CLASSIC VIDEO SHOWPLACE: “The Jack Benny Program”
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For over a hundred years some of the greatest video treasures of all time have been produced. Some have been lost in the sands of time and others, soon to be rediscovered, will become fan favorites for a whole new generation.
Each week we will feature just one of the many hidden gems that you can see on RCN TV with insights and commentaries on classic television shows and legendary cinematic performances.
In 1931 media mogul Ed Sullivan invited Jack Benny to guest host his national radio program.
Benny opened the program by saying, “This is Jack Benny. I’ll pause while everyone says, Jack who?”
Following that appearance, Benny never went more than a few months without being on either a radio or television program, until his death on December 26, 1974.
The television version of his “Jack Benny Program” debuted on a Los Angeles TV station in 1949 as an hour long special. This was followed by a regular 30-minute show continuing until 1965 when Jack decided to cut back and just do semi-regular hour-long “specials.”
But before he even appeared on the small screen, Jack was the most well-known radio character in the medium’s history, finishing with the best “Hooper Ratings” (before Nielsen came along) for many years in the 1930s-40s.
Unlike many radio personalities, Benny found a smooth transition to television and was a perennial ratings favorite in the 50s and early 60s. Even though Benny himself wasn’t convinced it would work as he continued to do his radio show simultaneously with his TV program until 1955.
He was known in show business as the “comedian’s comedian” and even his harshest critics had to admit his comedic timing was impeccable.
To what did Jack attribute his success and longevity on radio and TV?
According to his memoir, “Sunday’s at 7,” Benny believed it takes about five years for an audience to become familiar with the characters, therefore allowing you to play around with his/her idiosyncrasies. Once an audience becomes familiar with you, you can have a regular storyline while mixing in the comedy according to each actor’s quirks and personalities. It also allowed for ongoing jokes that could follow characters from week to week and allow its writers to build ongoing bits of humor that could continue to get more outrageous as the series went on.
When he made the transition to television, the nation had already fallen in love with his cast, including Benny’s “professional” traits. Jack’s most frequent characters on his television show were his sarcastic wife Mary, his quick-witted valet Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, singer Dennis Day, who was naive to a fault, his rotund but lovable announcer Don Wilson, voice genius Mel Blanc and character actor Frank Nelson, whose running gag was playing a different character on each appearance.
Jack had found success on radio playing a character who was incredibly cheap, vain and self-absorbed — complete opposites of the person he was in real life. His reasoning was that everyone either has or knows someone who exhibits these foibles, so why not poke fun at them? Years later, TV creator/producer Larry David would say almost the same thing about his greatest accomplishment, “Seinfeld,” following many familiar characteristics seen on the Benny show.
There’s many great stories to uncover and ways in which Benny broke new ground during this program’s 16-year run on TV. We’ll delve into that discussion in another blog entry at a later time.
Meanwhile, it won’t take you five years to become familiar with the “Benny” players. You’ll find that Jack and his talented team of writers developed timeless comedy (and great timing in the performers’ delivery) that is still incredibly funny over 70 years later.
“The Jack Benny Program” currently airs Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m. on RCN TV.
To see the full listing of classic programming on RCN TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website.