by Paul F. Etcheverry
Hugely popular in his day, Jack Benny seems under-rated and somewhat forgotten now, primarily because of the microscopic attention span of our current pop culture, and the fact that his comedy doesn't even show up even on cable TV any more. Could Jack Benny, for decades a king of show business, be on his way to becoming about as well-known as Joe Cook and Lloyd Hamilton? Maybe. Maybe not.
To refresh our memories dulled by "gnats on methamphetamines" attention-spans, 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.
By the time Benny's popular radio show, which hit the airwaves in 1932, 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.
Jack's television show, appropriately titled The Jack Benny Program, ran for 244 episodes, from 1950 through the 1964-65 season, and has braved the test of time quite well. The best episodes are hilarious, the equal of the great silent and early talkie short comedies from Hal Roach and RKO. 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 and recalling later generations of comics (Ernie Kovacs, Peter Sellers) and such cartoonists as Tex Avery more than Jack'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 one 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 . . . well, let's not describe it, let's show it.
Often up-and-coming comedians were the guest stars on Jack's show. Here's one featuring Johnny Carson, not long after he started hosting The Tonight Show.
Jack often incorporated the fact that he didn't make a huge splash as a star of feature films as a joke in his act. He particularly enjoyed making fun of his much-maligned starring vehicle The Horn Blows At Midnight.
While, granted, Jack's milieu was a half-hour program executed with the precision of a race driver, seen today, The Horn Blows At Midnight - Jack's bête noire - has its moments. In stretches, it's quite charming and funny. Perhaps the bar line for comedy was a lot higher then.
Jack did have one prominent feather in his cap in his movie career: his witty performance with Carole Lombard in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be.
An overdue reevaluation and revival can begin with Jack Benny's prolific radio and television work and include a 35mm archival print of To Be Or Not To Be. Until then, here's a terrific 1992 tribute to Mr. Benny produced by HBO.