Remembering Jack Benny
"I can't work fast - I have to wait for laughs." - Jack Benny
Hugely popular in his day, Jack Benny (1894-1974) seems under-rated and somewhat forgotten now, primarily because his comedy doesn't even show up on cable TV any more. So Jack Benny, for decades a king of show business, is, given the short-attention span of our current pop culture, soon on his way to becoming about as well-known as Joe Cook and Lloyd Hamilton.
To refresh those short-attention-span memories, here's a clip that demonstrates Jack's ability to get big laughs with a motion, stance or expression - or sometimes by doing nothing - with Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life, from April 3, 1955.
The Jack Benny Program, which ran for 244 episodes, from 1950 through the 1964-65 season, has braved the test of time wear quite well. The best episodes are hilarious, the equal of the great silent and early talkie short comedies from Hal Roach and RKO.
By the time Benny's popular radio show hit television, his characterization - vain, self-obsessed, foppish, insecure and above all, cheap - was very well established. Among the carryovers from the radio shows are his wonderfully appalled reactions to the supporting comics, such true 'third bananas' as Frank Nelson.
The series differs from Benny's radio work or later TV specials in featuring some wonderful way-out sight gags, enhanced by Benny's reactions. In this sense, they recall later generations of comics - Ernie Kovacs, Peter Sellers - and such cartoonists as Tex Avery more than Benny's contemporaries.
Paramount among the way-out gags were the show's willingness to 'break the fourth wall' and toy with the pop culture images of Jack and his guest stars. While George Burns and Bob Hope also enjoyed revealing that it's all make believe and watched by an audience out there in movie/TV land, Jack and his writers break that fourth wall constantly. Some of the funniest shows in the series combine both elements, such as the November 5, 1961 episode where Raymond Burr, representing Jack as uber-lawyer Perry Mason, is both inarticulate and inept; Perry explains the gross discrepancy by snapping to Jack, 'my writers are better than yours!' The January 22, 1963 episode featuring Peter Lorre opens with Jack assuring all that Peter only plays a sicko onscreen, but is a nice guy off-screen. Peter subsequently sings 'I Want A Girl Just Like The Girl That Buried Dear Old Dad' and spends the rest of the show playing the bad guy - but all the while trying to appear normal - to the hilt.
An overdue reevaluation and revival can begin with Jack Benny's prolific TV/radio work and his witty performance in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be.