Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Jack Benny Program (1950 - 1965) * * *

Comedian Jack Benny (February 14, 1894 – December 26, 1974) had his own radio program beginning May 2, 1932 and ending on May 22, 1955. He brought the program to TV along with his radio regulars almost intact. The TV version of THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM ran from October 28, 1950 to 1965. Jack's stinginess, vanity about his eternal age of 39, basement vault where he kept all his money, ancient Maxwell automobile, and excruciating ineptness at playing the violin were all part of the act. Added to Jack's famous pregnant pause and exasperated "Well!" were a rather mincing walk, an affected hand to the cheek, and a look of disbelief when confronted by problems.

America's funniest cheapskate plays himself on the shows, and his verbal talent is matched by his controlled repertory of dead-pan facial expressions and gestures. Benny did his opening and closing monologues before a live audience, which he regarded as essential to timing of the material. As in other TV comedy shows, canned laughter was sometimes added to sweeten the soundtrack. The cast includes his girlfriend (real life wife) Mary Livingstone, his announcer Don Wilson, his bandleader Phil Harris, and the most important and best liked character, his black butler Rochester played by Eddie Anderson. Rochester may have been Benny's servant, but he was brassy and assertive, not a typical negro stereotype. Jack Benny's funniest shows involve him reacting to guests' insults, playing his violin badly, and doing long monologues which reflect on his familiar persona of a cheap and vain celebrity. Stories often revolve around Benny's attempts to lure famous stars to appear on his show as guests. Some of them rarely, if ever, appeared on TV.

Humphrey Bogart: I'm entitled to one phone call, ain't I? Gimme a dime I'll go down to the drugstore.
Jack: Oh, no you don't. You'll make your call here where I can keep an eye on you.
Bob: And save a dime.

Liberace: What do we have for dinner?
Cook: We have some breast of flamingo and gazelle steaks.
Jack: Breast of flamingo and gazelle steaks?
Liberace: Would you like to stay for dinner, Jack?
Jack: Well, only if you have enough. I'd hate for you to run out to the zoo just for me.

Bob Hope: (on being on a CBS show) I feel like Zsa Zsa at a P.T.A. meeting.
Bob Hope: By the way, this is where Bing did his last show and I think they've done very nicely. They've gotten most of it out of the curtains.
Bob Hope: (finding some coins tied with string in Jack's trousers) When you ask this kid for a loan, and he says his money is tied up, he isn't kidding. This is an obstacle course for pickpockets.
Jack: (poking his head through the stage curtains) Bob, will you please give me my pants back?
Bob Hope: Put your head back through there, or I'll start handing out baseballs to the audience.

Marilyn Monroe: What about the difference in our ages?
Jack: Oh, it's not that big a difference. You're twenty-five and I'm thirty-nine.
Marilyn Monroe: I know, Jack. But what about twenty-five years from now when I'm fifty and you're thirty-nine?
Jack: Gee, I never thought of that.

Other famous guests include: George Burns, James Stewart, Bea Benaderet, Lucille Ball, Vincent Price, Jayne Mansfield, Dinah Shore, Isaac Stern, Danny Thomas, David Niven, Johnny Carson, Red Skelton, George Jessel, Ed Sullivan, Fred Allen, Bing Crosby, Carol Burnett, Jack Paar, Milton Berle, Joey Bishop, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner, Raymond Burr, Phil Silvers, Connie Francis, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Audrey Meadows, Ernie Kovacs, The Beach Boys, Walt Disney, Carole Lombard, Art Linkletter, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Charles Bronson, Ronald Reagan, Irene Dunne, and many others.

Widely recognized as one of the leading American entertainers of the 20th century, his radio and TV programs have had a monumental influence on situation comedy. The show appeared every six weeks for the 1951-1952 season, every four weeks for the 1952-1953 season and every three weeks in 1953-1954. For the 1953-1954 season, half the episodes were live and half were filmed during the summer, to allow Benny to continue doing his radio show. From the fall of 1954 to 1960 it appeared every other week, and from 1960 to 1965 it was broadcast weekly.

His show won 8 Emmy awards, but eventually the ratings finally got to Benny. CBS dropped the show in 1964, citing Benny's lack of appeal to the younger demographic the network began courting. He returned to his original network NBC in the fall, only to be out-rated by CBS's GOMER PYLE. Although NBC televised his shows in color (after 14 years of black and white shows on CBS), the network dropped Benny at the end of the season. Benny went on to do specials for CBS for another nine years, and was awarded the very first Trustees Award ever presented by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. His last TV appearance was in 1974, on a Dean Martin Roast for Lucille Ball.

"Love in Bloom" was the theme song of both his radio and TV shows. On the Johnny Carson Tonight Show he explained the joke of its inappropriateness by reciting the lyrics: "Can it be the trees. That fill the breeze. With rare and magic perfume." (pause) "Now what the hell has that got to do with me?"

The explanation usually given for the "stuck on 39" running joke is that he had celebrated his birthday on-air when he turned 39, and decided to do the same the following year, because "there's nothing funny about 40." Upon his death, having celebrated his 39th birthday 41 times, some newspapers continued the joke with headlines such as "Jack Benny Dies--At 39?"

Various DVDs of THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM are available, with a wide range of video quality. Some shows are in the public domain and are released in poor quality by fast-buck operators who undermine both the market for his shows and the technological advantages of the DVD format. Caveat Emptor: some of these budget DVDs falsely claim they are "digitally restored". Shop around and remember that you usually get what you pay for.

Thug: Look, bud, I said "Your money or your life."
Jack Benny: I'm thinking it over.

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