect comedic pitch. Hard to explain. It’s like being a mathematical prodigy or something. He just KNEW how to do it. Others struggled, flailed about, TRIED to be funny. He just WAS. And he made it look easy. AND he couldn’t really explain HOW he did it. We talked about it all the time, and he was pretty much COMPLETELY inarticulate off stage (right, MJF?) – and yet onstage? You would laugh so hard your stomach hurt the next day. I found it fascinating.

Cary Grant’s earliest training came from hanging around comedians, old comedian pros … and watching them closely, studying them.

Cary Grant reminisced about George and Gracie:

I watched him and Gracie ever night I could when they were at the Palace. For their opening night five of us got together and chipped in five dollars apiece and bought them twenty-five dollars’ worth of flowers, a princely sum in those days. I asked George when we should have the usher bring up the flowers, and he said, “After the third encore!” Now, that’s confidence! George is an absolute genius … timing his laughs with that cigar. He’s brilliant.”

And about that cigar. Here’s what George Burns had to say about THAT. Now … here’s the deal. He’s talking about something magical, he’s talking about TALENT … Like, any Joe Schmoe could follow George Burns’ instructions below. Sure. Sounds simple. But to have it be so funny that you basically have sell-out shows for 40 years? That can’t be taught.

But anyway. Here’s George Burns on his cigar:

What is timing? Timing is this. You’re working with somebody. When the people laugh, I smoke. When they stop laughing, I stop smoking and I ask the questions. I talk. So what’s so great about timing? If I talk while the people are laughing, they’d have to put me away. So I use the cigar. It works for me.

Love that. “It works for me.” Uh, yeah, George, I would say it did.

Cary Grant had started to get cast as “the straight man” in these vaudevillian touring acts. The “straight man” to the comic. The straight man’s job is basically to set up the jokes by asking the questions. That’s how Cary Grant studied all of these fantastically funny people.

Cary Grant had more to say about Burns.

George was a straight man, the one who would make the act work. The straight man says the plant line, such as “Who was that man I saw with?” and the comic answers it: “Oh, that was not a man, that was my uncle.” He doesn’t move while that line is said. That’s the comedy line. The laugh goes up and up in volume and cascades down. As soon as it’s getting a little quiet, the straight man talks into it, and the comic answers it. And up goes the laugh again.

George Burns’ response to this? I love this. He read Cary Grant’s words on being a “straight man” and he had this to say:

Now, that’s one way of being a straight man. Another way is to do nothing. Gracie and I worked together for forty years. I said to Gracie, ‘How is your brother?’ And Gracie talked for forty years.

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