Happy 100th, George Burns!

January 19, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


GROUP: (singing) Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!

JEFFREY KAYE: George Burns couldn’t show up to hear Ann Margaret sing at the birthday celebration held in his honor earlier this week. He is suffering from the flu. But at the combination tribute and dedication of a medical research institute he helped fund, long-time friend, Barry Mirkin, read a statement from him, classic Burns.

BARRY MIRKIN: “As this big day came closer and closer, people kept asking me what I would like for my hundredth birthday. What do you give a man who’s been so blessed? Another hundred years? A night with Sharon Stone? Okay. So I was wrong. There are some things I could use.”

JEFFREY KAYE: In the last 20 years, jokes about young women and old age have been staples of Burns’ repertoire.

GEORGE BURNS: (1985) That sounds like an old joke. It isn’t. I have a firm rule. I never tell a joke older than I am. There aren’t any.

JEFFREY KAYE: The cocky self-assurance, the self-deprecation, the cigar have been Burns’ trademarks since his Vaudeville days. He teamed with Gracie Allen in 1923, the year Calvin Coolidge became President.

BARRY MIRKIN: Originally, she played the straight woman, but they found out after a while that when he delivered a couple of lines, they were laughing at her, so they switched. And that’s how this thing worked out.

JEFFREY KAYE: This thing with Gracie Allen, who became his wife, lasted 36 years. The two of them had a hit radio show.

GRACIE ALLEN: (on radio) George, I don’t think you’re happy with me.

GEORGE BURNS: (on radio) I love you, honey, but this buying craze is like a disease with you. It’s almost like you’ve got kleptomania.

GRACIE ALLEN: (on radio) Yeah, Lord, did I buy that too? (laughter in audience)

JEFFREY KAYE: Burns and Allen also made 28 films together.

GEORGE BURNS: (“Big Broadcast of 1936″) This machine, the Radio Line, will even do more than I said it would.

ACTOR: (“Big Broadcast of 1936″) Do you expect me to swallow that?

GRACIE ALLEN: (“Big Broadcast of 1936″) Well, I should say we don’t expect you to swallow it. It’s the only one we’ve got.

GEORGE BURNS: That’s right.

JEFFREY KAYE: In the 1950s, Burns and Allen made the transition to television. One stock in trade was for Burns to address the audience directly.

GEORGE BURNS: Thank you very much. You know, it’s real thrill to do these shows from New York. This is my home. I was born here. Of course, Gracie was born in San Francisco, and it was really Vaudeville that got us together.

JEFFREY KAYE: Writer/producer Mel Brooks considers Burns the founding father of straight men.

GRACIE ALLEN: He had a beautiful blond nurse and even she was sick.

GEORGE BURNS: She was sick too?

GRACIE ALLEN: Yes. She kept begging him to take out her appendix.

GEORGE BURNS: The nurse wanted her appendix taken out?

GRACIE ALLEN: Yeah. And every time she went into his private office, I could hear her say, now, doctor, please, cut it out. (laughter in audience)

MEL BROOKS, Writer/Producer: Good, good joke.

GEORGE BURNS: What was the matter with Clara that she had to go see a doctor?

GRACIE ALLEN: Well, I think it was to have the dents taken out of her knee.

GEORGE BURNS: She had dents in her knee?

GRACIE ALLEN: Yes. Because every time I looked in the office he was pounding them out with a little rubber hammer. (laughter in audience)

JEFFREY KAYE: Would humor like this play today?


JEFFREY KAYE: Would it work?

MEL BROOKS: It would work. There’s no time restraint on funny. Funny is forever. And George acts brilliantly. He believes in what the comic is saying. Now, if what the comic is saying is absurd, he does a take. He does a slow take. He does a long take. Like in that sketch, when he said, well, why did she go to see the doctor, and Gracie said, the doctor was removing dents from her knee, he waited a long time before he talked.

Removing the dents from her knee, he said, but he took the required 12 seconds, instead of, what do you mean removing, you know, so he let the joke roll and, you know, gather whatever laughs it would. He’s brilliant at that. His timing is perfect.

GRACIE ALLEN: The minute I got in the doctor’s office, I knew he was no good.

GEORGE BURNS: You knew he was a bad doctor?

GRACIE ALLEN: All his patients were sick. (laughter in audience)

MEL BROOKS: Burns was completely confident. He knew he had a great comic in Gracie Allen. He knew the material was sharp and witty, and he knew, he knew he could take his time, and play these–the fake reality of the moment. He was a very, I think, a brilliantly-invented straight man.

JEFFREY KAYE: What about the role of the woman? She’s kind of naive, doesn’t quite get it.

MEL BROOKS: Naive? She’s downright stupid.


GEORGE BURNS: Look, Gracie, you’d better sew this. My–my fingers are sticking out.

GRACIE ALLEN: Well, they won’t if you wear it on your foot. (laughter in audience)

JEFFREY KAYE: Could you do that today?


JEFFREY KAYE: Woman as stupid?

MEL BROOKS: Sure. I mean, good comedy has never been politically correct. And when it is politically correct and it does cross its T’s and dots its I’s and is very mindful of, of the feminine position, or, or the color line, it really fails. It doesn’t have any pep or zest, or, you know, so I don’t think that–comedy is comedy.

JEFFREY KAYE: Gracie Allen retired in 1958. After her death six years later, Burns’ career faded. His long-time manager, Irving Fein, helped guide him through a comeback.

IRVING FEIN, Burns’ Manager: When Gracie died, he tried a lot of other partners, and it just didn’t work. And then he was on his own and people kept picturing him with a partner. And the result, little by little his career went down the drain, you know.

JEFFREY KAYE: Was it–and so what brought it back?

IRVING FEIN: Well, the big thing that brought it back is that Jack Benny was supposed to do the lead in “Sunshine Boys,” and I took George on just before that, and then when Jack Benny died, I helped to get George that role in the “Sunshine Boys,” and he won the Academy Award, and off he was to the races.

JEFFREY KAYE: The 1975 film co-starring Walter Matthau was written by Neil Simon, who called Burns one of the funniest men he’s ever met.

NEIL SIMON, Writer: He was 79 years old when he made the film, and MGM was afraid they wouldn’t be able to get insurance for him. And now, 21 years later, here is George.

JEFFREY KAYE: After “Sunshine Boys,” Burns made “Oh, God,” directed by Carl Reiner. The script was adapted by Larry Gelbart, who says Mel Brooks was first approached for the role of God.

LARRY GELBART, Writer: And Mel didn’t want the demotion, so the next thought–and I don’t know why it wasn’t the first thought–was really George.

MEL BROOKS: So George has me to thank for his movie career because if I had said to Carl, “Yeah, I’ll do ‘Oh, God,’ then George might still be doing just patter at the Sands at Vegas. I mean–

JEFFREY KAYE: What did he bring to the part?

LARRY GELBART: He brought his, he brought his impeccable skill. He brought kind of an idealized God that, you know, we should all be that lucky, an empathetic God, a somewhat troubled God, a God that asks us to try a little harder, but in George’s way. You know, he just–he made Him very accessible.

JEFFREY KAYE: Burns has made several other films and authored 10 books. Until 18 months ago, he kept busy with films and TV specials.

GEORGE BURNS: (1985) They said, “We’ll pay you whatever you’re worth.” I said, “That’s ridiculous. I want the same money Tom Selleck is getting.” They said, “George, Tom Selleck jumps out of planes, dodges cars, gets shot at. You don’t do anything dangerous.” I says, “I don’t, huh? At my age, getting up in the morning is dangerous.”

MEL BROOKS: George Burns gets the greatest laugh with the least amount of words, to wit–this is supposed to be a true story. Jack Benny, who was the, the butt of most of George Burns’ material all his life and was the greatest George Burns fan that ever lived, was once in full regalia as an Indian chief.

He had a war bonnet, his face was painted, he had Indian fringe, Indian moccasins, and he was going past Ben’s Truck, which was where the actors used to meet, and George sees Jack in full Indian dress and just economically says, “Hi, Jack. Working?”. And Jack got as far as the truck before he collapsed. You know, just the word, “working,” you know–

JEFFREY KAYE: Burns, himself, stopped working in 1994 after suffering a head injury when he fell in the bathtub. But he’s remained in the public eye. His tenth book, A Hundred Years, A Hundred Stories, will soon be in the bookstores, and his birthday tomorrow has been declared George Burns Day by the Los Angeles mayor and city council.