Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of watching some kinescopes of “The Jack Benny Show” that were originally broadcast in the late fifties and early sixties. The DVD cover said they were “lost” episodes, though when they’ve been re-mastered and put on sale, it’s hard to think of them as lost. If you read the liner notes, you’ll discover that they were in a vault at U.C.L.A. I’m guessing it would be much more likely for a freshman with an uncertain sexual orientation to get lost there than a parcel of classic television shows.
After years on the radio, Benny’s delivery is flawless, as wonderful for what he doesn’t say as what he does. He conveys more by folding his arms or by cutting his eyes than some modern comics could say with a page of dialogue. Parts of his demeanor (and many of the jokes) date back to Vaudeville, yet there were many trying to mine the past of comedy history to achieve television immortality. Benny succeeded where so many others failed. I began to wonder what made him different. I watched and I watched. I saw some of the episodes four times, into the late evening. Even when I wasn’t laughing, I was charmed. He had something, something that must be lacking from much of today’s comedy, I thought.
When my seventeen year-old got home that night, it became clearer. Exhausted from a long day of working sound in his high school theatre, he sat down and watched the fifty year-old shows with me…and he laughed. Then, he laughed some more. I asked him later what he had found humorous and he responded, “I don’t know…he’s just funny.”
The mystery was solved in an episode with Milton Berle as a guest star. “Mister Television” was signed to a thirty-year contract in 1951, so anxious was NBC to rein in the star of the “Texaco Star Theater”, but at the point where he appears on the Benny show, Berle’s show was long gone. He had been exiled to hosting a celebrity bowling show, which didn’t last two years.
Berle was lucky he had prodigious choppers, because he chewed every piece of scenery on the stage (for the uninitiated, that’s over-acting). Sweaty and desperate, he went for any and every laugh available, not caring if he upstaged the star of the show. And then your eye would travel back to Benny…who with two fingers in his cheek would deliver a stinging rejoinder without a word.
And there it was. It was all in his eyes. Not just the way he looked at the camera, but what was in his eyes when he looked through the lens, through the co-axial cables, right into our living rooms, fifty years ago and yesterday. He seemed to say, “Humor me, folks. I’ll make it worth your while.”
Jack Benny loved his job, and loved the people he was working with, even when they went too far. He also loved his audience. I’ve watched some comedies since I finished with the Benny set, and seen what looks like outright contempt for me, as the viewer. I have something to say to them.
In the inimitable words of Mr. Benny, “Now cut that out!”